Libya, Syria and the “responsibility to protect”: a moment of inflection?

Since the Rwandan genocide and the wars in former Yugoslavia, the idea of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations has acquired currency. The Libyan and Syrian crises have, however, seen the value of that currency recalibrated.

Nathalie Tocci
13 April 2014
Syrian refugee family in Crete

Creating a semblance of order where none exists—Syrian refugees in Crete posing for a family photo a few days ago. Flickr / Giannis Angelakis. Some rights reserved.

In 2011 the United Nations Security Council legitimised a no-fly zone over Libya under the normative rubric of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). As the Libya intervention gained steam, another crisis broke out in Syria. There, however, discord between western actors and emerging powers underpinned a standstill at the Security Council.

With the spiralling Syrian war now into its fourth year, the Security Council has seen three failed resolutions which, far from mandating intervention, had merely sought to condemn violence, threaten sanctions and call for a political transition. It has mustered consent on only three others: endorsing an (ultimately unsuccessful) unarmed observer mission, scheduling the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons and calling for humanitarian access.

What explains such radically different outcomes? The international responses to the crises in Libya and Syria may look like evidence of a tipping point in an international system undergoing a profound power shift. Yet the two crises unfolded almost in parallel, in tandem comprising a moment of inflection in the liberal order pioneered and diffused by the “West”, with the normative recalcitrance of the “Rest” now becoming meaningful.

The international responses to the Libyan and Syrian crises have not validated a broad-brush claim of a systemic power shift from “West” to “Rest”.

In Libya, the US, the EU and NATO deployed significant coercive measures. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), all represented at various points in the Security Council during the two crises—albeit  playing more modest coercive roles—rowed in the same direction, complying with the arms embargo and recognising the Libyan Transitional National Council by the summer of 2011. In Syria, however, not only has the west’s capacity to force the desired outcome been much lower in light of the fragmentation and radicalisation of the Syrian opposition but Russia’s support for the Assad regime has contradicted rather than complemented western pressure.

The degree of regional embeddedness of the two regimes contributes to the explanation. While at first sight Muammar Gaddafi had stronger international connections than Bashar al-Assad, on closer inspection the Assad regime is far more ensconced. Colonel Gaddafi had no true friends: no sooner had the winds changed than his former international partners turned to his opponents. Maintaining good relations with Libya, rather than with the Gaddafi regime, was the priority for many. The Assad regime, given what it represents—anti-Islamist, anti-Israeli and anti-western—has staunch opponents but also genuine friends: Iran, Hizbullah and Russia have been instrumental in sustaining it.


In both crises, the BRICS expressed concern for the plight of civilian populations and clear preferences for political, non-coercive solutions. In the case of Libya such scepticism, particularly on the part of the veto-yielding Chinese and Russians, translated into abstention at the Security Council rather than rejection of an external military intervention. But with regard to Syria it led to repeated vetoes. Throughout, the interpretation by the BRICS of what was right and wrong did not alter substantially. But as the Libyan intervention gave way to the Syrian crisis, their emphasis and tone changed considerably.

The widespread perception was that NATO’s campaign in Libya had gone far beyond its mandate. This added weight to the traditional arguments of R2P doubters: respect for state sovereignty, opposition to the use of force and suspicion that R2P conceals an ulterior agenda of “regime change”.

The Libyan crisis thus generated a knock-on reaction vis-à-vis Syria and sharpened divisions between the solidarist Weltanschauung of R2P advocates and the opposing, pluralist worldview. In the short run, Syria has been the unwanted victim of this normative contest. In the longer term, however, while intra- and inter-state divisions on how to respond to mass atrocities are likely to persist, ambiguity as to how not to respond may have diminished significantly.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the Libya-Syria dynamic, by narrowing the space for uncertainty, may have moved forward the global conversation on the adequate international response to mass atrocities. The interconnected stories suggest that we are unlikely to see a consensual, UN-legitimised, military intervention under R2P any time soon. The international community will strive to respond to crises, particularly when these have a serious humanitarian dimension, but to the extent that such responses are concerted they are likely to focus on the preventive and rebuilding, rather than reactive, aspects of R2P. Not only are emerging powers far more comfortable with these dimensions but they also reflect the comparative strengths of western actors, notably the EU and its member states.

Prudential conditions

This is not to say that military intervention under the third pillar of R2P is to be ruled out. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 articulated the traditional, just-war criteria: just cause, last resort, right intention, proportionality, legitimate authority and probability of success. But the dialogue post-Libya and Syria is likely to focus on enhanced prudential conditions for military action.

In 2011 Brazil proposed a “responsibility while protecting” (RwP) doctrine, emphasising just such conditions before, during and after an operation. Western actors found this too restrictive, while the rest of the BRICS found it too permissive. And, although opposition mellowed, Brazil lost interest. But the UN secretary general did see value in the initiative and when the debate on intervention restarts it is likely to pick up where it left off.

The international responses to the Libyan and Syrian crises have not validated a broad-brush claim of a systemic power shift from “West” to “Rest”. But they have revealed how power is diffusing globally and how outcomes are being determined by a complex interplay between global, regional and local state and non-state actors. This diffusion will continue to have effects on global norms.

Insofar as R2P is an open-ended norm still in evolution, how various actors contribute to its interpretation will provide a fascinating laboratory of the interplay between power and norms. This will be a litmus test of whether a global order where power is more fragmented tilts towards normative convergence or conflict.   

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