As momentum builds in Washington, military action by some Western powers in Syria looks increasingly likely, with the US indicating it will not allow its “red line” on chemical weapons to be crossed without some form of retaliation. However, there are alternatives to a military response, according to Adam Lupel, senior fellow at the International Peace Institute and co-editor of the new book Responding to Genocide: The Politics of International Action.
“The use of chemical weapons could provide the entry point to build a true international consensus around a recharged diplomatic initiative to formulate a political solution to the conflict,” Lupel said in an interview with the Global Observatory.
Describing a political solution as “the only desirable end to this,” Lupel explained that the US and other Western powers would not be living up to the principle of a “responsibility to protect” by striking Syria. On the contrary, the strike proposed by President Obama “appear[s] to have very little to do with the immediate responsibility to protect civilians; it’s more specifically about the need to punish the regime for violating the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.”
As an alternative, Lupel described a compromise solution in the form of a transition arrangement “that would allow elements of the current regime to stay in power” while also providing “some accounting for war crimes.”
In the long term, the political will to prevent mass atrocities can be fostered by cultivating awareness that prevention is in states’ common interests, according to Lupel: “In the case of Syria, violence against civilians can cause massive refugee flows and the displacement of large populations across borders, which can disrupt regional economies and fuel instability. It’s in the common interest of all states to avoid that.”
In addition, Lupel said that addressing the particular incentives at play is vital: “Clearly one of the motives behind support for the regime is concern for the safety of the Alawite minority if Assad falls…How may the international community provide guarantees for their safety in the event of a negotiated transition, as an incentive for elements of the political elite to come to the table?”
Indeed, if the regime falls, the greatest risk of genocide would be for the Alawite and Christian communities, according to Lupel, “so I think this needs to be factored into any initiative moving forward,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Marie O’Reilly: Adam Lupel joins me in the Global Observatory today. He is senior fellow here at the International Peace Institute and co-editor of the new book Responding to Genocide: The Politics of International Action. Adam, thank you for speaking with me today.
This week and last week, we have seen the build up to a likely—but still very controversial—military action by the US and other Western powers in Syria. If the US and others do intervene, will they be living up to their so-called “responsibility to protect”?
Adam Lupel: Well, as agreed to by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit, any military action under what is known as the “third pillar” of the Responsibility to Protect [R2P] must come through the Security Council.
The principle of R2P does not condone unilateral action by any state or supposed “coalitions of the willing.” This is a key distinction between the principle of R2P and the older notion of humanitarian intervention. And I think that there’s not much hope that the Security Council will endorse a military strike at this time.
In fact, as articulated by President Obama, the proposed strike would appear to have very little to do with the immediate responsibility to protect civilians; it’s more specifically about the need to punish the regime for violating the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. If this were specifically an R2P action, it would not only have to go through the Security Council but it would have to plan for the protection of civilians from future atrocities by any means. Civilians have of course died in much greater numbers from the use of conventional weapons in Syria than chemical weapons.
MOR: What are the alternatives to military action in this kind of situation?
AL: This is a really tough question. National, international, and regional actors have a range of tools at their disposal for the prevention of mass atrocities. In the book, Responding to Genocide, we discuss, among them, risk analysis, early warning systems, mediation and preventive diplomacy, sanctions regimes, as well as the role of international civil society—all before the use of military action.
But, the task of preventing atrocities once conflict is in full bloom is of course very different from prevention efforts when parties are just on the brink, and the situation in Syria is very complicated and very advanced. I’m afraid there are not too many good options for international actors at this point. However, it seems that the use of chemical weapons could provide the entry point to build a true international consensus around a recharged diplomatic initiative to formulate a political solution to the conflict, which is, I think, the only desirable end to this.
I think such a solution would have to include some compromises that would allow elements of the current regime to stay in power in some sort of transition arrangement. But of course there would also have to be some accounting for war crimes. With respect to genocide in particular, the greatest risk would be for the minority Alawite and Christian populations in the event that the regime falls. And so I think this needs to be factored into any initiative moving forward.
MOR: In your book, you and your co-authors look at the different roles that the UN Security Council, regional organizations, mediators, and transnational civil society groups can play in preventing and halting mass atrocities. Which actors tend to be most effective in this respect?
AL: What we found is that different actors are effective under different situations and for different means.
Civil Society is best at getting the word out, drawing attention to a particular crisis or concern, putting an issue on the agenda. But it turns out to be not so great at developing policy options. Save Darfur was integral to bringing the crisis to the world’s attention, but then so much of the debate became about whether it was a genocide or not, and not about what was the best way to end the violence.
The Security Council, when it’s unified, is the only body under international law that can provide for the legitimate use of force outside of matters of self-defense. I think this was proven to be quite effective in the case of Libya. Of course, it has been quite ineffective on Syria.
Regional organizations are an interesting case. I think they are very important to providing legitimacy for international action. If action is called for from the neighborhood, that makes it all the more legitimate. Regional organizations are also potentially the most effective “first responders” by virtue of their geographic position. Also, importantly, over the long term membership in a regional organization can provide an important carrot via economic benefits and other membership benefits that can put pressure on once abusive regimes to improve their human rights records. The European Union is, of course, the best example of this.
MOR: So, Adam, in the long term what kind of action can help to generate the political will that’s also necessary at national and international levels to prevent genocide and mass atrocities before they begin?
AL: So often these discussions end with the problem of political will. In the book, we discuss four areas as key to the long-term development of the political will to respond at the international level to genocide and mass atrocities.
One of these is the notion of common interests. There is a need to cultivate the awareness that stemming atrocity crimes is in the common interest of all states. For example, as we are seeing in the case of Syria, violence against civilians can cause massive refugee flows and the displacement of large populations across borders, which can disrupt regional economies and fuel instability. It’s in the common interest of all states to avoid that.
We also discuss particular incentives. Strategies of response have to incorporate an analysis of the particular interests at play in any situation. This is very key. For example, in the case of Syria again, clearly one of the motives behind support for the regime is concern for the safety of the Alawite minority if Assad falls. Thus one might ask, how may the international community provide guarantees for their safety in the event of a negotiated transition, as an incentive for elements of the political elite to come to the table?
Of course, I think the most important action is action to address the known atrocity risk factors at the local and national level. This is the subject of the most recent secretary-general’s report on R2P, which will be discussed at the General Assembly in an informal interactive dialogue on September 11th.
The best course of action would be for governments to address these risk factors before they trigger actual violence. And I think the international community can and should provide support for those efforts.
MOR: Adam, thank you very much for speaking to the Global Observatory today.
AL: Thank you.