Archive for ‘MENA’

August 28, 2013

No, “The UN” Didn’t Blame Chemical Attacks On Syria’s Rebels

So for the past couple of days, there’s been a bit of a hullaballoo over just what on earth the United States is finally going to do in Syria. All signs — despite Obama insisting that he hasn’t made a decision yet — point towards a set of missile strike against what I can only assume is the Pentagon’s idea of Syria’s soft underbelly with no real follow through.

At what is in my opinion to tangential a point in this discussion is the role that the United Nations is playing in the matter, given its position as arbiter of international peace and security. At least, that it’s role under international law, a fact that the U.S. is not too pleased with given Russia’s continuing efforts to stymy any Security Council-blessed use of force in Syria.

There’s also the matter of the team of U.N. weapons inspectors currently on the ground. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that it will take another four days for them to finish their work, with the British now urging the U.S. to not take action until their findings are presented. Syria appears to have had a change of heart now as wants them to stay for a longer period, with U.N. Ambassador Ja’afari claiming that they have handed over evidence that the rebels are at fault for a series of chemical attacks. Ja’afari’s pleas aren’t entirely convincing, though, given the months of negotiations over access Damascus strung out with Turtle Bay, and the extremely limited scope that resulted, but I digress.

In the midst of all of this, there’s been a resurgence of articles — both at various smaller outlets and some as large as Russia Today — making the claim that the United Nations has blamed the rebels for the chemical weapons attacks. This assignment of fault, the argument goes, is being covered up to allow the warmongering Obama administration launch as many missiles as it wants at Damascus because…reasons.

The evidence presented for this belief that the U.N. has ruled against the Syrian rebels? A statement from Carla De Ponte, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic since September of last year. Launched by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, the Commission has proved an invaluable tool in gathering the stories of refugees and defetctors of the horrors witnessed within Syria’s borders over the course of the conflict.

When conducting an interview with Swiss television in May, however, Del Ponte made a surprising announcement about the work she and her colleagues were performing:

“Our investigators have been interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals. According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got … they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.”

It’s those comments that had many on the blogosphere declaring that the U.N. official had accidentally told the truth and today claims that the world body has found the government non-culpable for the attack last week. Or if they did carry it out, that means that the international community should also be planning to attack the rebels for carrying out the March attack.

Unfortunately for them, the definitive nature of their story falls apart at several points. First and foremost, at no time does Del Ponte say with absolute certainty that it was the opposition who used chemical weapons against Syrian government forces. In fact, she doesn’t even say for sure that sarin gas or any other weapons were used, only that there were at the time “strong, concrete suspicions.”

Next is the fact that Del Ponte is but one member of a Commission that the U.N. has sponsored. She was not speaking for the Commission during the interview, a role that usually falls solely to the Chair. In this case, that would be Paulo Pinherio — who did not at any time confirm Del Ponte’s statement. And she certainly wasn’t speaking for the United Nations system as a whole.

In fact, in the days after her interview, the commission put out a press release walking back the majority of her points:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to comment on teh allegations at this time.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Sergio Pinherio, reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law.

In line with its mandate, the Commission is currently investigating all allegations of violations of international law in the Syrian Arab Republic and will issue its findings to teh Human Rights Council on 3 June, 2013, as mandated by resolution 22.24.

When the third of June rolled around, Pinherio reported to the Human Rights Council as promised, but did not lay the blame on the shoulders of the rebels, or Assad, or conclude for sure that chemical weapons were used in the first place:

137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. THe dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or any of the affiliated forces gaining access.

138. Anti-government armed groups could gain access to and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems.

139. Allegations were received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by government forces. […] It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents, their delivery systems, or the perpetrator.

In truth, the U.N. has been exceptionally determined to avoid assigning blame for the use of chemical weapons, going so far as to either agree or offer to not include having its team of weapons inspectors even able to make such a determination. Instead, as I explained at ThinkProgress, they are only present within Syria to determine whether chemical agents were unleashed against the population at all.

So far, the Obama administration has played its information close to the chest, stating that they would be issuing declassified versions of the intelligence it’s gathered in the near future. Congress has yet to even be fully briefed, so I certainly don’t know the contents of it. And for all I know, Del Ponte may have been right in saying that there was evidence at the time that it was rebels who used sarin gas.

That, however, still doesn’t mean that there’s any real accuracy in making the claim that the United Nations itself has assigned blame in the matter. So to say that “the U.N.” has said the rebels cast the first stone regarding chemical weapons is simply false.

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September 21, 2012

Extended Version: Palestine Seeking Observer Membership Status at UN

As you may have heard, the Palestinian Authority has opted to return to the U.N. this year to seek recognition. I have a piece up on UN Dispatch to that very effect. While the government of President Abbas has said now that they’ll delay the vote until after the U.S. Presidential elections, that’s all it is: a delay. This year, it’s going to be way harder to convince the Palestinians to back down from their efforts, for a number of reasons.

First the ease in which the vote should come out in their favor has to be a draw. The Palestinian Mission is already predicting upwards of 120 votes in favor of their upgrade, far more than the necessary 97 required. Indeed, they’re hoping for a blowout vote of “between 150 and 170 nations” voting ‘yes’. Knowing that this is so close within their grasp will make it hard for the U.S. and others to cut a deal halting it.

The difficulty in dissuading Abbas is compounded by the domestic situation in Ramallah. Last year’s U.N. push resulted in Abbas receiving a hero’s welcome upon his return from New York. This year, he’s faced a surge in pushback against his government, culminating in protests that have roiled the West Bank. Abbas is left in need of a short-term win to distract from the economic troubles that the Palestinian people have been bearing. A successful recognition of the State of Palestine by the United Nations would lift his standing enough to give him breathing room.

Abbas is betting that Palestinian independence can be better achieved with the help of its new standing at the ICC, giving him a long-term incentive to pursue the vote. Difficulty comes in the midterm, as Israel reacts to a Palestinian upgrade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has already threatened to withhold much needed tax revenue from the West Bank government should they proceed, which would further the economic calamity in the West Bank. Also uncertain is the effect that de jure statehood would have regarding the split between Abbas’ Fatah government in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

So the odds are good that we’re going to see Palestine bumped up to being an Observer State at the U.N. this Fall. The real question is what repercussions that will have both directly between Israel and Palestine and what it means for the United States and the U.N. in general.

September 14, 2012

In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?

After a relatively staid August, the last week has been absolutely exhausting in the amount of foreign policy news that has broken. Not a single day has gone by without some major turn of event happening, in literally every corner of the globe. Peace has been breached in several instances and death counts reported in several of the crises that have sprung up.

Throughout all of this, what has the United Nations Security Council been doing? The Council is, after all, supposed to be the arbiter of the use of force and the protector of international peace and security. So why, in a week of such turmoil, has the Council’s formal agenda for the week’s meetings been so sparse?

The answer is in part that because of the nature of the conflicts at hand the Security Council has no space in which to be an effective, or necessary, player. In other instances, the Council has been seemingly absent, but only because it has literally done all it can short of authorizing force in many of the situations where it has played a role. I’ll run through several of this week’s flare-ups and clarify just why the U.N. has, or hasn’t, taken the actions that it has.

Somalia

On Monday, Somalia finally managed to lurch out of its transitional phase, with the selection of Hassan Sheikh as President by the newly seated Parliament. The very next day, the al-Shabaab militant group labeled the vote as fraudulent and a “ploy by the West”. Two days into his term in office, President Sheikh was the target of an assassination attempt:

Two of the suicide bombers struck, one near the gate and one at the back of the Jazeera Hotel near the airport as the president was giving a briefing for the news media with the visiting Kenyan foreign minister, Samson K. Ongeri.

Another attacker was shot as he tried to scale the walls of the compound, according to a statement from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The attack did not interrupt the news conference and the president continued his speech. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.

Of the many crises that have sprung up in the past few days, none are closer to the Council than Somalia. Indeed, the Security Council has, to put it mildly, been intimately involved with the effort to restore Somalia following its collapse in 1992. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that Mr. Sheikh’s government is replacing had the strong backing of the United Nations writ large.

The Security Council also approved the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to operate under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter.  In doing so, the Council empowered the African Union to utilize the Council’s Chapter VII use of force provisions in its mission to protect civilians and push back against militants, including those that targeted President Sheik on Wednesday. AMISOM is partially funded and equipped by the United Nations as well.

The mandate of AMISOM was just renewed in February of this year and revised to up the total allowed force to include the forces Kenya sent across the border in October 2011. The election of President Sheikh and the attempt on his life, while both major events in Somalia’s recovery or lack thereof, do little to affect the mission of AMISOM in any way that would require swift Council action. Instead, AMISOM seems to be continuing to protect Mogadishu and its attempts to finally take the port town of Kismayo.

