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By Overreaching in Libya, NATO Has Left Syria to Fend Alone

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
October 11, 2011
The National

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This article was originally published in The National.

In the aftermath of the armed overthrow of Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, it is useful to reassess how the tools of conflict prevention were applied, and what their application could mean for the future of international intervention. Most importantly, it is critical to understand why mismanagement and overreach in Libya have essentially doomed a similar plan for Syria.

International institutions played a significant role leading up to and on the ground during the Libyan conflict, although with varying levels of influence and involvement - and not always within their mandate.

Due to its universal membership and corresponding broad legitimacy, the United Nations remains a critical global mechanism for preventing conflict. Its size and scope often slow it down, but in comparison to the way it handled other recent armed conflicts, the UN responded to the situation in Libya with unprecedented speed and decisiveness.

Within five days of the outbreak of peaceful protests, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect noted the "widespread and systematic attacks against civilian populations".

On February 26, in response to the escalating violence in Libya, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1970 which referred the conflict to the International Criminal Court, placed an embargo on "arms and related material of all types, including ... technical assistance [and] training" to Libya and ordered travel bans and asset freezes.

On March 5, the peaceful protests officially became a civil war with the creation of the National Transitional Council, founded with the explicit goal of the "termination of the dictatorial regime". On March 17, the Security Council, with 10 in favour and five abstentions, adopted resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone on Libya and authorised UN member states "to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack".

The endorsement of the Security Council proved essential to the legitimisation of the Nato-led intervention in Libya's civil war. However, several countries openly violated the resolutions, adopting a much more active role and presence in the conflict by arming the rebels, providing military training and placing forward air controllers on the ground to call in air support.

Furthermore, although Nato repeatedly claimed to be an impartial actor in the conflict, its actions - allowing the rebel forces to smuggle weapons into the country and fly aircraft in the no-fly zone and coordinating its air strikes with their military operations, for instance - proved otherwise.

As a result of these blatant violations, the UN has been unwilling to endorse intervention in Syria to stop the government-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters. In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delayed a Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, stating he would not support "a dead ringer for Resolution 1973," which he believed had been "turned into a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation." On October 4 Russia and China vetoed a sanctions resolution.

The Arab League also played a significant role by encouraging international intervention in the Libyan conflict. On March 12, the Arab League passed a resolution requesting the "UN Security Council [to] fulfil its responsibilities" by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

However, only 11 countries reportedly endorsed the resolution, in violation of the league's charter, which requires a unanimous decision on the use of force. In addition, while the members of the Arab League maintain vast fleets of combat aircraft, only Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates helped to enforce the no-fly zone, and none conducted close air support strikes.

In Syria, the Arab League has yet to endorse any resolution that calls for an international solution to ending the violence.

Many humanitarian advocates have cited Libya as an unambiguous example of military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). But it is important to clarify that R2P is not a legal obligation, but a principle enshrined by the heads of governments at the 2005 World Summit. R2P implies that governments should protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Where governments cannot - or will not - meet their R2P obligations, the international community can use military force to protect that government's population and potentially overthrow offending regimes, as witnessed in both the Ivory Coast and Libya.

Western leaders have carefully avoided any reference to R2P in Libya, but the principle has been implicitly justified through the collective actions of the UN and the Arab League, and US support.

During the Libyan conflict, President Barack Obama declared that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."

The Qaddafi regime failed to uphold its R2P obligations, and international institutions intervened. But on Syria, the international community has been largely inert and irresolute. Calls for intervention, made frequently by opposition supporters, have gained little traction abroad. Instead, because of shifting regional interests, questionable political alliances and regional military capabilities, the future of international intervention to enforce R2P - in Syria and elsewhere - remains uncertain.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @MICAHZENKO.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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