Analysis: What Ghouta Tells Us About the World’s Ability to Protect Civilians

Not long ago the humanitarian concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ had currency. But this is no longer the case in Syria, where a new harsh reality is playing out in eastern Ghouta, writes journalist Peter Ford.

Written by Peter Ford Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Syrians offload sacks of flour into an underground storage space after a humanitarian convoy carrying food aid arrived in the rebel-held town of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 15, 2018. HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images

“Save Ghouta however you can!”

That desperate plea to the outside world comes from Alaa Abu Zeid, a young man trapped in the besieged suburb northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus with 400,000 fellow civilians, many sheltering in basements as their homes crumble above them.

As he works for a charity handing out scarce food, moving his family members from house to house to protect them from Syrian and Russian bombs, his vision is stark.

“If the situation continues like this there will be new massacres, more children killed … and more women dying of fear,” he tells the Christian Science Monitor by telephone. But he knows his cry is ultimately falling on deaf ears. “Until now, the world has taken no serious action,” he laments.

What can other countries do to save eastern Ghouta’s non-combatants, caught in a crossfire between Islamist rebel forces and advancing Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, who have killed more than 800 civilians in indiscriminate bombardment over the past two weeks?

“Distressingly little” appears to have been the answer so far, as humanitarian instincts run up against hard political realities, and “might makes right” routinely trumps moral considerations. Washington has shown signs of shrugging off its role as a world leader, while nations such as Russia and China, which do not see Western humanitarian values as universal, wield growing global clout.

“Unfortunately, scandalously, there is nothing to be done but wait for Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin to achieve their goal” of capturing eastern Ghouta, says Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders and an early champion of the idea that governments have a humanitarian duty to intervene forcefully to defend human rights internationally. “It’s too late now.”

Such a pessimistic view raises questions about how the international community has seemingly become so impotent. But it does not preclude the possibility of making the case to Russia that avoiding a massacre in Ghouta could help it achieve its postwar aims.

Responsibility to Protect

Not so very long ago, people like Kouchner, who rose to become France’s foreign minister, had the wind in their sails. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a new humanitarian concept: the Responsibility to Protect. That proposes that if a state does not protect its citizens from atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to step in – using force if the U.N. Security Council so decides.

Similar thinking had inspired the “no-fly zone” in northern Iraq, which Western air forces imposed after the 1991 Gulf War to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. NATO justified its bombing of Serbia in 1999 – deterring Slobodan Milosevic’s soldiery from threatened massacres in Kosovo – with a version of the same theory.

Most consequentially, France, Britain, and the United States invoked “R2P” – as the responsibility to protect civilians had become known – to explain their bombing runs against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces as they approached the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in 2011.

And yet last year, when 650,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled in terror from rampaging Myanmar troops setting fire to their homes, the world barely lifted a finger in their defense. A top U.N. official said the military operation “seems like a textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Hobbled by objections by permanent member China, though, the U.N. Security Council could do nothing more than issue a watered-down statement with no legal force condemning the “excessive use of military force.”

This was scarcely an isolated incident.

“Time and again … I have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, complained last month. “Time and again there has been minimal action” because China, Russia, or the United States, who each wield a veto on the U.N. Security Council, has blocked it.

The Libya effect

Syria is a case in point. Since the conflict broke out in 2011, Moscow and Beijing have used their veto eight times to kill U.N. resolutions meant to address crimes against humanity or war crimes. In the meantime, some 460,000 people have been killed.

“Had there been a strong and united response … to the Assad regime’s violence in 2011, the descent into hell thereafter might have been averted,” argues Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who was one of the key architects and proponents of the R2P concept.

But the international community did nothing.

Evans traces that passivity to events in Libya earlier in 2011, when London, Paris, and Washington (known as the P3) effectively transformed their U.N. civilian protection mandate in Benghazi into a regime-change mandate to unseat Qaddafi.

This, Evans recalls in his recently published memoirs, so incensed other Security Council members that when the question of sanctions against Damascus arose they resolved “they were not going to concede an inch if there was any chance the P3 would take that inch to run a mile.”

The council has been deadlocked over Syria, and other humanitarian crises, ever since.

A shift in the global balance of power has not helped.

Moves to enforce human rights at gunpoint gathered strength in the heyday of U.S. power and influence around the end of the last century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When NATO decided to aid Kosovo and bomb Serbia in 1999, even without a U.N. mandate, there was nothing that Russia – in the dying days of Boris Yeltsin’s government – could do to defend its old ally.

“That moment has gone,” points out Joost Hiltermann, head of Middle East affairs at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a prominent conflict-prevention organization. “We are in a different world now. The main champions of international humanitarian law are no longer the main arbiters of conflicts.”

In Syria, “they are not in the driver’s seat,” he adds. “They have lost, and they have no means of enforcement.”