Surprisingly, however, the Security Council has yet to put out a statement, either of the Press or Presidential variety, congratulating Mr. Sheikh nor condemning the attempt on his life. The silence on the matter could be one of tactical silence, due to the overwhelming role that the Council had in supporting the TFG and a desire to not unduly influence the new government. What’s unfortunately more likely, however, is that the passage of such a Statement was deemed a lower priority by the Members of the Council’s missions in the lead-up to the General Assembly. In either case, some word from the Security Council would do away with any notion that Somalia is slipping back into the recesses of the international community’s mind.

Libya/Egypt/Yemen/Sudan

The largest news in the United States this week on the foreign policy front has been the attacks on U.S. Embassies and Consulates in various countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These attacks have ranged in size, scale and motive, but have taken the lives of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. And as of Friday morning, the German and British Embassies have been targeted as well.

The fact of the matter is that these attacks, while particularly heinous, are not the sort of issues that the Security Council deals with directly. Indeed, the question of embassy protection is mostly bilateral in nature and of greater importance to the states in question than the overall maintenance of peace and security. While the attacks, even those in Egypt where no lives were lost, are clear breaches of the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Council is in no position to act as an enforcer of those provisions. Indeed, any attempt to do more than issue the condemnatory statements against the attacks that it has would be imprudent, save at the unlikely request of one of the countries whose embassies have been sacked.

Anything more the Council can do, it already has. As an example, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was developed in the aftermath of the fall of the Qaddafi regime to provide assistance to the new government in establishing its control of its territory. The Security Council received a briefing by Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman on Wednesday, as he was previously scheduled to introduce the most recent UNSMIL report to the members:

“This horrific and tragic attack, together with a spate of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi, a series of explosive devices in Tripoli, and attacks on Sufi shrines, further emphasizes the security challenge facing the authorities in Libya,” [said Feltman].

In the report itself, the mission highlighted a lack of central control by Tripoli over the many militias still active within Libya and difficulties in bringing the police force up to speed. Also, with the revocation of Resolution 1973’s authorization for countries to use force in Libya for “civilian protection”, any new authorization will have to get through a new vote on the Council, the likelihood of which is somewhere between slim and nil.

Likewise, in Yemen, the Security Council passed Resolutions 2014 and 2051 in 2011 and 2012 respectively to push a political transition in Yemen that would facilitate a changeover from former President Saleh’s regime. Outside of the Council, the Secretary-General appointed as his Special Representative for Yemen Jamal Benomar. SRSG Benomar was due to have been in Sana’a on Wednesday; it’s unknown if he was still in the capital during the protests at the U.S. Embassy, but it will be interesting to hear his next briefing. In any case, there is no useful role the Council could have taken in this incident.

As for Egypt and Sudan, in the former the United Nations has thus far, wisely, kept a hands-off role with the situation that has been developing internally there. The Embassy breach there is a matter for the United States and Egypt solely to work out, a process that is already under way after fits and starts. In the latter, the U.N. Security Council has enough to worry about in its handling of Khartoum to put forward anything more than a strong condemnation, considering it still requires Sudan’s by your leave to operate two peacekeeping missions in the area, one in Darfur, the other in the disputed territory of Abyei.

East/South China Sea 

Last night, going by U.S. time, China dispatched a small fleet of patrol boats near the set of islands in the middle of a dispute between themselves and several other states to provide “law enforcement”. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, are little more than clusters of uninhabitable rock in some places, but may hold valuable natural resources off their coast lines. More importantly, the ownership of the islands also helps determine the coastal waters of each country.

Sending out their patrol boats was meant to be a message of warning to Japan over its Tuesday announcement that it will purchase several of the islands from who Japan recognizes as their private owner. The Global Times issued an editorial stressing the need for Chinese unity to prevail throughout its development, noting that “China has no choice but to respond to Japan’s outrageous provocation. This is a vital step for China to consolidate its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas.”

Maritime issues over tiny islands extend beyond Japan and China, with further claims laid by Viet Nam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to ownership of various portions of island chains throughout the East and South China Seas. Separately from the Chinese and Japanese clash, the Philippines declared this week at the waters near the islands they lay claim to were not within the South China Sea, but rather the “West Philippine Sea”. China was less than impressed. No matter the name of the sea the islands are located in, China’s moving ships into the area to enforce Chinese law raises the ante on the need for a settlement.

