Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game in Syria

After a week of contentious debates, the United Nations Security Council barely managed to come up with language to renew the mandate of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The resolution that was approved unanimously is a shining example of the negotiations that often produce documents that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Its few brief paragraphs have UNSMIS continuing for a “final” 30 days, with the only chance for further extension coming from a positive report from the Secretary-General that violence has dropped and that the Security Council agrees with that assessment. So did the United Nations’ mission fail in Syria, like in several other ill-fated missions in the 1990s?

According to Herve Lasdous, the Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, over half of the three hundred observers assigned to UNSMIS have returned to their parent countries.  As the new leader of the Mission, Lt. General Babacar Gaye, took the reins from Lt. General Robert Mood of a significantly shrunken contingency, telling the press that he was taking over “in a very difficult situation”:

“During our last trip in Damascus… we witnessed some decrease in the violence, but unfortunately since that we had to suspend our activities,” he said.

“We are back with the hope that reason will prevail, that there will be in this tunnel some light that we can seize and obtain less violence,” he said.

“We have 30 days and around today 27 to go, so every opportunity will be seized to alleviate the suffering of the population. This is our main concern.”

Meanwhile, the violence in Syria continues to escalate; footage of a fixed-wing plane bombing Aleppo surfaced yesterday, a rarely utilized tactic in the regime’s toolbox in suppressing the uprising.

Resolution 2059 also suggested that UNSMIS take into consideration the suggestions put forward in the Secretary-General’s first report on the mission. In that report, the proposal was made to shift the priorities of UNSMIS’ observers from patrolling and attempting to observe a cease-fire that no longer exists to providing the good offices of the United Nations to allow for dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. Such a shift would maximize the efforts of the remaining blue berets in Damascus, while providing a focal point for continuing diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, the mission only has enough time to successfully wind down, rather than being able to affect any further change.

So what to take from the about face in Syria? Many will leap to the conclusion that the United Nations is useless, confirming their previous biases towards the institution. Disagreement came from a surprising avenue, in the form of a post by Richard Grenell, former spokesman for the US Mission to the UN during the presidency of George W. Bush, in The Huffington Post on Friday. In his piece, Grenell lays the blame for the failure in the Council at the feet of Russia, claiming that China was merely following Russia’s lead, not on the body itself which actually had the votes to pass the measure. While I disagree the rest of his analysis, which blames the Obama Administration for a lack of a tough policy towards Russia, Grenell’s point that the failure comes not from the body, but two members, stands.

The fact is that after over a year of diplomatic wrangling, it has become clear that barring a mass defection of leadership from the regime, the only way the needle moves on Syria is through a changing of the rules on the ground. Right now, the rules of the game in Syria are as follows:

    • Armed intervention on either side will significantly shift the balance of power;
    • States are unwilling to directly intervene at this time, but will provide arms and funds to either side;
    • Negotiation is seen as a failure by both sides in Syria until such a time that their respective fighters alter the current dynamic

The insertion of UNSMIS into the ring was never significantly likely to affect these rules, not without cooperation from both sides of the conflict. UNSMIS’ goals, and the Annan Plan that they flowed from, were built on the premise that key players would accede to the necessity of a peaceful solution, a premise that faltered quickly. As it stands, the key players now are those actually doing the fighting and those who are providing the material support for that fighting. UNSMIS only falls into a third category, those facilitating diplomacy, preventing it from having the leverage necessary to affect the first two so long as its mandate is limited to observation and reporting.

In the same vein, the expansion of its mandate to include armed defenders would have more closely mirrored the 1990s, when ill-equipped and under-prepared “peacekeepers” were thrust into the middle of hot wars. Even with a Chapter VII-backed mandate, it is unlikely that UNSMIS would have been able to use enough force to avoid Syrian blockades of areas where massacres may have occurred or operate aircraft freely for travel about the country. Rules of Engagement for an expanded mission would be notoriously hard to draft as well; whether UNSMIS would use armed vehicles to avoid civilian attempts to prevent observation is just one of the questions that would have to be answered.  The decision to pull back from a full-scale civil war is a right one.

Overall, the game has just been fundamentally weighed against the UNSMIS since its inception. Prior to the second resolution vetoed by the Russian Federation and China, there was still a glimmer of a chance that the opposition could be convinced that violence was not the means to the ends they wanted. By the time UNSMIS was approved for deployment in Syria, violence was already at the point that their mandate was virtually impossible to fulfill. Despite the difficulties they faced, the observers of UNSMIS pushed forward for as long as they could before their own lack of defense mechanisms forced them to retreat. An observer force just wasn’t the appropriate tool to be used in Syria. Their withdrawal from Syria marks not a defeat of the mission, but an acquiescence to the realities that the mission faced.

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