Expert Commentary

Intervening in Syria and the humanitarian case: What does the research say?

2013 review of research papers relevant to any potential intervention in the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the notion of "responsibility to protect."

The possibility of a Russian-backed deal on chemical weapons disarmament for Syria through the United Nations Security Council has, for the moment, stayed the hand of the United States and its allies.

If no deal is reached, however, military intervention remains a distinct possibility. As detailed in a 2013 United Nations’ report, testimony from survivors of the August 21 attack and physical evidence point to the use of chemical weapons. The report doesn’t assign responsibility, but the sophistication of the weapons used and the size of the attack clearly suggest that government forces were the source.

In terms of a potential chemical weapons deal, the closest historical precedent is the successful dismantling of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programs in the mid-2000s. For perspective on any potential weapons-inspection mission in Syria, see the paper “Who Won Libya? The Force-Diplomacy Debate and Its Implications for Theory and Policy,” from Bruce W. Jentleson and Christopher A. Whytock of Duke University. A 2006 Congressional Research Service report, “Disarming Libya: Weapons of Mass Destruction,” has details of that effort. According to the Pew Research Center, the American public is heavily in favor of this diplomatic direction.

But even prior to the use of chemical weapons, Syria was a humanitarian disaster: The U.N. estimates the death toll at more than 100,000, with some 2 million refugees displaced.

What do history and social science suggest about the potential consequences of a Western-led attack on the Assad regime? Would intervention hasten the end of the conflict or make matters worse, particularly for non-combatants? Could the very threat of intervention serve to deepen the conflict, or would threats help deter violence?

While Libya is generally seen as a success, the outcome of other interventions appear to be significantly less positive. A 2011 study published in Political Research Quarterly, “Does Foreign Military Intervention Help Human Rights?” examines the effects of foreign military interventions on human-rights grounds in 145 countries from 1981 to 2001. “The empirical evidence offers robust support for the assertion that supportive and neutral military interventions deteriorate the level of respect for physical integrity rights,” writes the author, Dursun Peksen of the University of Memphis. “Supportive intervention is likely to increase the predicted probability of extrajudicial killing by 103 percent. Neutral interventions … increase the predicted probability of extrajudicial killing by 130 percent.” Peksen concludes:

As military intervention becomes a counterproductive policy tool instigating more human-rights abuses, the target state will likely experience more violence, humanitarian disasters, and other instabilities given the inherent link between the respect for human rights and the maintenance of peace and security.

What about the “responsibility to protect”?

Syria war (Wikipedia)A 2005 U.N. initiative called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) stipulates that “the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations” from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing and their incitement. The R2P concept, formulated after the violence in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, has since been invoked in Libya and South Sudan. President Obama has explicitly compared the situation in Syria to the genocide in Rwanda, saying, “If you decried inaction in Rwanda, Syria [is] a no-brainer.”

Over the last three decades, there have been a number of international interventions with humanitarian aims. Sometimes they have taken the form of U.N. peacekeeping operations. For data and analysis of these efforts, see the 2013 study “United Nations Peacekeeping Personnel Commitments, 1990-2011,” published in Conflict Management and Peace Science. Other interventions include Operation Allied Force, NATO’s bombing of Kosovo in 1999, which is being considered as a model for the current Syrian conflict. At the time President Bill Clinton articulated his support for the Kosovo strikes using humanitarian language, explaining that, “ending this tragedy is a moral imperative.”

However, some research indicates that caution is necessary when intervening on human-rights grounds. In “A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign,” a 2013 paper published in International Security, Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas challenges “conventional wisdom” about the conflict and suggests how, on a number of points, intervention made matters worse. The essay explores a central idea: “Humanitarian intervention risks backfiring by escalating rebellion, both in the country where it is conducted and beyond. This is because it encourages substate groups to believe that by violently provoking state retaliation, they can attract intervention to help achieve their political objectives, including regime change.” Kuperman concludes:

Overall, NATO intervention significantly exacerbated humanitarian suffering in Libya and Mali, as well as security threats throughout the region. The only apparent benefit is that Libyans have been able to vote in democratic elections, but the elected government has little authority in a country now controlled by dozens of tribal and Islamist militias accountable to no one. NATO intervention increased the duration of Libya’s civil war by approximately six times, and its death toll by seven to ten times.

The potential role of “moral hazard”

The idea that R2P could create incentives for rebellions to grow worse and opposition fighters to take more risks — assuming they will ultimately be “bailed out” by outside intervention — was the subject of a 2011 study by Paul D. Williams of George Washington University and Alex J. Bellamy of Griffith University (Australia). The result, “On the Limits of Moral Hazard: The ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ Armed Conflict and Mass Atrocities,” was published in the European Journal of International Relations.