As I have noted previously, Asia is, and will continue to be, something of blind spot for the Security Council. These maritime disputes fall squarely within China’s sphere of influence, an area that China has been loathe to bring to international bodies for arbitration. Already, China has been extremely uncomfortable in allowing the South China Sea dispute to be discussed at the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has been making a concerted push for negotiations on the final status of the islands to be made with ASEAN acting in unison, a move that China views warily at best, an attempt to unite the community against it at worst. Instead, China laboriously insists on concluding settlement over each of the claims bilaterally, where it will have more influence over the final outcome.

The fact is that China would prefer to keep it’s maritime boundaries negotiations as far away from the Security Council as possible. For the Security Council to discuss them would be an admission that actions were being taken that were a potential breach in international peace and security, a charge which could be levied at China itself. Even were the issue to come under debate, which is still possible as there is no way for the PRC to unilaterally block procedural motions such as placing items on the agenda, any resolution that China would find unfavorable to its interests would simply be vetoed.

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In summation, despite the hectic view of recent events from the United States, the U.N. Security Council has not been overly negligent in carrying out assigned duties. Instead, in areas where it has space to act, it has done so, or continued to proceed with decisions that had been previously made on the various hot spots. In some areas, however, it is constrained by its very make-up, an issue that could become a much larger problem as Asia becomes more of a breeding ground for state-to-state conflict.

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August 27, 2012

Iran and the UN: Not exactly BFFs

Iran and the United Nations aren’t on the best of terms right now. The relationship between the two over the last decade has been chilly, at best, as Iran has repeatedly ignored calls from various UN bodies to be more transparent regarding its supposedly civilian nuclear program. Indeed, what was meant to highlight Iran’s solidarity with the non-Western world may in fact wind up showing just how much the rest of the world, the United Nations included, is against it.

Commentators may make much of the Iranian chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), meeting now in Tehran, but the truth is it matters very little in terms of its role in the region and its relation with other states and organizations in general. In a telling look into Iran’s ‘blame anyone but us’ worldview, Iran opened the conference with a call for reform at the United Nations:

“Six decades since its establishment, the United Nations needs fundamental reforms in order to adapt to the modern global developments,” said Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to the report. He added that “a more democratic Security Council” is needed.

Such rhetoric will surely be warmly welcomed by the attendees at the NAM Summit. Expansion of the Security Council has been a gripe that rising powers have had for the last several decades, backed by smaller countries and developing states alike.

But would a reformed Security Council change its tune on Iran? Not likely. In calling for reform, Tehran forgets its recent history. In 2010, the Security Council voted in favor of a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in Resolution 1929. These sanctions were the toughest yet leveraged against the regime, including a ban on weapons imports and exports, and targeted sanctions against many high-level regime members.

Both China and Russia, erstwhile allies of Iran, voted in favor of this package, much to the theocracy’s chagrin. It is unlikely that an expanded Council would have voted otherwise, considering all five current Permanent Members voted in favor. Of the most likely additional Permanent Members (Japan, Brazil, Germany, India), Brazil was present on the Council that year and abstained on the resolution. This abstention, which it was joined in by Turkey, was less about support for Iran and its nuclear program than a Middle Power push to engage Iran outside the Council.

Iran fares no better in any of the other organs of the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a member of the UN umbrella of agencies, has been expressing its concern over Iran’s nuclear program for years. It was the IAEA that first referred the Iranian situation to the Security Council in the first place back in 2006 and continues to offer up grim statements on the uncooperative nature of Iran towards IAEA verification programs.

The UN Human Rights Council, despite its reputation for coddling regimes such as Iran has appointed Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. Ahmed Shaheed’s mandate was renewed in March 2012, but he has been denied access into the country thus far. He still manages to report regularly to the HRC on the troubling record that Iran continues to accrue, including suppression of civil liberties and summary executions.

No love is lost between the Secretariat and Iran, either. Much has been made of the diplomatic “tug of war” between the United States and Iran in whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon would attend the Summit or not. Though Iran supposed it won, and Ban has been derided for capitulating to Tehran, Iran will be getting more than it bargained for. Per the Spokesman of the Secretary-General, Ban will use the opportunity to be much more blunt with Iran than its leaders had in mind when insisting on his presence in Tehran:

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of  Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people. These include Iran’s nuclear programme, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Even in the most democratic of the UN’s organs, the General Assembly, Iran can’t seem to catch a break. In December, a resolution was tabled in the Assembly condemning Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses, as it has been for the last several years. This year’s version passed by a vote of eighty-nine in favor and thirty against. It can hardly be said that a reform of the General Assembly is among the list of demands by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The United Nations often makes a great target for attack, no matter the state in question. Unfortunately for Iran, even should its calls for reform come to pass, they would be unlikely to change the fact that Iran is becoming more isolated than ever If anything, the need for Iran to stress so hard the few ties to the rest of the world it has left at the Non-Aligned Movement highlight the efficacy of the efforts of the West to get the label ‘pariah state’ to stick.

