Responsibility to Protect Syria – A Case Study


It is widely believed that non-intervention is the norm within an international society since international law restricts the use of force except for purposes of self-defense or by way of collective enforcement as authorized by the United Nations Security Council (Bellamy and Wheeler 2014). This misunderstanding is grounded in the debate on how the international community should react when governments commit acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, or other mass atrocities against their own citizens. Important, yet complicated, questions always arise. Were governments unable to avoid such abuses, or, have they collapsed into civil war and/or anarchy? Does sovereignty provide the country with a blanket of legitimacy to treat their own populations inhumanely? Should sovereign states not safeguard the security of their citizens above all else? Does international society have a legal and moral duty to protect its fellow global citizens? 

This paper will examine the successes and failures of the international intervention in Syria, as a case study, using the core principles that sustain the concept of “Responsibility to Protect”. Firstly, it will outline the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) as per the United Nations’ Charter. Secondly, the paper will discuss the context of the Syrian conflict and the stakeholders within. Finally, it will assess the international community’s response and intervention in regards to their Responsibility to Protect vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria

Outlining the concept of “Responsibility to Protect”

As stated by the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (2005), “the Responsibility to Protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing has developed as an important global principle since the adoption of the United Nations World Summit Outcome Document in 2005”. As stipulated in the outcome of this document, the concept of RtoP refers to the state’s obligation to their populations and toward all external populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocities. RtoP specifies three pillars of responsibility:

Pillar One: Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Pillar Two: The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility. Pillar Three: If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the United Nations Charter (United Nations Office 2005).

According to the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect (2008), the above principles originated in a 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, paragraphs 138, 139 and 140.

The United Nations Secretary-General released a report in January 2009 on implementing RtoP. Following, was the first General Assembly Debate on RtoP in July 2009. At this debate, the United Nations’ Member States overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 2005 commitment and the General Assembly passed a consensus resolution taking note of the Secretary-General’s report. The Secretary-General has since released annual reports in advance of the General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on RtoP. Moreover, the Security Council and Human Rights Council have invoked RtoP in more than 45 resolutions since 2006 (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2008). It can, therefore, be seen that RtoP has been discussed, debated, and assessed on numerous occasions throughout the years, indicating its transformation from convention to the norm. Throughout these conventions, RtoP has transformed: no longer a debate between sovereignty and human rights, RtoP has become a discussion on how to best protect people in danger (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014). It must not be taken for granted, however, that these discussions are absent of controversy. In fact, a complete international consensus has yet to emerge: since RtoP involves sovereign nations forcibly intervening on other sovereign nations, it undermines the concept of sovereignty itself and threatens national security (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014). The morality aspect of RtoP seems to be what justifies such responses, that is, the compassion for humanitarian intervention (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014).

The Syrian Conflict and its Stakeholders

The conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011 and can be traced to the Arab spring, which involved the mass movement of uprisings and demonstrations in the Arab world that began in Tunisia following a street vendor who set himself alight in protest of police brutality (Hove & Mutanda 2014). The event subsequently led to a chain of uprisings that engulfed several Arab countries, including Syria. At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, stakeholders predicted its outcome to be similar to that of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, or to that of other Arab states affected by the Arab spring (Hove & Mutanda, 2014). On the contrary, the peaceful protests in Syria were met with a violent response and turned out to be one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises that led to an eventual civil war. This escalation was the result of external intervention.

One must understand the hostility within Syria as a power struggle rather than a humanitarian intervention, especially within the city of Aleppo. Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, over 280,000 people have been killed (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that as of October 2016, there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.1 million internally displaced persons, which is the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect report (2016), both Russian and Syrian government aircraft are currently conducting sustained airstrikes in Aleppo, with illegal barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and bunker-buster bombs. As of September 2015, Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria, claiming that it would help defeat the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, most of these airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control. Additionally, an international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 5,357 fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and 611 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and September 2016, while Russian airstrikes had killed 2,861 fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and 4,162 civilians, including over 1,000 children, by 30 October 2016 (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). Furthermore, Amnesty International investigated 11 coalition airstrikes and in October 2016, reported that an estimated 300 civilians were killed in these attacks (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). 

The United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry has asserted that Syrian government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Syrian government airstrikes in residential areas have breached the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The Commission of Inquiry has reported that government-allied militias and other pro-government forces have also conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts” (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). Numerous armed opposition groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have also committed war crimes, violating International Humanitarian Law by targeting religious minorities through mass killings and sexual enslavement. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between June 2014 and October 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria executed 4,500 people, including nearly 2,450 of them being civilians (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016).

Assessing Responsibility to Protect vis-à-vis the Conflict in Syria 

The Syrian conflict transformed from an internal political protest to an international affair (Hinnebusch 2012). It was the intervention of “superpowers” like the United States and Russia that influenced the dimension of the Syrian conflict toward a different direction than what would have taken place without their involvement. Russia was intensely opposed to the United States’ domination in the Middle East and ultimately reacted as a catalyst, intensifying the conflict. Russian intervention in Syria revealed important developments in Russia’s broader foreign policy thinking (Averre & Davies, 2015). 

