Credit where due for Anne-Marie Slaughter. Unlike most advocates of intervening in Syria, the former State Department director of policy planning actually sketched out what a foreign intervention would actually look like.

Unfortunately for the Syrian opposition, her case makes no sense, for two reasons. The first is specific to Syria. The second is a general problem for the Responsibility to Protect.

First things first, Slaughter argues that “simply arming the Syrian opposition” would “bring about exactly the scenario the world should fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines.” Yet two paragraphs later, Slaughter wants “special forces” from Qatar, Turkey and maybe Britain and France, to “arm the opposition soldiers with anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons.” Um.

Slaughter might rejoinder that what she wouldn’t simply arm the rebels, she’d have foreign ground troops help the Free Syrian Army create “no-kill zones” and “safe humanitarian corridors” near Syria’s borders with nations that aren’t Iraq. Why that would not lead to the violent spillover she fears would result from flooding the unprofessional Syrian opposition with small arms, she doesn’t say. But any plan that has a foreseeable risk of igniting or rekindling a wider sectarian/proxy war that relies on lots of things going right to prevent that from happening is not worth pursuing.

Then there’s a more general problem with the Responsibility to Protect, as instantiated in Syria. The endgame of Slaughter’s proposal is a “regional, and ultimately national, truce.” Then what? Do the international forces go home? Do they still patrol the “no-kill zones”? Why, on the day after the truce, with Assad still in power, do both sides — and particularly Assad — bide time until a renewed attack looks advantageous? Do foreign forces stop arming the rebels after the truce?

Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.

This is a military illogic that is all over the R2P. Advocates don’t want to concede that they’re actually calling for regime change — often, they don’t want to call for regime change — so they stop short of that, and call for separating combatants in the hope that a deus ex machina materializes. But the further they stop short, the more problems they hand off to the military commanders who must implement the R2P. This is why Libya looked like a stalemate, right up until the point where the deus ex machina — the fall of Tripoli; the killing of Gadhafi — materialized. You’re not designing a military campaign that leads to a desired result, you’re launching discrete tactical maneuvers and hoping shit works out. And the further short you stop of calling for regime change, the more problems you foist onto your commanders’ shoulders. H.R. McMaster wrote a very good book about similar problems that I’m belatedly reading.

I am conflicted about the Responsibility to Protect. The comfort that some of its advocates have with remaining cheerfully ignorant about the military consequences of the interventions they advocate keeps me at arms distance, even if I could resolve what seem to be inherent theoretical military problems with it. It ain’t where I’m comfortable being; I’d rather believe that human rights trumps everything else. But it’s very hard to unlearn the bitter truths of what a decade of nonstop war shows about the limits of military power — especially when military campaigns proceed from flawed premises.

Update: Smart, fair point from my friend Mark Leon Goldberg, who follows these issues intimately: “I’d substitute ‘protection of civilians’ for R2P in your post. R2P is a legal theory, not something you implement on tactical terms.”

Photo: Flickr/Syriana2011, under CC