August 19, 2012

Remnants: The UN Agencies Still Struggling to Save Syria

The world was surprisingly quick to write off the United Nations in Syria. According to all observers, the UN has been sidelined in having any sort of real effect on the ground. And why shouldn’t those observers believe that?

Kofi Annan’s efforts to bring the two sides to the table ended with his resignation as the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League and a spot on his reputation. Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to take up the challenge, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll succeed where Annan couldn’t.

Meanwhile, intense fighting rages on in Aleppo and Damascus as the UN’s Observer Mission expires today, to be replaced by a much smaller UN Department of Political Affairs office headed by Brahimi. Military intervention was never a real option at the UN Security Council. Russia and China’s fear of Western armies marching into Damascus precluded even minimal sanctions against the regime. So the UN has clearly been forced out of Syria and will only be able to sit back and watch as civil war rages.

Except that’s not quite the whole of the situation. The focus placed on the UN’s efforts in Syria has always been the high drama of the Security Council with occasional glances at maneuvering in the General Assembly. That is far from the entirety of the United Nations portfolio on Syria. While other institutions have deadlocked, the various agencies and programs of the United Nations have been working to alleviate the suffering in any way they can without nearly as much coverage. Diplomatic battles between East and West make for compelling news. Not so much the story of those struggling to keep civilians alive in a time of civil war despite funding setbacks and political struggles.

Spread across Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the UN High Commission for Refugees has registered over 100,000 civilians who have fled the violence unleashed by the Syrian government. Many more remain unregistered, living with family or friends. As many as 1.5 million remain behind, internally displaced within Syria’s borders, subject to daily shelling and caught between rebel and government clashes. Hundreds more are streaming across Syria’s borders daily and UNHCR is determined to house and feed them.

Before the protests against the Bashar al-Assad government began in 2011, Syria produced 90% of its drugs and medicines locally. The World Health Organization is working to tirelessly meet the needs that come along with bombardment of cities and rampant fear. The World Food Programme will keep addressing food shortages as they did when they fed over half a million Syrians in July. That number would have been almost double if not for the high levels of violence. All the while lesser known agencies struggle on with no support from the government, like the UN Population Fund as it continues to provide maternal health advice and treatment.

Later, after the shooting is done in Syria, there will be a new opening for political change no matter which side eventually prevails. A bloodied regime will need to finally accept real reforms faced with toppling or a new government will need the help of the world to solidify their now fractious country. There will be the UN in place, ready to accept calls for a new focus for its political mission.

A new peacekeeping mission may be authorized, to keep an actual peace this time. Eventually election monitors may be requested by the international community, should democracy find root in Syria. Those missions will be provided for and run by the Secretariat without any grudges for the months of insults against the capacity of the UN.  They’ll fade into the background as they have in so many other post-conflict areas with little attention paid by the media, less by the general public.

For now though, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is seeking $180M from donor governments to help alleviate suffering. So far UNOCHA has only received $71M, about 39% of the total needed, with another $21M pledged by the U.S. Several states have stepped up individually, including Saudi Arabia, but a joint effort is needed to facilitate the widest delivery of aid in this time of need.

The political track in Syria may yet find itself revived. Stranger things have happened in the last year in the Middle East. But until the day that there’s an actual agreement on what to do in Syria, it’s my hope that people not forget the valiant struggle being waged to keep as many people alive as possible and those carrying it out.

July 25, 2012

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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May 25, 2012

There’s a Fine, Fine Line

The Annan Plan just can’t seem to catch a break. In the several weeks since the launch of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), the lack of a corresponding cessation of violence has caused many to question the viability of the mission, and in turn the role that Mr. Annan is playing in seeking a peaceful outcome. The first report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on UNSMIS’ progress was due to the Council on Thursday; its release has been delayed, though the reason behind the delay has yet to be revealed. When it is released*, however, it is doubtful that much good news will be put forward, leading to the question “When do you call it quits?”

Highlighting the dire straits that Syria still finds itself in, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria released an update to its last report yesterday. The picture it paints is one where grave human rights violations are ongoing, with the state’s atrocities still the overwhelming majority of those committed, but the opposition is gaining as their resistance turns ever more violent. Bombings remain targeted solely at government and military targets, but whether that will continue is yet to be seen. Aaron Zelin describes the jihadi nature of many of these bombings, noting that are outside the control the Free Syrian Army.