The authors find that “there is no empirical evidence to support the general contention that victims’ groups bring genocide upon themselves, and  …  moral hazard theory’s view of provocation is arbitrarily focused on the moment of rebellion and ignores the historic and strategic context in which political pressure builds before intra-state armed conflict erupts.” They conclude that the “empirical evidence relating to the frequency, duration and severity of rebellions and genocidal violence contradicts moral hazard theory’s conclusion that R2P is a remote cause of genocide.”

However, a 2011 study published in the journal Civil Wars, “Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Peace Operations,” offers concrete suggestions for better implementing the R2P through peace operations. The authors, Bellamy and Charles T. Hunt of the University of Queensland, state that interventions must be “designed, planned and resourced with a clear understanding of the threats to civilian populations and what it will take to address their needs.” They note in their conclusion:

There are at least three major areas in which an [R2P] lens could be brought to bear in order to strengthen the capacity of peace operations to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities: (1) developing protection and atrocity-specific doctrine; (2) translating doctrine into training; and (3) ensuring that risks are properly assessed and missions given appropriate mandates and capabilities.

Are humanitarian interventions effective?

UN peacekeepers, Sarajevo, 1996 (Wikipedia)Reviewing military intervention in Libya, a 2011 report published in the International Review of the Red Cross, “The Use of Force to Protect Civilians and Humanitarian Action: The Case of Libya and Beyond,” asserts that success is not always guaranteed and caution should be exercised when comparing future situations to Libya. “Such armed support to protect civilians,” writes author Bruno Pommier, “whether or not in the context of R2P, could be extremely difficult to implement in the future and would depend on changing power relations within the international community.”

Similarly, in “Keeping Peace or Spurring Violence? Unintended Effects of Peace Operations on Violence against Civilians,” published in Civil Wars in 2010, Lisa Hultman of the Swedish National Defense College examines the effect of peace operations in countries experiencing ongoing armed conflicts. Her findings also caution against certain kinds of direct interventions: “There is no strong evidence that the behavior of governments is affected by peace operations: in general, there is no significant dampening effect of peacekeepers on the level of violence carried out by governments.” Furthermore, “when peacekeepers are present, the level of violence against civilians by rebel groups is in fact higher than when no peacekeepers are present.”

Not all studies are dismissive of interventions. In a 2013 American Journal of Political Science article, “The Road to Hell? Third-Party Intervention to Prevent Atrocities,” Andrew H. Kydd and Scott Straus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison describe a situation much like the one ongoing in Syria: A government and rebel group fight, the government commits atrocities, and a third party may intervene to stop the violence and abuse. They argue that, under the right circumstances, “a well-crafted intervention regime can reduce the expected level of atrocities and so be counted as welfare improving overall.”

David R. Davis of Emory University and Amanda Murdie of Kansas State University make a similar point in a 2010 Human Rights Quarterly article, “Problematic Potential: The Human Rights Consequences of Peacekeeping Interventions in Civil Wars.” They note that “peacekeeping interventions are not the magic solution to end human rights abuses in states with a history of civil war,” but there is also “great potential of specific actions within peacekeeping missions” to protect human rights.

Options for action

Military action aside, another outstanding question remains: What is the best way for the international community to help the people of Syria? In 2011, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School published a working paper, “Improving the Protection of Civilians in Situations of Armed Conflict,” that suggests methods for increasing the protection of civilians during violent conflict. With input from representatives of the military, the United Nations, NGOs, and academia, the paper lays out recommendations for the two main mechanisms by which civilians are protected in conflict zones: peacekeeping operations, and monitoring and investigation activities.

Others have been making the case that given the high costs associated with military interventions, more preventive measures should be taken earlier. In a Foreign Affairs article, “The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention: The Hard Truth About a Noble Notion,” Benjamin A. Valentino of Dartmouth argues:

Washington should replace its focus on military intervention with a humanitarian foreign policy centered on saving lives by funding public health programs in the developing world, aiding victims of natural disasters, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict.

He cites the costs — monetary and otherwise — of military interventions, including: “aiding defenseless civilians has usually meant empowering armed factions claiming to represent these victims, groups that are frequently responsible for major human rights abuses of their own.” Furthermore, “even if the ends of such actions could be unambiguously humanitarian, the means never are. Using force to save lives usually involves taking lives, including innocent ones.”

Keywords: war, Syria, chemical weapons

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