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From Illiberal to Incorrigible: A New Strategy for Humanitarian Enforcement Action in Syria

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The Syrian civil war has caused heartbreaking human suffering. Proponents of decisive action to end this suffering have tended to frame their case in terms of liberal values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In framing the humanitarian issue in this way, advocates of UN Security Council involvement have emphasized the illiberality of the ‘Assad regime’ in order to promote the acceptability of coercive enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. I argue that this rationale is counterproductive as it guarantees that the Russian Federation will veto any proposal for Chapter VII measures. Russia favours an inclusive Syrian-led political solution to the Syrian civil war and fears that any invocation of Chapter VII will provide Western powers with carte blanche for regime change, effectively repeating – in Russia’s eyes – NATO’s action in Libya in 2011. This article offers an alternative way of framing arguments for humanitarian enforcement action that is intended to side-step Russia’s objections. This strategic re-framing replaces the logic of illiberality with the logic of incorrigibility. This strategy takes its inspiration from Michel Foucault’s work on disciplinary power, making an admittedly unorthodox use of Foucauldian analytics to do so. The incorrigibility strategy seeks to bypass Russian fears about regime change by adopting a threshold for Chapter VII action based on a measured phenomenon – the repeated failure by the parties to correct their behaviour in line with UNSC prescriptions. Apart from providing a threshold for enforcement action, the logic of incorrigibility also shapes the eventual Chapter VII measures taken because it focuses on correcting the parties’ behaviour and because it yields highly specified and relatively controllable mandates for coercive action which limit states’ interpretation of what is required of them to carry out the UNSC’s decisions.

Affiliations: 1: Queen Mary University of London


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