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NYRB: How to Save the Syrians

Author: Michael Ignatieff, Professor, University of Toronto
September 13, 2013


"When the Security Council blocks action and states get away with gassing their own people or killing them en masse, the rule of law suffers and the authority of the Security Council is diminished."

We may be at a turning point in the Syrian agony, when diplomatic action combined with the threat of force moves the Syrian regime toward putting its chemical weapons under international control. If this happens it will be a victory for international law, for the authority of the UN Security Council, and for peace. But it is only too obvious that thus far the peoples of the democratic states have failed in our responsibility to protect the people of Syria.

This is hardly a failure to intervene: external intervention has been constant from the beginning. A ferocious, well-armed proxy war is devouring Syria, with weapons pouring in from all sides. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Hezbollah have each tried to tip the military balance in favor of the regime or the rebels. Far from succeeding, they have aggravated the atrocities and exposed civilians on every side to repeated, deliberate, and murderous attack. The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, defines the protection of civilians as the sole legitimate reason for the use of force besides self-defense. Developed by an international commission of which I was a member, it has been endorsed over the past decade at least in principle by almost all UN member states. If our goal is to protect civilians in Syria, the R2P doctrine clearly suggests that further supplies of weapons to any side will only make matters worse.

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