Peacekeepers in Syria, or “What the hell, Arab League”

Well, that was a short-lived break from talking about the United Nations and Syria. But seriously, this deserves comment, because no really, Arab League, what the hell? That seems to have been the resounding opinion following today’s meeting in Cairo of the Arab League to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. The declaration that came out of the meeting manages to somehow both be both horrible as a matter of policy and politically.

The resolution, which I’ve yet to see in English in full, or a vote count for, has several clauses that make sense given the continuing stalemate between the Assad government and the international community. The League calls upon its members to increase the economic sanctions they’ve placed on Damascus and end diplomatic cooperation with the Syrian state. Not the worst things I’ve heard, and are sure to increase pressure on Assad.

What’s more, though, the resolution calls for “opening communication channels with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and material support to it.” I can’t be sure what they were thinking in passing this provision, but in reading this I most certainly have to say that “all forms of material support” includes arms. It really can’t not mean the transfer of weapons to the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army. So that’s sure to help solve the crisis.

Surprisingly, there has been no mention of the Saudi draft resolution that’s been passed around in the General Assembly, and which is likely to be voted on  later this month. But the United Nations wasn’t left out, oh no. The resolution called upon the Security Council to launch a joint United Nations-League of Arab States peacekeeping mission in Syria, based off of the hybrid UN-African Union force operating in Darfur. The reaction among every single observer of the situation has been akin to “…lolwut”.

When I first heard about it, I was hopeful that a wire translator had someone swapped “observer” for “peacekeeping”, as a revitalized UN-LAS observer mission was discussed the other day. Alas, peacekeeping was accurate. So, let’s deal with the political problems inherent in this first. Pushing for a peacekeeping force goes far, far beyond what’s called for in Saudi Arabia’s draft resolution, which in and of itself isn’t bad. But it also manages to go beyond what was vetoed not just in the resolution in October, but the one vetoed just over a week ago. Call me crazy, but why on Earth would you push a stronger proposal when there’s no real sign that either Assad nor the opposition are serious about the negotiation that would be necessary to facilitate this process?

Which brings us to the politics of the actual Security Council. Word is, according to the Arab League’s Secretary-General, the Russians are on board with the idea:

Elaraby told the Cairo meeting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote him a letter Saturday that conveyed what he called a partial change in Moscow’s stand on the Syrian crisis. He quoted Lavrov as saying Russia would agree to a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force.

To be blunt, after the last resolution’s up and down chances of passing, I’ll believe that Russia is in support when I see Churkin’s hand raise in favor. I understand that Lavrov’s mission to Damascus last Tuesday did not have the intended effect. But have the upswing in killings caused a change of heart in Moscow to the extent that they’ll allow a resolution that goes beyond the provisions of the Morocco draft before dilution to meet Russian demands? I’m highly skeptical.

All of which goes without mentioning the fact that Beijing also vetoed the Moroccan draft, rather than abstaining. There’s no real reason to assume that China will sit back on this one and let Russia take the lead, especially considering its earlier veto was ideological opposed to relating to ties to Syria. And we’ve heard no such word from China that they’re also backing the Arab League’s new initiative.

Which brings us to why the Arab League requesting a peacekeeping force is poor policy. Fun fact: when launching peacekeeping missions, it helps when there’s a peace to keep. There clearly is not such a peace currently, not with anti-aircraft weapons being fired into random houses in Homs. And there will be even less of one once the “material support” to the FSA comes through. Who honestly believes that sending lightly armed forces into an increasing civil war situation is a good idea?

Further, traditional peacekeeping operations have had the mandate of keeping two warring sides apart once a peace agreement or ceasefire has been agreed to. This takes place under the auspices of Chapter “VI and a Half” of the UN Charter, as it falls somewhere between the Chapter VI provisions for peaceful solutions to conflicts and Chapter VII enforcement mechanisms. As such, one of the important provisos in these missions is that the host country either invites the United Nations within its borders, or acquiesces as part of a ceasefire deal. There is little chance of that occurring in Syria, which has already rejected the entire notion of such a mission.

Which means that in order to get past Syrian sovereignty on the matter, a resolution will have to be passed under Chapter VII. And with the lack of a ceasefire, the mandate for any blue helmets that manage to get deployed will have to be particularly robust if its to have any hope of protecting civilians, which would entail firing on both the FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces. This all makes me wonder just what it was that Russia has agreed to.

What’s more, as Vanessa Parra asked earlier, which states would contribute forces to such a “peacekeeping” operation? Troop contributing countries (TCC) are already stretched thin, when you consider that not a single peacekeeping operation is fully staffed up to the maximum afforded under its mandate. And the majority of those missions are actual peacekeeping missions, rather than peace-enforcing. The only country I’ve seen so far that has been interested in intervention in Syria has been Qatar; even Turkey is hedging its bets, making it unclear whether they would donate ground forces to such a mission.

I get that the Arab League is attempting to rehabilitate its reputation from being a club for kings and dictators, into a force for good. More cynically, they’re trying to deprive Iran of one of its few remaining allies in the region. That’s fine; never let it be said that doing the right thing and doing something in your own interest are mutually exclusive. But I can’t get behind their push for a peacekeeping force.

A UN-LAS peacekeeping force manages to both be a poor idea in terms of actually being able to be implemented, as well as politically. When Russia or China force a weakening of the resolution or a veto, or Council members balk at the idea of sending forces into active combat, or any of the many other problems with this proposal, the Arab League’s credibility will suffer. The correct order of operations here: pass the draft resolution supporting the political transition in the General Assembly; get a political deal, somehow;  then start talking about peacekeeping. To do otherwise is a mistake that the people of Syria can ill afford.

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