In The Media

How the West failed to stop Syria from tearing itself apart

by Kyle Matthews and Zach Paikin

December 5, 2015

Recently, the world saw horrific evil take place in Paris. There, the genocidal group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) committed numerous terrorist acts that claimed the lives of more than 130 civilians. We all have a duty to remember that the rise of ISIS is a perfect example of what can happen when we fail to uphold the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

R2P is a commitment adopted by all countries unanimously at the 2005 UN World Summit. Crucially, it redefined the notion of state sovereignty. No longer would sovereignty be an inviolable license to do whatever one wishes within one’s own borders. Rather, it became a responsibility to protect one’s population from mass atrocities (i.e., war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity).

Under certain circumstances, R2P can allow for an international military operation to protect civilians, so long as such a venture is approved by the UN Security Council. In the case of Syria, Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed Western proposals — half-hearted, perhaps — to do something to end the carnage.

The West is not entirely blameless, either. Western countries launched military forays into Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 without the authorization of the UN Security Council. For Russia and China, the NATO-led Libyan venture in 2011 represented the last straw. What Moscow and Beijing saw as a mere mandate to protect civilians was interpreted by Western countries as being a license to force regime change in Tripoli.

In the Syrian theatre, the results of today’s mistrust between the world’s great powers are now apparent. What was first a civil war contained within Syria’s borders eventually metastasized into a regional conflict: Hezbollah and Iran intervened on President Bashar al-Assad’s side, while Turkey and certain Gulf states decided to back the anti-regime forces. The situation only worsened after ISIS’ consolidation of power in the northern part of the country and its subsequent conquest of important real estate in western Iraq.

And now, the Syrian conflict is no longer regional — it is global. With Russia now intervening militarily to assist the Assad regime’s forces and ISIS bringing its terror onto the world stage, there is now no question that the situation has spiraled massively out of control, with consequences for us all. All of this might have been prevented had the world’s great powers put their differences aside and acted early to prevent mass atrocities in Syria.

Today, we are not merely dealing with a crisis of transnational terrorism, massive uncontrolled refugee flows and instability in the Middle East. We are confronted with a stark disagreement about the nature of one of the fundamental pillars of international order: state sovereignty. And it isn’t just two and a half decades of Western insensitivity and the resulting intransigence of rising powers that created the current stalemate, either.

Indeed, there is a deep philosophical chasm separating the world’s most powerful countries. China’s views on R2P, for example, have been conditioned by Confucianism, nearly two centuries of anti-Western sentiment, its authoritarian system and its post-Mao development experience all at once. For China, it is economic development — not responding to crisis situations — that represents the highest form of humanitarianism.

Canada has a long history of helping find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. The new Liberal government needs to recommit Canada to R2P. Even more importantly, our country needs to play a constructive role in helping to forge a clear international consensus on how to improve ‎global governance with the aim of halting human suffering and preventing conflict.

Acting as a leading, vocal interlocutor between the globe’s divergent worldviews would reflect our multicultural fabric and strengthen our national identity. It also would allow Canada to play a more tangible and important role in international affairs. When we say that the world needs more Canada, we need to put our money where our mouth is.

Kyle Matthews (@kylecmatthews) is senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK.

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