President Obama seems finally ready to engage in Syria with more than hollow rhetoric. Sadly, this comes after more than 100,000 deaths, two million refugees and massive internal destruction. It comes too after sustained inaction has allowed fanatic Islamists to infiltrate the opposition. But there is finally a hardening resolve to stop the carnage and uphold international law, including the prohibition against using chemical weapons.
Given the dim prospects for agreement in the Security Council, the President was right last week when he cited the 1999 Kosovo intervention as an appropriate precedent. At the time, Canada was on the UN Security Council and played an active role leading to the intervention, in which we took part. Blocked at the Council by a Russian veto, the intervention took place under the auspices of NATO. The “Kosovo model” might prove instructive for those looking at their options in today’s Syria. What are its lessons?
First, once it is clear that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime (with access now being given the proof should be quickly available), the Security Council would be asked for a mandate under the UN Charter’s Chapter 7, providing for military action. The Russians would likely veto any such request.
At that point, there would be two options. The first is to ask NATO to intervene, based on Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which regards a military attack upon any NATO member as an attack upon all. The Syrian military attacks on Turkey, including shooting down a Turkish military jet earlier this year, form the foundation for a collective response.
The second option is to create a coalition of countries prepared to take action. In either case, it is crucial that the initiative enjoy broad international consensus, and especially the support of the Arab League.
What strengthens the hand of the President and others who must plan these steps is that in 2005, subsequent to the Kosovo intervention, UN member states unanimously adopted the principle of Responsibility to Protect or “R2P”, establishing the basis for international action to prevent or stop the wholesale murder of innocent people by their governments. The principle that holds that military action, as a last resort, is justified to protect civilian populations from mass murder, provided that the force used is proportionate to the threat, likely to succeed and unlikely to cause more harm than good. R2P has been reaffirmed more than once since 2005 by the General Assembly and continues to enjoy wide-spread support. It was the basis for the successful UN/NATO intervention in Libya.
R2P can and should be used as the basis for action in Syria. Although the 2005 agreement contemplated a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention, member states surely did not intend that urgent humanitarian responses would be hostage to vetoes unreasonably exercised out of self-interest by one or more of the permanent five Council members. The very purpose of R2P is that we should all protect innocent lives without reference to purely national interests or crass political gamesmanship.
Just this summer, a blue ribbon group of Americans co-chaired by Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, and Richard Williamson, former Sudan envoy under President George W. Bush, urged the inclusion of R2P as a key element in American foreign policy. Their bipartisan recommendation, based on rigorous analysis, answers those who advocate inaction because mass atrocities abroad “do not engage America’s national interests”. Albright’s proposal, like R2P itself, puts our response to mass suffering and killing on a higher plane than conventional power politics.
Whether initiated by NATO or a coalition of participating countries, the international military action in Syria should disable Assad’s capacity to launch chemical attacks and secure sites where chemical weapons are stored. Syrian jets should be kept out of the air, and Assad’s artillery silenced, ending their attacks on civilians. During the Kosovo mission, a committee of foreign ministers convened daily to vet targets proposed by NATO’s generals. That process served to ensure that military measures did not exceed NATO’s mandate. A similar approach could be helpful in Syria.
Kosovo’s aftermath is worth remembering. Soon after the military action ended, the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was before an international tribunal answering for his crimes. And in Kosovo itself, international assistance helped repair the country, establish governance and create a protective buffer between Serbs and Kosovars.
In short, the “Kosovo model”, while not perfect, brought the mass killing of civilians to an end, and Kosovo today has an independent government.
President Obama is right in looking to Kosovo as a model in Syria. It's now up to friends, allies, and all those who seek a world of justice to urge him on, and to offer their support.
Lloyd Axworthy is a former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister and president of the University of Winnipeg. Allan Rock is President of the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations