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R2P: the moral case for a no-fly zone in Syria

With the war in Syria having no end in sight, is it time to support a no-fly zone? EPA/CEM

Syrian opposition fighters and members of the aid community have called for a no-fly zone in recent months, amid an increasingly vicious armed rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

With thousands of innocent lives already lost, the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is still in limbo. Despite general approval of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report and the fact that outside responsibility to protect citizens whose rights are being violated is becoming an internationally accepted norm, the violence in Syria continues unchecked.

R2P may be considered on legal, political and moral grounds, but it is prompted by, according to the ICISS, the existence of large-scale violations of human rights, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

These violations are not in doubt in Syria. For Syria, the legal justification for R2P through the United Nations Security Council has failed. The UNSC members hit a deadlock, although action through the General Assembly in its “Uniting for Peace Resolution” could still be an avenue.

Political justification depends on political expediency and on the interest of the states that would get involved. The moral grounds may appeal to all of us and push us to require our governments to take action as the cruelties and persecutions of Syrians by their own state shocks our conscience. All three grounds are important. The international community must feel the moral obligation to save lives, even if it is not in the political interest of the individual states. Without both the moral conviction and political will, no legal action will take place.

There seems to be a general agreement that Syria’s problem is an international problem and their failure is an international failure. The challenge lies in how the international community, in particular the UN, fulfils its charter obligation and promise to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, while reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and worth of the human person. The no-fly zone is one such action that the international community can use to fulfil its promise. However, if any other action has failed so far, will the request for a no-fly zone have any success?

NATO ended up extending the remit of the UN approved no fly zone to provide close air support for anti Gaddafi forces. EPA/STR

Essentially, imposing a no-fly zone will mean military intervention in order to react once the government forces breach or attempt to breach the sanction. The no-fly zone will require an attack on Syrian military assets, specifically air defence systems, at least in the initial phase, but will not halt ground attacks. So the no-fly zone might in essence have little impact in protecting the vulnerable.

A no-fly zone was imposed in Libya with the endorsement of the UN Security Council as part of R2P. Libya however made R2P complicated. There is a general agreement, at least among Russia, China, India, Brazil and the African Union, that the intervention in Libya was a mess. NATO went beyond its mandate of saving civilians and pursued unarmed and fleeing forces. We are yet to see whether Libya will be a better place to live in following international action.

On moral utilitarian grounds, we still need to ask whether intervention will have the best results for the greatest number of people. We need to think of the collateral harm and after effects. We should ask ourselves whether we want to make that kind of intervention a general rule. We cannot undermine the fear that intervention only works in weaker states, or those that are not ensconced in the imperial realm of those countries that wield a Security Council veto.

So the moral case is also doubtful, although clearly we feel the carnage and suffering should stop.

Intervention works when the parties intervening do not have any interest in the host state, other to save lives. We know states are involved by arming and/or supporting either side of the conflict. With no neutrality, even if only apparent, the Security Council will not have the unity it needs and will remain impotent to take action on Syria.

Imposing a no-fly zone is perhaps the least the international community can do for Syria. Surely history will not look at the world favourably as we continue folding our hands and pretend we are not affected by the suffering and death of a Syrian. But sad as it may be, as matters stand now, it is a delusion to think that a no-fly zone will be imposed on Syria. The question still has to go back to the ineffective Security Council.

We are left to consider any other possible options, not least the General Assembly. The Uniting for Peace Resolution, used in Korea and during the Suez crisis, was created to have the assembly act once the Security Council has hit a deadlock. General Assembly members would recommend collective action, but the Security Council would order member states to participate in enforcing collective security.

Of course, this too has its limitations and political interests are important.

In the final analysis, governments might just increase their support for either side of the conflict, and hopefully, the more humane side will emerge victorious.

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