To elaborate, Syrian President Assad belongs to the Baathist political party and is thus supported by Iran and Hezbollah and to some extent by the Iraqi Shia government. Because of Assad’s authoritarian regime, the majority of the Syrian population does not want him in power. At the same time, countries such as Russia, Iran, and Iraq don’t want a change in regime because this will cost them an important political ally. As such, these sovereign nations, acting in opposition to the United States, were fighting for regional, possibly global, hegemony. Like Russia, Syria and its supporters were ultimately seeking to exercise powers of sovereignty. For example, this conflict was important to Russia because the Syrian regime is the only remaining geostrategic Russian ally in the region wherein Russia’s strategic naval base is located (Ratelle 2016). It can be therefore seen that Russia’s intentions differed from that of the United States because their intervention was not motivated by International Humanitarian Law and/or International Human Rights Law, rather, it was motivated by self-interest. 

Throughout this conflict, Moscow continuously argued that peace talks should include President Assad’s government and his key ally Iran (Mohammed and Al-Khalidi 2013). In so doing, President Assad wanted to avoid a repetition of what Western powers did in Libya under the guise of RtoP (Hove & Mutanda 2014). Some of the regional powers including Saudi Arabia and Qatar also began arming and funding opposition groups against countries that were acting under the pretense of RtoP. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continued to provide crucial economic, military, and political support to the Syrian government, all in the name of regional stability (Phillips 2015). In critiquing the use of RtoP, Bellamy, and Wheeler, for example, argue that states do not intervene for primarily humanitarian reasons:

States almost always have mixed motives for intervening, and are rarely prepared to sacrifice their own soldiers overseas unless they have self-interested reasons for doing so. For realists, this means that genuine humanitarian intervention is imprudent because it does not serve the national interest. For other critics, it suggests that the powerful only intervene when it suits them to do so, and that strategies of intervention are more likely to be guided by calculations of national interest than by what is best for the victims in whose name the intervention is ostensibly being carried out (2014: 482).

States have historically become involved in a humanitarian intervention on a selective basis, often escalating contradictions over policy, rather than protecting people strictly out of moral obligation. From a realist view of statism in the anarchic realm, the most powerful player in international relations is the state itself (Ratelle 2016). The problem of selectivity arises when an agreed moral principle is at stake in more than one situation, but national interest limits different responses (Ratelle, 2016). As such, the interest of any given government determines the behavior of a state, and thus they become selective about when, where, and how they choose to intervene. Therefore, in the case of Syrian intervention, RtoP became corrupted, acting as a means to an end. The intervention of some countries was motivated by political preferences that ultimately affected their power rather than intervening for the purpose of humanitarian protection. RtoP was created on the basis of legal and moral obligations to intervene; however, this is not what resulted. 

The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to engage in its military might, grasping for more power at all costs. Combined Syrian and Russian airstrikes have enabled Syrian government forces to recapture Aleppo and regain the significant territory that was previously lost to opposition forces. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of Aleppo makes them complicit in alleged mass atrocities and war crimes (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The failure of the ceasefire agreements and escalation of fighting in Aleppo proves that all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and that the ongoing civil war continues to endanger the lives of countless civilians. Attacks on soft targets including hospitals and civilian infrastructures demonstrate a complete disregard for International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. Therefore, restoring the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving peace talks. Although there have been, to some extent, a few successes from RtoP as enacted by western liberal democracies (especially in opening their borders for the mass influx of refugees fleeing Syria), Syrians are still living amid war, a war that could not be resolved by RtoP. By and large, the international society has failed in its moral obligation to protect the vulnerable populations of Syria.


The Assad regime in Syria has not only immensely failed to abide by Pillar One of RtoP, but also bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of mass atrocities and crimes, exacerbated by their refusal of Pillar Three involving intervention. As hostile divisions thrive within Syria, the United Nations Security Council continues to fail in enforcing compliance with the intervention. Outside political influence, including western liberal democracies and the wider middle eastern regional powers, continue to weaken Syria’s chances of ceasing hostilities. Despite the current military, political and diplomatic stalemate, Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia remain key players in all negotiation settlements regarding this conflict. Therefore, any significant change in the Syrian conflict will only be achieved when these sovereignties intervene solely on their legal and Moral Responsibility to Protect, rather than advancing on motives of national interests, hegemonic culture, or selective bias.

Image credit: UN Security Council Chamber


Averre, D. & Davies, L. (2015) Russia, humanitarian intervention, and the Responsibility to Protect: the case of Syria. The Royal Institute of International Affairs. International Affairs, 91: 4, 2015

Bellamy, A. J. & Wheeler, N. J (2014). Humanitarian intervention in world politics. In Baylis, J., Smith, S. & Owens, P. (Eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (6th ed.) (p.480-491). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hinnebusch, R. (2012) Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to revolution? International Affairs, 88(2), 95–113.

Hove, H. & Mutanda, D. (2015): The Syrian Conflict 2011 to the Present: Challenges and Prospects. Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 50(5) 559-570. DOI: 10.1177/0021909614560248

Mohammed, A. & Al-Khalidi, S. (2013) West may boost Syria rebels if Assad won’t talk peace. Reuters. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from:

Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide. (2005). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from

Phillips, C. (2015) Sectarianism and conflict in Syria. Third World Quarterly, 36(2), 357–376,

Ratelle, J. F. (November 2016). Lecture on Introduction to the Study of Conflicts and Human Rights. Personal Collection of J.F. Ratelle, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

Saleh, Y., & Irish, J (2012) France recognizes new Syria opposition. Reuters. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from: idUSBRE88J0X720121113

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (2008). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from:


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