It is in this context that UNSMIS is attempting to operate under its Security Council mandate, and Mr. Annan seeks to unite a divided opposition before talks can even begin with the government. The issues that UNSMIS are facing, and the uniqueness of its mission, are expertly laid out by Arthur Boutellis of IPI’s Global Observatory:

• The conflict opposes the Syrian state to a multifaceted “Syrian opposition,” with no clear ceasefire line to observe, and combats taking place in urban areas;

• The fact that UN observers are being used to make the ceasefire stick rather than to observe a ceasefire that had already taken hold;

• Some of the acts of violence–such as bomb explosions–are not easily attributable to one side or the other without specialized investigative capacities;

• The presence of a “third element” –other than government forces and opposition–possibly Al Qaeda-affiliated spoilers, complicates the dynamics of the conflict and represents a direct threat to the UN observers;

• The limited consent to the UN presence by the Syrian host government—also a party to the conflict—is a serious limitation to its access and hence to its effectiveness (it is still opposing UN helicopters, for example).

These issues are all true and especially daunting for a mission that is being undertaken without a Chapter VII mandate to back it. That adds one further complication to the task that UNSMIS has been given: public perception. Observer Missions fall outside of the norm of peacekeeping that has been seen most frequently since 1991, particularly high-profile missions such as MONUSCO and UNOCI, or failed missions such as those in the Balkans and Rwanda. Those missions all have or had some form of a method for ensuring compliance with the demands of the Security Council or the terms of the peace deal that has been put into place, or at least some built-in self-defense mechanism. Their role is easily recognized as being one of action, rather than the more passive role observing requires.

As such, the deployment of a United Nations mission whose sole purpose is to act as a non-biased viewer of events, rather than an actor, immediately disappoints those who would like to see a stronger role taken in pushing for peace. Even those actions mandated of UNSMIS, like mediating between opposition group members, are not easily viewed and understood by the general public, particularly audiences in the West and greater Middle East alike who remain confused as to why more isn’t being done to end the violence in Syria. Merely reporting on the atrocities falls far short of the envisioned goal of ending them all together than activists are willing to find acceptable, leaving UNSMIS at a disadvantage on all sides.

All this pressure adds up, as the United States and Russia, neither of which were fans of the Annan Plan from the beginning, have already begun staking out positions to blame anyone but them should the plan collapse. Russia is looking to cast the opposition as participating with terrorists, while the United States may just declare that its skepticism has been in the right all along. Even Richard Gowan, by no means a naysayer when it comes to the UN, is exploring ways that Annan could save face from a failure of his eponymous plan, up to and including a strategic pause in his efforts.

The problem that many have had with calls for UNSMIS to withdraw, or for the Annan Plan to be put on ice, is that there is currently no viable alternative that doesn’t involve an escalation in violence in some shape or form. However, the chance that this may be the case whether there’s a plan to counter it or not seems to be growing by the day. Already, the tensions of Syria, and the demand for weapons the conflict is producing, are spilling over into Lebanon, destabilizing the security of a state whose fate has long been tied to Syria’s. And while the presence of observers brings down the level of violence of cities they are visiting, there is no way for enough blue berets to be deployed to achieve this effect across the country, not when IEDs still explode near UNSMIS convoys.

There is no easy way to determine that a bid for peace has died, as it goes against the very idea of international diplomacy and mediation as a preventative mechanism. However, this may go down in history as having been a political intervention at a stage in which the ability of reconciliation between the parties had long since passed, making preventative goals impossible to achieve. Delays in an agreement between the Great Powers on how to handle Syria allowed non-violent protestors to determine that raising arms was the only way to affect change, thus shifting the goal posts before Annan had even been brought in.

The line between chance of success and failure is a fine one in this case. It may turn out to have already been crossed in this case, leaving UNSMIS going through the motions until its mandate ends in late July, or the Council overturns Annan’s mandate. The Security Council for now seems content to give Annan the leeway to pull the plug on his own plan, and should continue to do so as long as a glimmer of hope remains. Save a miraculous breakthrough, however, the chance that UNSMIS be judged to have not crossed that line at the end of 90 days is thinner than the line itself.

*EDIT: Since publication of this blog post, the report has been leaked in its entirety. It’s about as was expected.