Obama’s ‘red line’

Most notably, says Hiltermann, “the U.S. is in retreat” from its traditional role as a world leader – a trend that began under the last administration.

As president, Barack Obama spoke boldly about crimes against humanity. In 2011 he declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the U.S.” – the first time such issues were put at the heart of the U.S. international agenda.

But two years later, when the Syrian army crossed the “red line” that Obama had declared – it used a chemical weapon, sarin gas, to kill hundreds of civilians in Ghouta – the U.S. president did not carry out his earlier threat of military retaliation.

While Obama did subsequently back a diplomatic solution to remove Syria’s chemical stockpiles, the military inaction was a critical error, says Karin von Hippel, head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based defense and security think tank. “You have to back your threats with force, or you should not make them,” she argues. “Now the Russians know that we won’t do any more than shout at them.”

But if Obama judged that civilian deaths by sarin did not justify an attack on Assad’s army, he was not alone. The U.S. Congress was deeply divided, the British parliament voted against retaliating, and opinion polls found most French and Germans were opposed to any strike.

Russians may be apathetic about their government’s Syria policy, but they have not stopped president Putin from vigorously supporting Assad in a way that Yeltsin could not support Milosevic. If the U.S. tried to protect people in Ghouta today by imposing a “no-fly zone,” “that could get us close to World War III with the Russians,” warns Dr. von Hippel.

In order to impose a no-fly zone, the U.S. would have to destroy Syria’s Russian-made and Russian-manned air defense batteries. “They’d have to kill a lot of Russians,” says Justin Bronk, an air power specialist at the RUSI.

U.S. fighter jets would also be up against some very capable Russian planes. “The West has enough tactical air power to impose a no-fly zone, but we’d have to fight to enforce it, and we’d take losses,” says Bronk. “And that’s even if you could avoid the potentially cataclysmic consequences of attacking Russian forces, which you can’t.”

Since Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield last year, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, Russia has very publicly increased its presence at Syrian facilities. That sends the message that “if you want to do that again, you will have to go through us,” says Bronk. And reports of chemical attacks continue.

Non-war options?

So if war is not the way to help Ghouta’s suffering citizens, what else might help?

Some suggest the Syrian and Russian forces might be dissuaded from their most flagrant violations of international law, such as the use of chemical weapons and bombing raids on hospitals, if their officers were threatened with prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which was set up to try atrocities.

But neither Moscow nor Damascus are members of the court; the ICC could only investigate and try alleged Russian and Syrian crimes if the U.N. Security Council referred them to The Hague. Russia, of course, would be able to veto any such decision.

“You could take punitive measures short of war,” such as sanctions, says the ICG’s Hiltermann. “But there is no appetite among Western governments for that because they don’t lead anywhere.”

That’s especially true when you are dealing with the Syrian army’s historic mentor, the Russian army, which displayed its own brutal, no-holds-barred tactics against urban rebels when it flattened the Chechen capital of Grozny and did the same in Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, last year.

The best to be hoped for in Ghouta, suggests Hiltermann, is that an appeal to Moscow’s self-interest might work. “The Russians and the regime are going to win,” he predicts. “It’s a matter of how they win.

“Is it in Moscow’s interest to allow a massacre? In the end they will want a political solution in Syria, and economic reconstruction,” he predicts. “For that they will need European input and money and investment,” which will not be forthcoming unless Russia prevents the most grotesque outrages and facilitates some sort of rebel evacuation from Ghouta.

This is vastly different from the ambitious optimism about the West’s humanitarian purpose in confronting the Taliban that Kouchner, then French foreign minister, expressed in 2008 after 10 French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.

“What’s at stake is first and foremost our values,” he wrote then in the daily Le Monde newspaper. “We are fighting to offer the Afghan people acceptable living conditions: equality, justice, a step back from arbitrariness and violence.”

But Kouchner still sticks to his faith. Even if the balance sheet of foreign intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya is “not very satisfactory,” he admits, “it is always better to save a life than not to save one.”

“The idea of a responsibility to protect is going through a moment of great weakness,” he says. “But in juridical and human terms, it is still right.”

Evans, too, sees a future for R2P, though in a more circumscribed and closely monitored shape. But that won’t help the people in Ghouta. In that martyred suburb, ambitions are more limited.

If the Russian government can be persuaded to allow an organized evacuation of rebel fighters and the civilians who want to go with them, “it may still be possible to dismantle the enclave in eastern Ghouta with less destruction and human suffering than that which afflicted eastern Aleppo,” says Aron Lund, an analyst who has followed the Syrian civil war closely, in a paper published recently by the Century Foundation in New York.

“And in Syria’s vile and criminal war,” he argues, “protecting civilians remains a worthy goal – perhaps the only one.”

Dominique Soguel contributed reporting from Basel, Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted here with permission.

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