WASHINGTON -- As diplomats at the United Nations pore over a draft resolution condemning the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, experts say that lingering discomfort over the execution of the Libya mission is playing a crucial, if under-discussed, role in the deliberations.
"The ghost of Libya is haunting the debate," an official at one U.N. mission that is challenging the current draft told The Huffington Post.
A handful of Security Council nations, including Russia, India and South Africa, have resisted American-led efforts to issue a stern resolution demanding that Assad step down from power. Those nations, along with Brazil, which was in the Security Council last year, and China are collectively known in the acronym-friendly U.N. as the BRICS nations.
At the heart of the debate, analysts say, is the doctrine of intervention known as "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), which argues that the international community has a duty to intervene to prevent atrocities around the world.
In the run-up to the U.N.-sanctioned mission in Libya, R2P was deployed as a leading justification for taking action. Russia, India and China all abstained -- South Africa voted in its favor -- from the resolution that authorized "all necessary measures" to prevent a mass killing of civilians by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
But shortly after the mission began, BRICS nations began to express discomfort at the extent of the aerial bombardment, and what they suspected was the ultimate objective of regime change.
"From the Russian point of view, the result of Russian support was the no-fly zone was immediately turned by Western counties, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, into a regime change operation," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the Russian policy journal Russia in Global Affairs. "So that's why Russia, in the Syrian case, is even more reluctant to intervene."
There are other reasons why Russia, in particular, might seek to block a strong resolution on Syria, most importantly some $5 billion in existing arms sales between the two nations. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Russia has succeeded in removing a provision from the draft that would ban all arms sales to the Syrian regime. But many analysts watching the Syria debate also see genuine concern from the BRICS nations about the Libya precedent.
"It is a real debate," said Richard Gowan, an international peacekeeping expert at NYU's Center for International Cooperation. "The fact of the matter is the way that NATO extended the air campaign, the way that the goals were moved in Libya, did create some real questions about what R2P can be exploited for."
"It's fully in play," agreed Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch -- which supports further Security Council action in Syria, including targeted sanctions -- of lingering Libya concerns. "I don't think a day goes by without the ambassadors mentioning it."
In Tuesday's open debate on the Syria draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council, the example of Libya cropped up repeatedly. Several ambassadors indicated that while they supported preventing atrocities in principle, they were not comfortable with the U.N. signing off on steps that might eventually lead to more extensive military action.
"We must avoid any action that may run the risk of further polarizing the parties and lead to an escalation of the violence," said South African Ambassador Baso Sangqu. "Military intervention to resolve political conflicts, as we have seen in other parts of the world and recently in the Libyan situation, has unintended consequences not only for the country in question but for the wider region."
"It's about the rule of law and how we apply international principles," an official with a BRICS nation told The Huffington Post Thursday. "And, what's the next step? Assuming there is no compliance with the resolution, should the next step be sanctions? Because if there's no compliance, then the Security Council is in a position where it has to do something or else we lose credibility in the international community."
"The problem with the debate now is if you're not for this, you're against it, meaning you are supporting a brutal dictator," the official continued. "We need to take action to push Syria toward change and end the violence, but we don't see how a resolution like this will end the violence."
The United States and its diplomatic partners in Britain and France have repeatedly insisted that military action is not an option in Syria, and the current draft resolution emphasizes the need to resolve the crisis "without foreign military intervention."
"I don't think anyone can seriously look at the resolution and say that it will be used by NATO to launch attacks tomorrow," Bolopion said. "But they are making the 'slippery slope' argument, saying that it started the same way in Ivory Coast or Libya, and ended in regime change. Of course with these type of arguments, the Security Council would not do anything anymore."
But now even some ardent proponents of R2P say that unless the West reconsiders how R2P was applied in Libya, the debate over future missions like Syria will only face more complications.
In a recent presentation before the Group of Friends of R2P, Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who is one of the progenitors of the R2P concept, argued that the "backlash" against the Libya operation "is serious."
"Unless the issues of concern are addressed, U.N.S.C. agreement to any future coercive military action is going to be impossible," Evans said at the presentation. "Just as bad, this issue has poisoned the atmosphere for lesser coercive measures, as evidenced by the current U.N.S.C. paralysis over Syria."
"The P-3 [America, Britain and France] and other friends of R2P ignore the criticisms of the implementation process at their peril," Evans told HuffPost. "Maybe not all the BRICS -- and especially Russia -- are to be taken at face value when they suggest that the paralysis over Syria is the product of a lack of confidence in the handling of Libya, but the West has made it extremely easy for the other BRICS to go along with the Russians."
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