In the weeks after rebels captured Tripoli and killed autocratic leader Moammar Gaddafi, the Libyan capital was the site of nightly celebrations of newfound freedom. Thousands poured into the renamed Martyr’s Square, where young men led the crowds in triumphant choruses of the pre-Qaddafi national anthem.
The celebration included plenty of praise for the United States and NATO, which supported the rebel fighters for months. Upon learning I was American, Libyans would enthusiastically shake my hand, push me to the front of the line, or try to give me merchandise from their shops. Their gratitude was reflected in a message spray-painted across a wall in Qaddafi’s former compound: “God Bless USA.” In a cartoon taped to the wall outside my hotel, Qaddafi appeared as a giant mosquito under attack from Obama, David Cameron, and Nicholas Sarkozy, who were armed with canisters of bug spray marked “NATO.”
I remembered those scenes last week, when I spoke on a panel at Illinois' Elmhurst College. An older Syrian man in the audience, visibly distraught, stood to complain that the international community had yet to arm Syria's rebels as it did in Libya. “Many soldiers have been killed because they did not fire on the crowd,” he said. “Assad is no less brutal than Qaddafi.”
His raised voice aired an increasingly common concern as the deadline for a negotiated ceasefire in Syria approaches, and all sides of the conflict look on to see if it will halt a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 civilians over the last year: If the intervention in Libya was justified as an effort to protect civilians from their own government, why isn’t the world rallying for a similar action to protect Syrians? The answer to that question lies in a unique combination of political interests and practical constraints that complicate the application of the United Nations' "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, which spells out the responsibility of nations to protect their own citizens and to take action if other countries fail to do so. The reasons Libya qualified range from geography to religion, all factors on which the Syrian conflict is a much more controversial test case.
Responsibility to Protect, known as R2P, is the product of years of diplomatic wrangling over whether and how the international community should intervene in a sovereign state for the sake of its civilians. The debate traces back to the end of the Cold War, which ushered in an era in which diplomats and activists were hopeful about the prospects for international action to stop the massacres and civil wars then erupting across much of the developing world. But those hopes dimmed after a botched intervention in Somalia in 1992 and '93; the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994; the massacre of thousands of civilians supposedly under U.N. protection in Bosnia in 1995; and a 1999 NATO air campaign in Kosovo—undertaken without Security Council approval by a “coalition of the willing."
Faced with diplomatic discord about the mixed legacy of interventions, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly challenged the United Nations to come to a consensus about how to respond to similar challenges in the future. After years of debate, the U.N. General Assembly came to an agreement in 2005, creating a plan that clearly stated the responsibility of all nations to protect their own citizens from mass atrocities, the most grave category of abuses, which includes genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. In the event a state fails to meet that obligation, R2P says, other countries must be prepared to act on civilians' behalf. Not just a military doctrine, R2P encompasses a wider range of diplomatic measures, and has been cited in non-military interventions in Guinea, Sudan, Kenya, and elsewhere.
But until Libya, R2P remained something of “a diplomatic abstraction,” says Simon Adams, director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect at NYU, who was involved in advocating for the Libyan intervention with members of the U.N. Security Council. One influential voice in the Libya debate, he says, was the ambassador from Bosnia-Herzegovina, who argued the group had a chance to prevent in Benghazi something akin to the massacre that took place in his own country. The logistics of intervening in Libya were relatively simple: Gaddafi was politically isolated, and the NATO action had the support of the Arab League and neighboring states. Plus, the rebel shadow government represented a coherent, nonsectarian alternative to Gaddafi's regime, and rebel-held Benghazi provided a geographical foothold that could be sealed off and defended by NATO air power without the need for large numbers of foreign troops on the ground.
Syria, on the other hand, is a “multi-sectarian, multiethnic cauldron bordering similar tinderbox Arab states, as well as Israel,” as journalist Rania Abouzeid wrote recently. The country is roughly 75 percent Sunni, but the government is dominated by Alawite Shiites with the support of minority Druze, Christian, and other Shiite groups, lending the conflict a sectarian angle that was absent in Libya. Syria also has the potential to draw in outside actors like Al-Qaeda, while a civil war could easily spill across borders, igniting the simmering sectarian tensions that fueled Lebanon's civil war that killed roughly 200,000 people and wounded 1 million between 1975 and 1990.
“R2P saved lives in Libya,” Adams says. “But the geopolitical calculus is completely different in Syria. If we were to intervene, how? As soon as you start picking at that scab, it's not pretty.”
Despite the potential “balance of consequences,” Adams doesn’t believe the military option should be taken off the table, especially as the situation evolves: Complexity shouldn't be an excuse for inaction, he says. But he describes the ideal solution as "creative diplomacy," not NATO invasion—something like the deal that pressured Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign peacefully last November.
But the limits of diplomacy seem to be coming into focus as the Syrian conflict continues. Russia and China vetoed a US-backed resolution calling for Assad’s resignation. And despite agreeing on Annan's peace plan, Assad has continued his violent campaign against the opposition. At a recent “Friends of Syria” summit in Turkey, Arab countries agreed to send $100 million to pay rebels’ salaries in hopes of encouraging defections from the regime, while the U.S. pledged an additional $13 million for communications equipment to help unify the rebel Free Syrian Army and the political opposition, the Syrian National Council, based in Turkey. But these are half-measures, uncertain steps in an ambiguous direction of a widening conflict that offers no easy resolution.