Guest Post: The Choice to Protect (or Not) in Syria

by Neomi Rao

The White House’s recent statement that it would begin supplying Syrian rebels with arms demonstrates how military assistance and intervention remain a choice of states rather than an obligation. Recent events confirm the arguments I make in a recent article The Choice to Protect: Rethinking Responsibility for Humanitarian Intervention. I am pleased to be guest blogging about this topic over the next few days and thank the editors at Opinio Juris for the opportunity.

The comparison between the intervention in Libya and the foot dragging with respect to Syria should cause some rethinking about the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P). As readers here are aware, R2P posits that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. When states fail in this responsibility, the international community and individual states have a responsibility to protect people from serious human rights violations. In the context of Libya, President Obama appeared to invoke this doctrine when he said the United States had a “responsibility to act” to prevent the slaughter of civilians by Gaddafi’s forces. In the latest statement on Syria, “responsibility” is notably absent. There is no mention of the 93,000 people killed in the conflict. Rather, the Administration’s statement focuses on the fuzzy “red line” of chemical weapons, not the humanitarian nightmare of the ongoing fighting.

Action in Syria will depend, the statement made clear, on the Administration’s assessment of the threat and its appropriate response: “[W]e will make decisions on our own timeline. Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives….” Commentators have considered the legality for intervention in Syria. While these may be important questions of international law, whether the United States chooses to intervene invariably will depend less on considerations of international law as on whether Administration chooses to intervene.

The pragmatism of the Administration’s statement should come as little surprise—powerful states will make their own choices in light of their own interests, regardless of the humanitarian credentials of the foreign policy team. Yet international law scholars and proponents of intervention often ignore these realities and continue to speak of an emerging norm of intervention or of the responsibility of states to people outside their borders. While emerging norms may tolerate intervention, state practice hardly suggests that an emerging norm requires intervention.

Focusing on the choice of intervention and the domestic processes of choosing intervention should be relevant both for proponents of intervention and its critics. In subsequent posts, I will discuss why the responsibility to protect people in other states is theoretically problematic and also explain why the scope of any such obligation rests entirely with the states considering assistance.

One Response

  1. Also, please see Use of Military Force in Syria by Turkey, NATO, and the United States, 343 U. Pa. J. Int’l L. 431 (2013), available at

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.