As the Syrian crisis continues to play out according to the brackets of a chemical weapons agreement, one thing is certain. Politicians inside the beltway persist in contributing to the discussion. From the Left, the situation in Syria is a tragedy but falls short of a warrant for American intervention. From the Right, the crisis has cried out for U.S. action since protests began two years ago. Amidst this political back-and-forth, however, one salient group remains in the background, if not ignored altogether. This group is defined by academics who have actually studied the matter at hand.

Whereas politicians used to be consulted through the mainstream media in order to gain valuable information, they have now become ends in themselves. A congressman or congresswoman who appears on any news program is now merely offering his or her opinion regarding Syria. Should the United States intervene in Syria? Politicians spent a great deal of time appearing in several venues to offer their perspective on this question.

Yet, as this spectacle played out over the past few months, few people realized that a particular doctrine was already in place to look at situations such as Syria. Further, this doctrine has little to do with the aesthetically attractive question, ‘should the United States intervene in Syria?’

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted at the United Nations World Summit in 2005, is an international commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The doctrine stands atop three fundamental ‘pillars,’ each contributing to its formation.

First, a state has a responsibility to protect its population from the above-listed crimes. Second, the international community has a responsibility to assist the state in fulfilling that responsibility. Third, if a state fails to protect its population and the international community exhausts peaceful options, then the international community must be ready to use coercive, forceful means to protect the population.

It is unsurprising that politicians did not address this doctrine in making their respective cases for intervention or nonintervention to the American public. Nevertheless, the Responsibility to Protect is an important doctrine to understand because it is often used to justify external, humanitarian interventions.

With that in mind, the academic community has had much to say on the matter. Before the Responsibility to Protect doctrine can be applied to the Syrian situation, or perhaps excluded from Syria, the scene must be set. Dr. Jeffrey Bachman, American University Professorial lecturer in human rights and Director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs Program added his insight to the Syrian situation in an interview. Although it may be appealing at first glance to group the crisis into a ‘rebellion’ or a ‘civil war,’ Professor Bachman stresses the fluidity of Syria’s development.

While it started out as an uprising in the form of protests against the Assad government, the reality is that we are now dealing with a civil war and proxy war, according to Bachman. He also underlined, however, the need to spread blame in Syria. Although the Assad regime is most responsible for the current struggle, “components of the Syrian opposition have also committed war crimes…there must be accountability on all sides.”

Needless to say, this is a very complex scenario in which the Responsibility to Protect might take shape. While Professor Bachman maintains “it is clear R2P [Responsibility to Protect] is more applicable to Syria than it was Libya,” he also emphasizes the need to address crucial questions in light of Syria’s convoluted situation. For example, “who would be protected? Would Assad supporters not engaged in the conflict be protected?” These are questions that must be answered before the Responsibility to Protect doctrine can see enforcement in Syria.

With the Syrian situation better depicted and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine outlined, one vital question cannot go unasked, ‘does the doctrine apply to Syria?’ To help answer this question Evan Cinq-Mars contributed his expertise on the doctrine. Mr. Cinq-Mars is a research analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, an organization dedicated to promoting the implementation and understanding of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

In response to the above-stated question, Mr. Cinq-Mars believes the doctrine does in fact apply to Syria. But, as with any international crisis, the story is not always so simple. Like Professor Bachman, Mr. Cinq-Mars underlines the fact that both sides of the Syrian conflict are guilty of the very crimes for which the doctrine at hand was created to prosecute. Furthermore, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine may not necessarily require a military resolution. These are important points because Mr. Cinq-Mars notes that the doctrine was not designed to implement a military solution for every problem.

Mr. Cinq-Mars also remarks that a part of the doctrine’s procedure includes its passage through the United Nations. While a seemingly mundane observation, this is of the utmost significance because when judging the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Syria, since it has not been applied and enforced, it speaks more to a failure of the Security Council, according to Mr. Cinq-Mars. So that a military intervention did not occur in Syria does not mean the outright failure of the doctrine itself.

Dr. Thomas Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, added his years of research and prowess to the discussion about the Responsibility to Protect and Syria in an interview as well. When asked if Syria is a sign of a positive or negative future for the doctrine, Professor Weiss emphasized the reality of the doctrine’s enforcement mechanism. Namely, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has to rely on the Security Council for its implementation, and as such Syria should be viewed as a failure of the Security Council, not the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, according to Professor Weiss. This is an important statement, of course, because the Security Council’s politics may render it ineffectual for quite some time.

Dr. Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at The George Washington University, as well as a sitting member of the Global Responsibility To Protect journal’s editorial board, weighed in on Syria during an interview about the Responsibility to Protect. While maintaining the Responsibility to Protect doctrine does apply to Syria, Professor Barnett also believes this might not mean a military intervention. Claiming that a “military intervention would only make things worse [in Syria],” Professor Barnett adds an important difference between Syria and Libya (where the doctrine was implemented.) In Syria, the goals are “not achievable.” Here, with these remarks, we begin to see a trend throughout scholarly opinion concerning the Responsibility to Protect. Whereas many might envision military interventions when the doctrine comes to mind, these scholars time and again point out that such thoughts may simply be a widespread myth concerning the Responsibility to Protect.

In bringing this discussion regarding the Responsibility to Protect and how it relates to Syria to a close, Dr. Bassam Haddad is a valuable source. George Mason University Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs and Director of the Middle East Studies Program, Professor Haddad stresses that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine applies to Syria, but only insofar as it addresses the humanitarian needs on the ground. Pointing out the external factors which have complicated these humanitarian issues, such as the Saudi and Qatar interventions, Professor Haddad further adds that “military [intervention] will compound the problem.” Regardless of how one may view the doctrine, using a military force in Syria would be problematic, according to Professor Haddad.

But, taking a step back from the narrow scope of Syria, Professor Haddad suggests a contextual approach to implementing and understanding the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. For now, “it is a very ahistorical [doctrine,”] according to Professor Haddad. Instead of examining each crisis from a proper understanding of the actors involved and their motivations, applying RtoP tends to be selective, instantaneous and unhelpful. Professor Haddad states that RtoP often reflects the political interests of the powerful players calling for intervention more than the interests of the people it is supposed to protect. He advocates a historical conception of accountability in the Middle East as crucial for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

With the viewpoints of academic scholars who have studied the Responsibility to Protect in conjunction with the Syrian crisis in mind, it is much easier to grasp the developing situation. External intervention for humanitarian purposes is not a matter to be taken lightly, and politicians will never shy from reducing complex material to mere talking points. In the world of academia it is much more difficult to escape such charges. Despite the rigor and research that exists in that world, however, few perspectives from scholars on Syria concerning the ever-important Responsibility to Protect doctrine have been relayed to the public. Whether a result of disinterest or a lack of awareness from the journalistic community, we can only hope that narrative begins to change.