The majority of the coverage following Russia and China’s twin veto of the UN Security Council’s resolution on Syria has been devoted to parsing the motives of the two in casting down the draft. I disagree with those who say that a veto was inevitable following the outcome of resolution 1973 on Libya. I most certainly agree that NATO overstepped its bounds in its air-campaign, doubly so when it comes to the arming of the Libyan rebels. However, Russia and China knew what they were getting into when they abstained on what was, as Joshua Foust pointed out in April, “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Gadhafi”.
In any case, the reasons for the veto matter less than determining what to do next for this scenario. And for UN observers such as myself, that includes making a determination on whether there’s a role for the United Nations moving forward with this crisis. Despite the frozen nature of the Security Council at this junction, there are a few options on the table for the UN, some less likely than others to succeed. So what can the UN do? I have listed out below a few policy options for the US to consider and/or pursue at the United Nations moving forward.
Removal of Syria from UN bodies:
The United Nations is already working on this, as is evidenced in UNESCO. Syria was quietly nominated to and accepted by acclimation as one of two Arab representatives seated on UNESCO’s Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to its work. The members of the Executive Board, including Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, the US, United Kingdom, and France, are pushing to have Syria removed from the seat. The Executive Board next meets on March 10th, and are expected to take action then. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Syria lacks the weight it has in the past at the United Nations, leaving it with few seats to be removed from. The Syrian Arab Republic is currently serving no terms on the ECOSOC, Human Rights Council, or UN Development Programme or UNICEF’s Executive Boards. The only other major human rights body of the United Nations, the Third Committee of the General Assembly, can’t suspend Syria without the GA suspending its full membership. And considering states like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea manage to stay within the UN’s good graces, it’s doubtful that Syria will be suspended anytime soon.
Prognosis: The UNESCO push is likely to succeed, further isolating Damascus, but a lack of other Syrian memberships limits further options.
Uniting for Peace?
After the veto last week, the buzz started up once again that in looking for a ‘Plan B’ on Syria, Uniting for Peace was back on the table. When asked about this option during a press conference yesterday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated that he hadn’t heard about such action being considered, and that if it were it would be “complicated”. He’s right on this one. The problems that I had with the idea last month still are very much the case, particularly in regards to legality. At best, a new General Assembly resolution will be able to encourage states to pass new sanctions against Syria, but these sanctions would be unenforceable in open waters. I’ve also heard discussion about using a resolution to call for an informal arms embargo as provided in the earliest version of the Morocco draft. The problem remains there that while the states who don’t like Syria will happily block arms sales, the main arms suppliers to Assad are Russia, who won’t allow its vessels to be boarded, and Iran, who would find new and exciting ways to ship arms to Syria. Any sort of blockade that comes without UN Security Council approval will be, and should be, seen as an Act of War. That said, using the General Assembly to endorse the Arab League’s plan, rather than calling for further measures of its own, has a slightly better chance of succeeding. Again, without enforcement measures, though, it’s hard to see the international community’s opinion weighing heavily on the heart of Assad.
Prognosis: Slightly better odds than I originally predicted, provided the UNGA limits itself to endorsement of the League of Arab States’ plan.
United Nations Fact-Finding/Mediation Mission:
Rather than waiting to see if the League of Arab States’ mission resumes, the United Nations could seek to launch a fact-finding mission of its own as to the levels of violence within Syria. Such a provision could be included as part of a General Assembly resolution, however, we again run into enforcement issues. In its resolution last year to launch an investigation into Syria, the Human Rights Council demanded that Damascus cooperate in full with its commission of investigators. It most certainly did not, leading the commissioners to rely on the testimony of defectors and others outside of Syria to gather evidence for their final report. There is no reason to believe that Assad’s government would welcome a new mission into its borders readily, or grant more access to UN observers than they did the Arab League’s team.
Such a proposal would, therefore, require support from the Security Council. In the earliest days of the Security Council, rather than tasking the Secretary-General to undertake peace missions, the Council itself dove right in, utilizing member-states rather than UN diplomats. For example, in the first India-Pakistan conflict in 1948, rather than task the Secretariat to launch an investigation, the UNSC passed Resolution 39. The Resolution set up a commission composed of three member-states, soon upped to five in Resolution 47, to travel to Kashmir and report to the Council on the conditions on the ground before launching mediations. Unfortunately, the military situation in Kashmir prevented the commission from completing its mission, but a similar move could be made with regards to Syria. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether such a move would work, for several reasons.