May 9, 2012

A Revolution without Dancing

Yesterday afternoon, Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan briefed the Security Council on the progress that the government of Bashar al-Assad has made in implementing his eponymous Six Point Plan. The verdict: not much. Contrary to prior briefings, in his update to the Council, Annan sounded a much more pessimistic tone:

The Syrian army has not retreated from population centers, as called for in the accord, and continues to fire heavy artillery against civilians, Annan said. In addition, Syrian authorities continue mass arrests, and the extent of violence remains “unacceptable,” he said, according to [diplomats].

This admission comes after weeks of commentators predicting the swift collapse of the Annan Plan as a way forward in Syria. Speaking to the UN Press Corps after his briefing, and seeming to direct his response to these critics, Annan indicated that were there another viable plan to end the violence, he would gladly support it. At this time, according to Annan, no such plan exists. The Security Council is also on hold from pressing for such a plan until the Secretary-General presents his first 15-day report on the implementation of Resolution 2043 early next week.

The critiques of the Annan plan are many, and for the most part accurate, including that the number on the ground is but a few. However, one point that many seem to overlook is that the Annan Plan is an attempt to staunch the blood flow in Syria, without healing the wound. The latter is the political process that the Annan Plan hoped to foster. As a way to slow the violence, without completely halting it, the deployment of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been effective.

UNSMIS also has played its role of cataloguing abuses for report to the Secretary-General well, especially in the face of the many obstacles it must overcome, including bombs exploding near the head of the Mission. To Major-General Mood’s credit, in response to the explosion, he stated that it is “what the Syrian people experience everyday”. But the non-state participants in the international community are becoming increasingly less patient with the pace of the UN’s measures and indicators of progress.

In a Foreign Policy article published yesterday, Salman Shaikh issued an at times scathing condemnation of the Plan, noting that it is “flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith”. Shaik makes several strong points throughout his article, and unlike many, he provides the basis of an alternative that moves beyond the calls for the use of force that most provide. However, there are still flaws in his argument. The start of his call to action begins with a plea to have the world aid the opposition in uniting:

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria’s future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads’ 42-year old “divide and rule” strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime’s demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

I fully agree that this is a needed piece to solving Syria. The issue appears to be figuring out how to do so, not in having the will to get it done. As noted in his next paragraph, Syrians still living within the borders of the country don’t necessarily have confidence in the Syrian National Council. Unfortunately, in keeping with the lack of will to have their actions dictated by outsiders that causes that lack of confidence, there are few ways to provide the sort of safe-zones for these alliance building negotiations within Syria. Patrolling a few cities at a time is currently taxing UNSMIS; providing a safe haven for political committees to organize without fear of retaliation would require many, many more observers of a non-military makeup. Barring this ability to directly facilitate, I am uncertain how Shaikh intends the countries mentioned to aid the process.

Further, Shaik still manages to call for an increased effort to provide weaponry to the Free Syrian Army:

[Tribes in Syria] express greater support for the fragmented FSA [than the Syrian National Council], even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are “sons of the tribes,” and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA — in collaboration with the SNC — and the tribes and Kurds.

While calls for a controlled and managed provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army seem logical, the logistical components involved make such a venture riskier than Shaik notes. Further, the introduction of new arms into the region has already begun to affect Lebanon, whose fate has long been tied to Syria. The UN Special Envoy to the Middle East has told reporters that arms are now flowing both ways, from Syria to Lebanon and back across the border. Another UN official referred to this transfer as “a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war”. I highly doubt that in giving arms to the FSA, we can then check their redistribution to others throughout the region.

His paragraph also highlights the reasoning behind many governments’ squeamishness in increasing engagement with the FSA. The lack of a clear command-and-control structure, let alone any sort of cohesion in its components, is a problem that should be fixed before greater arms flows, not as an afterthought.  While history has made abundantly clear that armed rebellions almost always require external intervention of some sort from an established power to be successful, that self-same history proves the folly that comes from providing such material support without an established, unified opposition. Sending arms without a clear idea of how long the coalition that will be holding them will last without splintering is troubling at best.

Of course, Shaikh is nowhere near alone in his belief that the United States needs to somehow take a stronger lead in ensuring Syrian unity and training to the FSA. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as much yesterday, again invoking the idea of safe zones. Dan Trombly has written enough on the concept of safe zones to need my further input. Daniel Serwer has also critiqued Senator Kerry for his stance on arming the FSA, noting that the sorts of small arms that would be provided would not be much of a deterrent against tanks and aircraft.

