Solving Syria

Solving Syria: Welsh examines the tensions between regional and international organizations.
By: /
January 4, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

The Arab League’s monitoring mission to Syria is facing a legitimacy crisis. While the secretary general of the League, Nabil Elaraby, claims the mission has helped persuade the embattled Syrian regime to release political prisoners and pull tanks back from city centres, critics contend that the monitors are colluding with the government to cover up the killing of protesters. Some organizations, such as Amnesty International, have gone even further, arguing that the mission chief – senior Sudanese military officer Mustafa al-Dabi – cannot credibly engage in an investigation of atrocities in Syria given his alleged connection to human-rights abuses in his own country.

Al-Dabi reported this past week that he had seen “nothing frightening” in the embattled Syrian city of Homs. Yet, if the reports can be taken as accurate, 150 more protesters have been killed on Syria’s streets since the observers arrived. Even the advisory committee to the Arab League has opined that the monitors come home.

So how are we to judge the effectiveness of this effort to change the behaviour of the Syrian government? If we use short-term measures, we might conclude that the observers’ success in facilitating the delivery of food supplies and the removal of dead protesters has had some concrete, positive effect. It’s also likely that the presence of a mission from the outside world has emboldened the protest movement, and given it hope.

But in the longer term, as the International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling recently argued on BBC Radio 4, we are witnessing a tug-of-war in Syria that has an uncertain end. The same observers who verify protesters’ assertions that they are being massacred also bear witness to what the regime wants them to see: an armed struggle, in which Syrian security forces are also being killed. The Assad government’s narrative – that it is facing a well-organized and externally resourced insurgency – may also be bolstered by the mission’s reports.

More broadly, the monitoring mission calls into question the relationship between regional and global organizations. Throughout the Syrian crisis, there have been calls for the UN Security Council to authorize coercive measures to prevent further atrocities. There are a variety of reasons this global body has not done so, including the likelihood of a veto from one of its permanent members. But it has also been argued that regional organizations, closer to the events on the ground, should take the first steps. And we are reminded that without an explicit request from the Arab League, the council would never have authorized NATO to use “all necessary measures” to prevent the slaughter of civilians in Libya (partly out of fear of being associated with a neo-colonial intervention). The consent of regional organizations, it seems, has become a necessary precondition for global action. 

The original United Nations Charter, in Chapter VIII, envisaged a collective security architecture in which regional organizations would take the lead. Indeed, some scholars have long argued that collective security can only be regional, since it is simply not credible to ask countries from across the world to bring their military forces to bear on a security threat that does not directly affect them. Far better that those who are closer – with special historical ties, the capacity to act quickly, and intimate knowledge of the neighbouring country’s political dynamics – take on the responsibility of addressing instability in their neighbourhood.

While these arguments about a link between vicinity and responsibility make some sense, there are also important drawbacks to relying on regional partners as first movers. Although they undoubtedly have more at stake, they may also have an interest in a particular outcome – one that advantages them. There is also the possibility that “historical ties” have not always been amicable. In some regions, there are particular hegemons – South Africa or Nigeria in Africa, for example, or the United States in the western hemisphere – that are viewed with suspicion. Using this logic, a global organization, without a particular axe to grind, would be viewed as more impartial and therefore more legitimate.

More recently, an additional issue has arisen with respect to regional organizations. Let’s call it the “capacity problem.” It may be fine for the UN Security Council to call upon players in the region to act first, as it did when it asked the African Union to take the lead in the crisis in Darfur in 2004-5. But what happens when such organizations do not have the resources (financial or human) to do so? In this instance, deferring to regional organizations risks looking like avoiding responsibility rather than delegating it. Yes, the United Nations eventually joined forces with the African Union in Darfur – to create a hybrid mission – but this was only after two years of further struggle and countless more civilian deaths.

In Syria, there are too few Arab League monitors in too few places. Even if more are dispatched, it is worth asking whether this regional organization, on its own, has the capacity and authority to facilitate a solution to this intractable struggle. The UN – with all the baggage it carries and all the suspicion it engenders – may still prove itself indispensable.

Photo Courtesy Reuters.