Syria’s Democratic Revolution: What Role for the International Community?

Opposition Forces in Syria

Opposition Forces in Syria

The Arab Spring, which began following the democratic revolution in Tunisia more than a year ago appears to have run around in Syria. The sharp response of the government—in marked contrast to the Tunisian and Egyptian responses but similar to that of Libya—has led to a standoff between government and opposition forces. President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000 when he succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as President, continues to assert that the revolt is part of a foreign plot driven by the Untied States and Israel and intended to destroy Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian military has been engaged in operations to kill opposition forces, leading to escalating violence across the country.

The international community has struggled to develop a collective response to the crisis. Last week, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had been serving as the Peace Envoy to Syria, suddenly resigned, asserting that Syria was not serious about peace and that the international community—and particularly the UN Security Council—was not sufficiently committed to do what was necessary to end fighting there. Several countries have taken individual steps. The United Kingdom last week announced it would expand non-military assistance to Syrian opposition groups, and the United States announced it would impose new sanctions on the Syrian government.

The failure of the international community to develop a coordinated response to the

China Vetoes UN Action on Syria

China Vetoes UN Action on Syria

Syrian crisis illustrates the challenges of collective security in the international system. In such a system, each country is motivated to leave the costs of intervention (whether financial or the cost of human lives lost as soldiers die on the battlefield) to other countries. This was most clearly seen in the failure of the League of Nations to address Italian aggression in North Africa and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. But a similar phenomenon can be seen in the failure of the Untied Nations Security Council to develop a coherent policy with respect to Syria today.

The security dilemma is most commonly avoided when one state agrees to pay a disproportionate share of the cost of action. Historically, this has fallen to the dominant powers in the global system, today, the United States. Where the United States has been willing to take on a leading role and pay a disproportionate share of the costs of intervention (such as in Afghanistan and in the first Persian Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait), other countries are often willing to follow in order to lend credibility to the operation. Where the United States or other leading powers are unwilling to pay such a cost, intervention does not usually take place, regardless of the cost. Perhaps the most salient example of this occurred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the United States declined to support African Union proposals to end the conflict, resulting the deaths of almost 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a 100-day bloodbath. In either case, the likelihood of intervention usually depends on the willingness of one country or a small group of countries to exercise leadership and pay a disproportionate cost of intervention.

Complicating the question further is the principle of non-intervention. The United Nations Charter guarantees the sovereign equality of nations and the “inalienable right” of States to “exercise their sovereignty and guarantees States’ “n States’ “inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory and … [to] freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” This sentiment was confirmed by General Assembly Resolution 2131, which established the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states. Simply put, this means that the international community should not interfere with the right of any specific government to rule, unless that rule poses a threat to international peace and stability.

The controversy, of course comes in defining what constitutes a threat to international peace and stability. Throughout the 1980s, for example, the UN General Assembly regularly passed resolutions condemning South Africa’s system of radicalized rule known as apartheid. The South African government (supported by the United States) asserted that such resolutions violated the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states. Consequently, efforts to isolate the South African state generally took the form of individual actions by specific states rather than a collective response on the part of the United Nations.

What do you think? Is the international community likely to intervene in Syria? Will the collective security dilemma prevail, preventing intervention? Should the United States act unilaterally to end Basar al-Assad’s rule? Or should it wait for the international community to come together? Or should the principle of non-intervention prevail, leaving Syria to determine its own path. Take the poll below to voice your opinion.


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