World Middle East Focus

What Ghouta tells us about the world's ability to protect civilians

search for solutions

Not long ago the humanitarian concept of 'Responsibility to Protect' had currency. But as one expert notes, 'the main champions of international humanitarian law are no longer the main arbiters of conflicts.' In Syria, that reality is playing out harshly in eastern Ghouta.

A man walks on the rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria Mar. 5.
Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

“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 with 400,000 fellow civilians, many sheltering in basements as their homes crumble above them.

Working for a charity handing out scarce food, and 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 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 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” has appeared to be 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, and 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, the founder of “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.

Former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Bernard Kouchner (l.) greets a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter during his visit to the Ras Al-Ayn countryside in northeastern Syria, Nov. 28, 2014.
Rodi Said/Reuters

Responsibility to Protect

Not so very long ago, people like Mr. 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 UN 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 UN official said the military operation “seems like a textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Hobbled by objections by permanent member China, though, the UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 UN 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.

Mr. Evans traces that passivity to events in Libya earlier in 2011, when London, Paris, and Washington (known as P3) effectively transformed their UN 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 sanctioning 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 Security 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 US 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 UN 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 International Crisis Group, 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 Mr. Hiltermann, “the United States is in retreat” from its traditional role as a world leader – a trend that began under the last US 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 United States,” the first time such issues were put at the heart of the US international agenda.

But two years later, when the Syrian Army crossed the “red line” that Mr. Obama had declared – using a chemical weapon, sarin gas, to kill hundreds of civilians in Ghouta – the US president did not carry through on his earlier threat to retaliate militarily.

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 President Assad’s Army, he was not alone. The US Congress was deeply divided, the British Parliament voted against retaliating, and opinion polls found most French and Germans 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 Mr. Yeltsin could not support Mr. Milosevic. If the United States 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 US 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 RUSI.

US 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 Mr. Bronk. “And that’s even if you could avoid the potentially cataclysmic consequences of attacking Russian forces, which you can’t.”

Since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air field 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 UN 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 ICC’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 Mr. Kouchner, then French foreign minister, expressed in 2008 when 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.

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Sign up for unlimited stories.