First, the opposition has made clear its distrust of the Assad government, and continues to make the President’s resignation a precondition for any negotiations with the government. The Assad regime, and Russia to a lesser extent, finds this unpalatable. Further, it’s unlikely that Russia would support a diplomatic initiative directly undertaken by the Security Council for several reasons. The insertion of a UN team into Syria amid rising violence risks the injury of death of one of the observers, a tragedy in itself, but could lead for a push to provide protection for these observers. The slippery-slope on this would be clear for Moscow. Further, Russia is enjoying its sole leverage over Syria, as evidenced in Foreign Minister Lavrov’s trip to Damascus yesterday to present a plan so secret that no details could be revealed.
Prognosis: The General Assembly may choose to send a team, but lacking authority, the UNSC would be forced to take up, and fail, the issue.
Secretary-General Envoy for Syria:
Rather than pushing for an observation mission, the Secretariat could unilaterally insert itself into the Syrian crisis. The Secretary-General under the Charter has rather wide leeway when it comes to diplomatic initiatives, as greats such as Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan have realized. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could himself launch the sort of shuttle diplomacy that might produce an end to the Syrian crisis. In utilizing the Good Offices of the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban could choose to appoint and send an Envoy for Syria to Damascus, or could undertake the initial trip himself. The idea, while not a guarantee to succeed, has some potential. The United Nations as a body, opposed to a collection of Western plotters, might command Assad’s respect at least slightly more, insofar as accepting an envoy for discussions. Further, the opposition knows quite clearly where the Sec-Gen stands on violence in Syria in light of his condemnation of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Further, as a second-termer, Mr. Ban has less to fear from the Permanent Five than he did in his first; there’s no reelection to win.
Prognosis: While not guaranteed to end the violence, has potential to help facilitate a political end to the crisis.
Humanitarian Resolution in the UN Security Council:
In light of the ongoing humanitarian disaster that is Syria, one of the most pressing calls has been to set up “safe zones” and “humanitarian corridors” in Syria. While these are non-starters with Russia and China, there is always the option of passing through a resolution that, rather than focusing on the political aspects of the crisis, focuses in on the need to protect refugees and provide aid to those in Syria who need it. Or at least that’s what it would any logical person would assume was a possibility. In actuality, it would be extremely difficult to pass, and then enforce, such a resolution, as we can see from the Somalia situation. In that instance, we saw what began as a mission solely to deliver aid to those suffering famine in the form of Operation: Restore Hope, and endorsed by the UN in Resolution 794. The endeavor quickly experienced mission creep, leading the Council to pass more and more resolutions on the issue before the whole effort ultimately collapsed. Any attempt to only handle one aspect of Syria will be done at risk of inflaming the ignored portions of the crisis.
Prognosis: Unlikely; there is no such thing as an apolitical resolution.
The least appealing of options is to simply wait. The situation as it currently stands is sure to escalate, whether the international community intervenes or not. The Syrian government isn’t likely to have a sudden change of heart on the killing of its civilians, nor is the opposition like to turn the other cheek for much longer. The Free Syrian Army’s recruitment efforts have surely raised following the failure of the Morocco draft in the Security Council, and many are clamoring that now is the time for states who support democracy or the protestors or both to send arms to support the FSA. I’m rather sure that Turkey’s implicit hosting of the FSA won’t be tolerated for much longer by Assad, nor will the FSA wait for the Syrian National Council to get its act together before escalating attacks. An increase in arms, lacking accountability measures, will further wreak havoc on the region, particularly should the FSA be unable to control copycat organizations.
At present, the refugee situation, while certainly bad, is not a tidal wave; there are currently over 6,000 refugees registered in Lebanon and 7,500 in Turkey. An increase in attacks and the onset of civil war will certainly change that. As we saw in the midst of the Kosovo situation in the late 1990s, neighboring states’ destabilization from refugee inflow and harboring of resistance fighters, in that case Albania and Croatia, in this Turkey and Lebanon, will prove the impetus for more concerted action on Syria. This matter won’t be fully disappearing from the agenda of the UN Security Council anytime soon.
Prognosis: The most likely of options. We’ll be hearing about Syria in the UNSC more in coming months.
In summation, at least some options exist for next steps for the United Nations on Syria’s crisis. Many of them have components that are necessary to their success that I don’t believe exist at present. But the options still exist, and I wouldn’t fault Member States or the Secretariat for pushing forward with any of these. It’s easy to stand back, as I do, and critique; much harder to actually press for a deal. I still believe that no matter the course of action that is taken, the last of the options is what will wind up coming to fruition. Turkish and American calls for a Coalition of states, including non-permanent Security Council members, the Arab League’s members, and others, to deal with Syria outside the auspices of the United Nations are gaining traction. In the event the crisis worsens, however, the UN should be ready to step back in.