When Kevin Rudd started his run in foreign affairs, while Labor was still in opposition and Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman was Laurie Brereton, he did so by being a backbencher all over the media on international issues. Rudd’s new statement on Syria, war crimes and support of the anti-Assad forces recalls his pre-power prognostications, as well as raising a big question about how the international community should engage on Syria.

Rudd’s plan is to support Syria’s rebels to speed up the overthrow of the Assad regime. His grounds for wanting to do so are that the Assad regime has been committing crimes against humanity. This, Rudd says, invokes the morally imperative doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).

Foreign Minister Bob Carr agrees with Rudd’s view that the Assad regime is committing crimes against humanity and has welcomed his contribution to public discussion on the subject. Carr was both generous and diplomatic in diffusing what could have potentially been for Rudd a popular platform perched on the moral high ground.

Carr has, however, pointed out the West — Australia’s allies — have “no appetite” for direct intervention in Syria and has serious reservations about the arming of unspecified groups in Syria. In this, Carr — and others — have recognised the anti-Assad forces are divided between both secular and Islamist organisations.

On this, Rudd has failed to specify who international support should be for, on ABC News 24 even getting wrong the names of the anti-Assad political and military forces.

In particular, key anti-Assad Islamist organisations, including those linked with al-Qaeda, are now classified as terrorist organisations and have a very different agenda from the rest of the Free Syrian Army for the future of the country. In short, when Assad eventually goes, as it seems he will if after considerably more bloodshed, there will almost certainly be some form of further civil conflict between anti-Assad factions.

No one, apart from Iran and Saudi Arabia/Qatar, wants to see Syria become an Islamist state. So, there are real reservations about arming groups that might well turn those weapons against more moderate groups within a post-Assad Syria as well as, potentially, the West.

What Rudd has failed to consider, and which Carr has noted, is that the provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces could well make the situation in Syria worse rather than better. Support for anti-Assad forces may well hasten the demise of the regime, but it may also increase the extent of killing, either in bringing to an end the Assad regime or, more particularly, after it.

This then goes to the heart of the Responsibility to Protect paradigm that Rudd has invoked. The moral argument for R2P is clear enough: the world has a responsibility to stop crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. There is international agreement on this, even if there is profound disagreement about when and how to apply R2P.

R2P has some clear principles, one of which is that it must be reasonably assured of making a bad situation better rather than worse. This is not the case in Syria, especially in the longer term.

A further critical criterion for applying R2P is that it must have a strong prospect of success, of halting the carnage that attracted it in the first place. Again, this is far from guaranteed in Syria.

And then there is the real politik that has stymied so many other R2P applications. To be internationally legal, R2P must be endorsed by the UN Security Council or a similar body. This is not going to happen, with deep opposition from both Russia and China to the use of R2P in the case of Syria. That the US and the UK also have serious reservations about intervention means an R2P proposal is a noble idea with very little prospect of implementation.

So why is Rudd pushing a policy he well knows won’t get up? Like almost everyone else concerned over events in Syria, he is appalled by the deaths of over 60,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians, and a government that is attacking its own people.

But 2013 is also an election year and Rudd has one eye firmly on returning to Labor’s leadership. The plan is for Rudd, the moral populist, to assume leadership and then either save Labor in the face of a strong Coalition opposition but an unpopular leader in Tony Abbott, or letting Julia Gillard lead Labor into defeat, take the leadership back and then, in the face of an unpopular Abbott-led government, return to government after one term in opposition.

Taking the high moral ground on an issue he knows the government won’t be able to rise to is an easy path to populism, without the need to carry through on any promise should his plans prevail.

Given his disfavour within Labor caucus ranks, there’s little chance Rudd will return to Labor’s leadership before the election and not much more that he will get there after the next election. But, as this morally persuasive but implausible appeal to the moral high ground shows, that won’t stop him from trying.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He is author of Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: Politics, Ethnicity and Genocide, Routledge, 2011.

Peter Fray

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