Humanitarian Intervention in Syria: Regime Change by Another Name

JURIST Guest Columnist Paul Juzdan, Seton Hall University School of Law Class of 2014, is the author of a series commenting on the Syrian civil war. Previously, Juzdan explored the the difficulty of identifying who the rebels are and what their overreaching goals are in the Syrian civil war. In this part, he analyzes the consequences of using the policy of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in an intervention in Syria...

The ambiguity surrounding the identity and aims of rebel forces in Syria has turned out to be a clear roadblock in the way of international intervention, clear evidence that intervention in the name of humanitarianism can be a troublesome proposition, especially in Syria. The formation of an international coalition aimed at ending the Syrian civil war in a military fashion would most definitely fall under the auspice of "the Responsibility to Protect." This principle, also known as R2P, emerged in 2005 as a set of principles based on the idea that sovereignty is not merely a right but a responsibility. The 2005 World Summit outlines 178 points concerning the role of the UN and sovereign states in the international community. Paragraph 138 states in part that "each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Effectively, the General Assembly has set forth an ultimatum: either states take steps to protect all of their citizens or the Security Council will take action. The UN Secretary General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change put forth a list of criteria for intervention in R2P cases: [PDF]:

  1. Seriousness of threat,
  2. Proper Purpose,
  3. Last Resort,
  4. Proportional Means and
  5. Balance of Consequences.

R2P has faced considerable criticism [PDF] since its inception. For example, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon decided to appoint a "Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect" in 2007, nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Egypt, Iran and Venezuela expressed deep concerns: "[t]his criticism was clearly aimed at the attempt to embed the 'responsibility to protect' in the institutional framework of the United Nations without prior consultation of the General Assembly."

The civil war in Libya is probably the most striking example of the UN's implementation of the principle of R2P. In response to growing concerns of human rights violations, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 1973 [PDF] which imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas except for a "foreign occupation force." The Security Council strategically included language that would prevent any type of occupation force making it rather difficult to determine the extent to which ground forces could be used. The Security Council utilized the principle of R2P to protect civilians and end the conflict, but the outcomes of this intervention ultimately included regime change. This presents legitimate concerns, specifically, what distinguishes R2P from regime change?

UN Security Council Resolution 1970 [PDF] called for steps "to fulfill the legitimate demands of the population [of Libya]." This same resolution put in place a travel ban and asset freeze specifically aimed at Gaddafi, his family and other high-ranking officials of the regime. Furthermore, the aforementioned Resolution 1973 fails to elaborate on the admissible means that may be employed in order to implement and achieve the goals surrounding R2P intervention. Whether or not the goals put forth under Resolution 1973 were in fact to overthrow Gaddafi or merely to protect the citizens of Libya is of no consequence. Ultimately, protecting the population necessitated a regime change. This was, after all, one of the "legitimate demands of the population." Some would suggest that the purpose of R2P [PDF] is to "offer a middle ground between impunity for oppression and violent overthrow by strongly supporting the state to find its own way to end the oppression, backed up by outside pressure short of regime change." This may in fact be the primary motive for using the principle of R2P to protect civilians without overthrowing their government. However, it seems clear that once R2P is implicated the resulting regime change is inevitable. A request on the part of the international community to promote R2P and reject regime change constitutes an unreasonable request on the part of intervening forces and the regimes they target.

R2P in its very nature encompasses more than a mere "in-and-out" operation. It fosters a responsibility to prevent, react and rebuild; the principle itself inadvertently calls for regime change. The means responding to war crimes in Libya left the international community questioning whether the rules of sovereignty remain a central component of international relations. There remains a broad consensus that "views forcible regime change of tyrannies into regimes of democratic rule as a per se illegitimate interference into the affairs of other nations, a position likewise conceptualized as foundational in the United Nations Charter."

If the US decides to invoke the principle of R2P and invade Syria the same question would arise: is the goal of intervention in fact aimed at protecting the population or changing the regime? An article written by Gareth Evans [PDF], former president of the International Crisis Group, outlines the importance of properly implementing the principle of R2P. Evans points out that the poor and inconsistent argument that the invasion of Iraq was based on Saddam Hussein's record of tyranny over his own people was an "almost choked at birth" principle of R2P. A legitimate use of force on the part of the Security Council would include an application of threshold criteria, an analysis of the weight of the evidence and understanding of the full range of threats.

In Libya, it is clear that the measures that were employed in order to keep Gaddafi from attacking the civilian population, at the same time supported the actions of the rebels that wished to topple the regime. Some scholars argue, however, that R2P was properly applied in Libya, specifically due to the fact that no great power had special interests or close relationships with the Gaddafi regime. Furthermore, the operation was feasible on the part of the intervening coalition and supported by the UN Security Council. Syria, on the other hand, poses numerous logistical problems that Libya did not, including numerous operational challenges and a more complex ethnic, tribal and geostrategic environment. While logistics should not prevent the promotion of human rights, they should be considered, specifically in an environment where intervention may do more harm than good. A regime change in Syria that results in the institution of an Islamist government will pose a threat to minority groups such as Christians and Alawites. As a result, many Christians fear the prospects of a post-Assad Syria. Thousands have fled the country fearing that a non-secular government will pose a serious threat to their congregations, churches, religious leaders and overall quality of life. An internationally recognized, legal regime change does not ensure the institution of a "democratic" regime. Furthermore, Syria's foreign policy initiatives, under a new regime, may work against the interests of peace in the region. For example, it would not be a safe assumption that a new Islamist regime in Syria would retain stable, albeit unfriendly, relations with Israel.

Whether or not R2P is being considered by the Security Council to determine what actions to take in Syria, it is clear that unilateral intervention would violate international law. If, however, an interventionist coalition was formed under the auspices of the Security Council utilizing the principle of R2P, international law would be upheld. However, serious issues concerning the means and ends of R2P would come to the forefront of international relations law. Furthermore, intervention in Syria as a result of R2P would result in serious ethno-political consequences, including a rise in sectarian violence and regional instability.

Paul Juzdan received his BS from the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Juzdan was the 2013 winner of the Eugene Gressman Moot Court Competition.

Suggested citation: Paul Juzdan, Humanitarian Intervention in Syria: Regime Change by Another Name, JURIST - Dateline, Sep. 16, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/09/paul-juzdan-syria-intervention.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, a senior editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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