Six weeks ago, I wrote a piece on The World Tonight blog called “What’s so special about Libya?”
Then, the question arose because of the killing of civilians in Yemen and Bahrain. I asked why there was a UN resolution authorising the use of military force to protect citizens in Libya, but not elsewhere.
Now, fast forward to this week. The question arises again because of events in Syria. Tanks have rolled in to several towns and cities to prevent more anti-government protests, and human rights groups estimate that more than 400 Syrian civilians have died since the wave of Arab unrest reached Syrian shores.
On Wednesday’s programme, I discussed the difference between the UN’s response to the Libya and Syria crises with Professor Ed Luck, who’s a special adviser to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.
His explanation, in a nutshell, was that in the case of Libya, important regional groupings like the Arab League and the African Union had asked for robust UN action. In the case of Syria, there has been no such demand.
Here are some possible reasons why. First, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is respected by other Arab leaders in a way that the eccentric and mercurial Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is not. Second, Syria has a relatively well-trained and well-equipped army, which Libya does not. That makes a big difference when weighing up the pros and cons of international military action.
Third, there is a widespread belief among Western governments that President Assad could still be persuaded to turn back from his current policy of trying to suppress opposition protests by force.
And fourth, Syria’s geographic position – neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, makes it highly sensitive strategically. Instability in Syria could easily spill across its borders.
The United Nations doctrine known as “responsibility to protect” – or R2P in the jargon – was drawn up for use in cases when governments are either unable to protect their own civilians or are themselves a threat to them. Just like Syria, then?
Not necessarily. Before the doctrine can be invoked, it’s considered essential that six criteria need to be fulfilled. The cause needs to be just (no problem there, you might think); the intention must be right (in other words, to protect civilians, not to advance national self-interest); military action should be used only as a final resort; there must be legitimate authority (ie a Security Council resolution); the means used must be proportionate to the threat; and there must be a “reasonable prospect” that the action taken is successful.
It’s that final criterion – a reasonable prospect of success – which could well be the biggest stumbling block in Syria, even if all the other five criteria were met. (And that’s a moot point, in fact, given that Russia, a close ally of Syria going back many decades, is unlikely merely to abstain on a proposed Security Council resolution, as it did on Libya.)
After all, given the Libya experience so far, who would like to bet on a Syria intervention being any more successful? So with no regional pressure for military intervention, and with no Western appetite for any more military adventures, the message for anti-government protesters in Syria seems inescapable: you’re on your own.