The Council Fiddles While Damascus Burns

Is the UN Security Council still relevant if it fails to act on Syria?
By: /
July 21, 2012
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

The showdown I previewed in my last blog resulted in a double veto, by Russia and China, of a U.K.-sponsored resolution (supported by the U.S., France, and Germany, among others) that was intended to increase the pressure on the Assad regime in Syria to engage in a process of peace and demilitarization. The draft resolution, in the words of the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, represented the "last best chance" for the beleaguered UN mission to Syria (UNSMIS) by indicating that there would be "serious consequences" for the Assad government’s non-compliance with Kofi Annan’s peace plan – particularly the stipulation that it withdraw heavy weapons from urban areas.

Those consequences were to be collective sanctions, not military intervention, despite what Rice called the "paranoid" and "disingenuous" claims made by the resolution’s opponents that what the West really wanted was to invade Syria. But even the threat of sanctions – and particularly the invocation of Chapter VII – constituted a step too far for Russia and China.

What we have seen over the past weeks is the revival of the kind of division that existed in the Security Council during the Cold War. The statements of both China and Russia after the vote spoke volumes about the level of mistrust that now exists among the major powers in the Council. The Chinese ambassador to the UN described the western approach to the resolution as "arrogant" and "rigid" in its refusal to consider dropping the reference to Chapter VII. He also suggested that, while certain members of the Council had supported Annan’s plan in public, they had been less committed in private – referring to it as "futile."

For its part, Russia reiterated its claim that the focus of diplomatic efforts should not be on issuing threats, but rather on convening a "national transitional body" in Syria that could provide stability and end the bloodshed. It also voiced support for a technical "roll-over" of UNSMIS (for a shorter period) to complete its most pressing tasks and allow its staff to withdraw in an orderly and safe fashion. On Friday the Council agreed, unanimously, to a 30-day extension of the mission.

But while fiddling in New York continues, the realities on the ground are shifting so rapidly as to make the Council’s role increasingly irrelevant. This is most notable with respect to Russia, which the West had grudgingly come to see as crucial to any diplomatic solution, given its supposed influence with the Assad regime. But as NYU’s Richard Gowan wrote in a recent blog, “Russia can continue to veto Security Council resolutions for as long as it likes, but while it might fight the diplomatic battle in New York to a stalemate, it is losing the real war in Syria.” The efforts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the rebels appear to have succeeded, as they are now proving able to unsettle the very heart of the Assad regime and have taken control of key crossings on the borders with Turkey and Iraq. Russia doesn’t have the capacity to defend Assad against this kind of onslaught; nor does it have a credible diplomatic alternative to the Annan plan.

Western members of the Council were dramatic in their assessment of the vetoes. The UN, said Rice, had "failed utterly" in tackling the most important task it had faced this year. The German ambassador spoke of how the Council had relinquished its "moral responsibility" to the Syrian people. British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement from London after the vetoes, lamenting that Russian and Chinese action meant that the Council "could not perform the function for which it was designed."

We may be entering a phase, not unlike the decades prior to the 1990s, where the Security Council simply cannot bear the weight of the expectations placed upon it. Intractable and deadly conflicts, such as those between India and Pakistan in the 1970s or between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, did not generate collective action on the part of the Council, despite the body’s formal commitment to the maintenance of international peace and security. Then too, diplomats questioned the moral integrity of the UN and lamented the failure of the Council to properly discharge its responsibilities. Indeed, if we take a longer historical view, Council inaction has been a persistent theme. And during those periods, states have used other means and engaged with other players in addressing threats to the peace. Ambassador Rice indicated yesterday that this is exactly the strategy the U.S. will now pursue with respect to the Syrian crisis.

Throughout the ups and downs of the Council’s life has been the claim that – at the very least – its existence helps to prevent conflict among the major powers (not an unimportant task, given international history prior to 1945). At its best, it has been able to moderate great power competition (if not eliminate it) and promote cooperation on issues that threaten international security. And even when it cannot agree on collective action, it is a forum in which powerful states can signal their intentions, and indicate certain red lines beyond which they don’t want to be pushed.

So what does the Syrian episode tell us about perceived intentions and red lines? The comments of Vitaly Churkin (the Russian permanent representative to the UN) at a press conference yesterday were telling. Referencing once more the West’s hidden "geopolitical designs," he claimed that American, British, and French diplomacy was not really centered on helping the Syrian people, but rather on winning a larger game, which involves the containment of Iran and control of the Middle East. Perhaps that is why, Churkin suggested, these states (especially the U.S.) became so squeamish when Annan, in his role as mediator, made overtures to the Iranians.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. But this past week also shows how difficult it is to exercise collective responsibility. Soon, however, the imperative to do so may get even stronger. As a western government official noted in the Financial Times yesterday, if Assad’s counter-offensive fails and a sectarian conflict ensues, we may – for the first time – witness the collapse of a regime with significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Can the West, Russia, and China put differences aside to ensure those stockpiles remain secure?

Photo courtesy of Reuters