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Responding to Protect Civilians in Syria?

Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the fighting began... As many as 35,000 of these have been civilians. Yet it is the recent chemical attacks, which have allegedly killed 300 to 400 people, and injured several thousand, that have galvanised the United States, United Kingdom, France and others to now consider imminent military intervention.

Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the fighting began in 2011 and civil conflict developed; according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as many as 35,000 of these have been civilians. Yet it is the recent chemical attacks, which have allegedly killed 300 to 400 people, and injured several thousand, that have galvanised the United States, United Kingdom, France and others to now consider imminent military intervention. The media and other commentators have published a flurry of articles about intervention and the international community's 'responsibility to protect' civilians in Syria, referring to a political concept endorsed by the United Nations in 2005 that seeks to prevent the commission of mass atrocity crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

However, it is clear that the origination of the logic for the US and UK is to halt and deter the use of chemical weapons in any context. Outlawed under the 1899 Hague Declaration and 1925 Geneva Protocol, and banned under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Saddam Hussein holds the unenviable position of the last leader to use the weapons. Rather than being about the immediate protection of Syrian civilians from mass atrocities, it is accountability for and the long term prevention of the use of chemical weapons that forms the basis of President Obama's 'red line', and accounts for the numerous warnings made to the Syrian administration over the previous months to desist from the use of such weapons.

Chemical weapons are indiscriminate, but not necessarily more so than, for example, an artillery barrage. Indeed, the effects can be treated, as Medecins sans Frontieres have shown in the past few days with their successful use of atropine, a drug administered to those with neurotoxic symptoms. On 28 August Prime Minister David Cameron himself stated in a press release:

"Well the question we have to ask ourselves is, if there is no action following this big use of chemical weapons, is it going to be more likely in future that more and more regimes will use chemical weapons?... This is not about wars in the Middle East. This is not even about the Syrian conflict. It is about the use of chemical weapons and making sure, as a world, we deter their use and we deter the appalling scenes that we've all seen on our television screens."

This has been further bolstered by the White House, whose Press Secretary, Jay Carney, iterated in a press briefing on 27 August that:

"The Chemical Weapons Convention has more than 150 signatories and makes clear that the use and proliferation of chemical weapons is a clear violation of international norms, and that it is absolutely in the national security interest of the Unites States and in the international community that the use of chemical weapons on the scale that we saw on August 21st cannot be ignored. It must be responded to."

Although an intervention could deter future chemical attacks against civilians within the country (assuming that the UN Weapons inspectors are given sufficient time to clarify from which force the chemical-laden rockets where launched), this is secondary to the Western allies' chief aim, and as such, hints at a subtly different scenario to Libya in 2011 when UNSC 1973, guided arguably by the 'responsibility to protect' norm, mandated, "...all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."

Libya was not ripped apart by civil war, and NATO military strikes, backed-up by the enforcement of no-fly zones, had a realistic chance of success in terms of protecting civilians within that country. Surgical strikes against key installations in Syria - if this is to occur - will do little to protect civilians for several reasons. Firstly, such strikes may end the use of chemical weapons, but it is unlikely to halt ongoing conventional action by the Syrian regime, which has already resulted in the deaths - collateral or otherwise - of tens of thousands of civilians. Secondly, such strikes might even have the effect of intensifying the conflict by either forcing the regime's hand or by encouraging the multifaceted opposition forces to increase their attacks. Crucially, such strikes would do little to encourage Russia to become involved in terms of forcing the regime to join political dialogue.

Without no-fly zones, without enforced buffers within the country, without inclusive talks for an international peace conference, the lot of civilians, in the short- and medium-term, is unlikely to change, but that is not the primary concern for the forces steaming west in the Mediterranean. Although it will not become clear until the United Kingdom unveils its draft resolution to the UN Security Council, it is unlikely that the 'responsibility to protect' norm will be referred to solely. That aside, what is crucial is that the weapons inspectors are given time to fulfil their mission and hence provide as much clarity on the attacks and the perpetrators as can be found, and that the UN Security Council remains at the heart of discussions relating to potential action.

China and Russia must be engaged and encouraged to act in a manner which facilitates action, such as when they agreed to abstain rather than veto UNSCR 1973 on Libya. Any mandate must be authorised clearly and with the caveat that there must be a clear opportunity to improve the security of civilians in Syria, not harm them further. As UN Special Envoy to Syria Lahkdar Brahimi stated in a press conference at the UN in Geneva on 28 August: "I think international law is clear on this. International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council".

But let us also hope that, in deciding how to respond, members of the United Nations Security Council put one priority above tactical and geo-strategic politics: the safety and security of civilians within that country. The international community has a responsibility to protect civilians within Syria, but that responsibility has been existent since the fighting began and the targeting of civilians became evident many months ago. If the international community does intervene in Syria, let it be open and honest about why it is doing so, and clear in its vision of how to best stabilise the country.

James Kearney, Peace and Security Programmes Manager at the United Nations Association - UK and Alexandra Buskie, Responsibility to Protect Programme Officer

United Nations Association

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