Tim Dunne is Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a leading international relations academic from Princeton, recently made an important intervention on the Syria question. Slaughter served as Director of State Department Policy Planning and is influential among the foreign policy leadership in the Obama Administration.

By characterising the situation as a 'stalemate' after 14 months of fighting and up to 9000 deaths, her intervention echoes recent statements by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the effect that the fighting should be characterised as an 'armed conflict'. The significance of declaring parts of Syria to be in a state of organised conflict is that it requires the application of international humanitarian law (IHL); breaches of IHL are classified as war crimes.

This view of Syria as a civil war may well be shaping Slaughter's recommendation for a shift in UN policy. We should not now, she argues, frame the war of being one between a brutal government and a peaceful opposition; rather, we should see it as being a contest between violence and non-violence.

Slaughter then recommends three key strategies for delegitimising the use of force in Syria, each worthy of consideration but not without problems.

First, by condemning violence itself rather than pursuing the Government as its source, what is being suggested is a return to the value of impartiality that underpinned many failed peacekeeping missions in the 1990s.

Second, Slaughter wants to widen the circle for civilian activists. Instead of the Kofi Annan plan of inserting 300 monitors, Slaughter says all non-violent citizens should become monitors, using social media sites to bear witness to brutality. This poses an obvious risk for individuals who find themselves in extreme danger by taking on this monitoring role.

Third, Slaughter advocates a novel R2P strategy. Members of the UN ought to de-recognise Syria and recognise, instead, those municipalities committed to non-violence. While she is correct that a government committing atrocities loses its legitimacy, there are currently no provisions to recognise alternative sub-state public authorities as being the rightful heirs to a failing state.

It is highly unlikely such an argument will find traction in the UN General Assembly; that said, all three strategies are welcome contributions to deliberations about 'what next' for Syria.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse2.