What a pause in Syria’s war can mean

A reluctant Russia calls for a temporary cease-fire in Ghouta, reflecting the idea that the sovereignty of innocent lives matters more than national sovereignty.

Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 27.

Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in Syria refuses to stay in Syria. The country’s long war, sparked by pro-democracy protests in 2011 against a dictator, has created millions of refugees. The resulting power vacuum has sucked in dozens of foreign forces with competing interests. Yet out of Syria’s tragedy may come one benefit for the world.

How the war eventually ends could highlight which moral standards of the global order are embraced by the big powers. Peace in Syria, when it comes, will be defined as much by shared values as by the peculiar interests of each nation. Realpolitik must yield to real principles.

This week, one principle at stake in Syria has been the protection of nearly 400,000 civilians being targeted by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. On Feb. 24, the United Nations Security Council ordered a 30-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian relief to reach the civilians. Yet all eyes turned to Russia, whose military now holds the most sway in Syria, to enforce the order.

On Tuesday, Russia called for a “humanitarian pause” to let the trapped civilians escape the fighting. Russia, in other words, seemed to respect the sovereignty of innocent individuals over the national sovereignty of its ally, the Assad regime.

For President Vladimir Putin, that was a step up. He has opposed a principle, endorsed in 2005 by the UN General Assembly, that individual lives have a higher value than national sovereignty. The concept, known as “responsibility to protect,” was endorsed by the UN out of a collective guilt over the world’s failure to stop the mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

In recent days, Russia was reminded of the concept by Western leaders as it dawdled over whether to seek a pause in the fighting. “France and Germany call on Russia to assume its full responsibilities,” said French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a joint statement.

Such actions reflect the diplomatic momentum toward including civilian protection in any peace deal. They also reflect the steady advance of the international order established in 1945 after World War II, such as the obligation of nations to uphold rules of conduct in a conflict. Many wars since then have set back the principles of peacemaking while others have helped cement them in the thinking of world leaders.

One concept still needs work. It is the idea that national sovereignty cannot be an excuse to take innocent lives, either by guns, bombs, or in the case of Syria, chemical weapons. That country’s war must not only end in peace soon but with an ending that lifts more nations to embrace the principles that keep global order.

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