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R2P and the Responsibility to Receive

In 2005, a UN World Summit that brought together governmental leaders from around the world agreed on a statement that broke new ground in the obligations of states and inter-​state relations. As theretofore, states were to have the primary responsibility for protecting their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The statement also recognized that the international community had a responsibility to assist a conflicted state in meeting this commitment. But crucially, it provided for the use of coercive measures on the part of the international community, including economic sanctions and as a last resort military means, should a state manifestly fail to protect its citizens in the face of the threats identified above.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is not binding international law. It is nonetheless a powerful norm that has added importantly to existing rules about the way states need to behave towards their populations and one another. It is a fitting innovation for an ever more globalizing world.

That said, as anyone who reads a daily newspaper or watches the nightly news will know, R2P has been a dead letter in the Syrian crisis, now in its fourth year. A quarter of a million deaths, eight million people out of a population of twenty-​two displaced internally, another four million living in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and hundreds of thousands incurring huge risks to make their way to what they see as a safe haven in the European Union.

The Syrian crisis has multiple fathers. First and foremost, Syrian President Bashar al-​Assad has abysmally failed to protect his population. When he succeeded his father in 2000, who had run the country since taking power by coup three decades before, he had an opportunity to move towards a governance system that would try to give all people residing in Syria equal chances. This was a highly challenging prospect in view of Syria’s complicated religious and ethnic mosaic. Syria’s Sunni Muslims make up 75 percent of the country’s population, Christians some 10 percent, Kurds (mostly Sunni) also 10 percent, and Assad’s core power base, the Alawites, a branch of the Shiite Muslim community, representing at most 10 percent of the population. During the Arab Spring, when Syrian Sunnis demanded – with peaceful demonstrations – political representation commensurate with their weight in the population, the younger Assad responded with brutal force. And he sold his soul and that of his Alawite community to the devil.

Actually, there were, and are, two devils. One was Russia, a major arms supplier of Syria for decades. Moscow was concerned about the safety of thousands of Russian nationals in Syria by virtue of intermarriage, anxious to maintain its only military base in the Mediterranean, and keen to recoup its place as a key power in the Middle East, much as it had been during Soviet times. But, perhaps most importantly, Russia’s president wanted to send the message that leaders chosen under dubious electoral circumstances like himself could remain persona grata as long as they were loyal to Russia.

The other devil was the Shi’ite Hezbollah cum Iran that have propped up the Assad régime throughout the Syrian civil war with both soldiers and matériel. For these two actors, supporting Assad has been a way of attempting to counterbalance the increasingly strident line taken by majority-​Sunnite states against Shi’ism. It has also made it easier for them to support Hamas-​dominated Gaza at a time when Sunni anti-​Israeli zeal has been on the wane.

The actions of Russia – whose approach has been seconded by China in UN Security Council voting – and Iran/​Hezbollah have kept afloat a régime that would have otherwise surely drowned. That said, western countries also did not rise to their R2P responsibilities. In particular, they failed to create a no-​fly zone and a safe haven in the initial phase of the violence that could have provided Syrians with a place of refuge and a staging ground to mount an effective riposte to Assad.

The result is the greatest displacement from a country in proportional terms since the Second World War. The mass movement of people threatens to seriously destabilize Europe.

There is still scope for repairing this situation. Three courses of action are particularly important at this juncture. First and foremost, the international community, having failed in its responsibility to protect the victims of state-​perpetuated violence in Syria, has a responsibility to receive those fleeing from this beleaguered country. There are rules on how to go about this. One is that all states have a duty to receive refugees. Another is that receiving states can send refugees elsewhere but not to places where they would be subject to persecution (i.e., returning them to a home country like Syria). Also to be noted is that the heavily contested European Union (EU) approach of using a quota to share out the responsibility for receiving refugees is consistent with international law.

Second, there is an urgent need to proffer serious humanitarian support for the Herculaneum efforts being undertaken by Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – states with a combined population of roughly 95 million – are currently hosting roughly one-​fifth of Syria’s pre-​war population. With winter approaching, they desperately need more international assistance if they are going to be able to continue to feed and shelter the people in their care.

Germany, the destination most favoured by the refugees in the EU, with a population of eighty million, has said that it expects to receive some 800,000 refugees in 2015. (This number would include both Syrians and non-​Syrians fleeing from conflict and repressive regimes in Africa and South Asia.) Most other western countries have committed to take in refuges in far smaller numbers.

Third, in the US-​Russian talks now going forward on how to deal with Syria, there is a need for cool-​headedness and compromise on both sides. Assad cannot re-​establish control over Syria. At best, he can maintain himself in the Alawite heartland and in adjacent areas where many of Syria’s Christian minorities make their home. Similarly, there are Sunni factions that are anti-​Assad as well as anti-​ISIS, which the US-​led international coalition has been trying – more or less ineffectually – to support. The Kurds, who have proven effective in defending their territory, constitute a third force. All three of these elements can at best sustain themselves in the territories that they presently control. At the same time, all three are challenged by the Islamic State.

There is potentially a deal here in the making: let Assad do his thing in the region where he commands support; let the non-​ISIS anti-​Assad opposition do their thing in the areas they control; let the Russians and the Americans agree to respect this division of power at the same time as they coordinate their individual campaigns against ISIS. For the time being, this is as about a good a deal that can be expected: messy, complicated, dangerous – but much better that what is now on hand.

Of course, in pursuing such an arrangement, the US and its allies should harbour no illusions about Russian motivations. Putin is trying to use the Syrian crisis to profile himself as the guy that can resolve the migration challenges that Russian policies are in large part responsible for generating. At the same time, he is seeking to create a situation conducive to sewing division among western allies and making the sanctions they have imposed on Russia go away.

And while attention is focused on Syria, Putin’s hope is that concern about Ukraine will fade. But if the military front in Eastern Ukraine has been recently relatively quiet, the conflict could flare up again at any time. In parallel, there are signs of a mounting political campaign to destabilize the already shaky government in Kyiv. The crisis in Ukraine, with a population of more than twice that of Syria, has already given rise to more than a million refugees. If Russia continues to pursue its efforts to effectively recolonize the country, there could be many, many more.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-​based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. (Image courtesy of Handout/​Reuters.)

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