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International response to Syrian chemical attacks symptomatic of broader inaction in humanitarian crises

Published 29 May 2018

Diana Lambert | 16 May 2018

Last month, the world witnessed yet another chemical attack in Syria, which left 60 dead, many more wounded, and marked the surrender of the last rebel stronghold. Amidst the international outcry, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad refused to accept responsibility for the attacks, Trump brandished threats over Twitter, the United Nations Security Council was rendered powerless by yet another U.S.- Russia stalemate, and the resolution of the crisis seemed to depend on what the U.S. decided to do next.

A Western coalition eventually launched a strike on Syrian chemical weapons sites, but it took almost a week to organise. In a similar situation a year ago, retaliation against Syria was initiated in 63 hours. The sluggish response has likely not damaged Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons and is symptomatic of responses to the war in Syria more generally.

Since the start of the conflict in 2011, over 400 000 people have been killed, more than half the country’s population has fled, and a great deal of its infrastructure has been destroyed. While there have been surges of activity, apart from some brief support for the rebels in the early stages of the war, these have been limited to reactions to the use of chemical weapons, and support for the offensive against Islamic State.

The Syrian conflict has demonstrated the inefficiency and incapacity of the international community and the international institutions they rely on to respond to major humanitarian crises within states. It is similar to the failure to act in Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in 2004, and is a far cry from the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine that the UN promoted in 2005.

The R2P doctrine empowered the UN and the international community to intervene as a last resort where significant humanitarian atrocities had occurred, and governments were unwilling or unable to prevent them.

The reason for international inaction are many; perhaps it is a lack of leadership from the gun-shy United States, chastened after failings in Iraq, or perhaps it is an international weariness toward international interventions as whole.

But nowhere are the reasons more evident than in the workings of the Security Council – the core of the UN. Once seen as a harbinger of an age of collective security, the Council is, by its very structure, a roadblock to decisive international action. This was demonstrated once again last month, when the Council failed to agree on a satisfactory response during an emergency session called just days after the alleged chemical attack.

As the Syrian crisis illustrates, the ideals of the United Nations, and the altruistic hope of the R2P are struggling to cope with the harsh realities of self-interest and power repositioning between the US and Russia. Demonstrably, the Security Council is frequently left moribund by the impasse of the former cold war powers.

The repeated failures of the Security Council to act have promoted some commentators, such as Mark Lagon from Georgetown University, to argue that unilateral action in support of R2P is legitimate. He cites the NATO bombing campaign during the 1999 Kosovo crisis as precedent.

Unhappily, despite the military offensive against Islamic State, and the recent retaliatory air strike, the U.S. is unlikely to take any leading role in a military response to the war. Trump is well aware of the possible consequences of any further escalation to the conflict if they were to engage militarily with Assad’s forces.

Despite threats of a “big price to pay” the U.S. response has remained muted. Where there is judgement, there is no resolve. And where there is talk, there is no action. This demonstrates the potential futility of a reliance on the United States. As a nation that inevitably will put self-interest and strategic imperatives first, we are likely to be disappointed if they remain our only hope for a response to humanitarian crises.


Diana Lambert is currently in her first year of the Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney, having graduated from a Bachelor of International and Global Studies in 2017. Her main interests lie in studying America’s role in the world, especially the Middle East. In 2017, she spent six months studying at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. Ultimately, Diana aims to pursue a career in International Human Rights Law.