Indeed, given the alternatives, I agree with Serwer that the Annan Plan is the best of a series of bad options for Syria. In viewing the progress of the Plan and UNSMIS, Richard Gowan manages to sum up the greatest challenges and promise of the two:

The problem is that UNSMIS is not really a peacekeeping operation. Though it is meant to supervise a ceasefire, it is in fact being deployed to watch over a live conflict — and the Security Council’s members know this. Russia has maneuvered to limit the mission’s ability to report on the fighting. Western diplomats have pushed back, demanding that UNSMIS must be able to move freely and have access to Syrian citizens.

So UNSMIS has been cast in two patently incompatible roles. For Russia, the mission is meant to be an alibi for continued inaction over Syria. For the West, it is meant to be a trigger for more severe measures — although options for applying new pressure on Damascus short of the use of force are becoming harder to find.

But it may be wrong to judge UNSMIS on its ability or inability to keep a non-existent peace in Syria. Instead, the real question is whether its potential failure will have any effect on international diplomacy over the crisis. If UNSMIS sinks without a trace, it will be a setback for the West and the credibility of U.N. operations elsewhere. If it acts as a trigger for some sort of decisive intervention, it may be counted as some sort of heroic failure. But it could leave lasting scars on U.N. peacekeeping either way.

UNSMIS and the Plan that laid its groundwork are indeed modest efforts to stop a worsening crisis. In seeking a managed, orderly path towards an end game in Syria, the United Nations Secretariat and the Security Council are attempting to contain the forces at play and prevent a renewed explosion of violence that ends in strife across the region. All the while, they insist that Assad end the campaign within his borders and bow to political pressure. In short, they are attempting to bring about a revolution without dancing. Pressure is mounting, though, to strike up the band and untether the opposition, into a cacophony of a free-for-all against the government. Mr. Annan is right to frame his Six Points as the last chance to prevent civil war. The real question though is how long the international community will wait before embracing the oncoming war and seeking to shape its outcome?

April 11, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close: Syria and the UN General Assembly

Last night, I came across an op-ed piece in the Washington Times, provocatively titled “Time to Suspend Syria from the UN”. My glee at finding a new source of mockery turned to dismay as I noted that the article was written by my friend Ryan Kaminski, especially as I know Ryan is a true believer in the United Nations. I talked to Ryan afterwards, and he stood by the content. And so, with that in mind, I find myself forced to take him to task over his concept:

Specifically, the United States as well as like-minded delegations in the West and Middle East should consider calling for Syria’s suspension from the U.N.’s most democratic and representative organ, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), where all 193 U.N. member states can vote. Such an act would entail zero material costs, avoid veto authority and would be a critical step toward alleviating the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria.

In particular, Syria’s suspension would act to further isolate its leadership, increase the probability of high-level Syrian defections both at the U.N. and elsewhere, and would likely bolster the confidence of the country’s beleaguered internal opposition forces. Most importantly, Syria’s suspension would unambiguously symbolize the international community’s collective disgust with the actions of Syria’s ruling government, while providing a new form of leverage to compel Syria’s government to change course.

Before we address the broader issues, there are quite a few technical problems with his proposal. As Kaminski notes later in the article, the Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of the various Member States’ delegations as presented to the Secretary-General. For the 66th Session of the GA, the nine members of this committee are: China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Italy, Maldives, Panama, Russian Federation, Senegal and the United States. As he noted, 7 of them voted in favor of the condemnation of the Syrian Arab Republic for their human rights abuses. But he then assumes that those would likewise vote to suspend the credentials of the Syrian delegation, as though it would not be a protracted battle, with enormous implications, which we will come back to shortly.

He cites the precedent of South Africa as clearing a path for such an action. However, the South African suspension was taken after decades of oppression under apartheid. It could be argued that with the active killing taking place in Syria that this situation trumps that of South Africa, but the swift removal of a state from taking part in any of the discussions under the purview of the General Assembly should be reserved for cases of systemic oppression as taken by apartheid Pretoria.

Kaminski also states that the General Assembly is within its right to suspend Syria from its works, due as well to the South Africa precedent, including a way to get around the veto of the Security Council of any proposal for a formal suspension, as laid out in the UN Charter. He fails to recall that in the South African case, the veto was cast by France, the United Kingdom and United States on such a motion, a fact which will be brought up as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of the West. The President of the General Assembly at the time then offered a ruling that South Africa should be banned from taking part in the Assembly, which was upheld by a vote of 91 votes to 22, with 19 abstentions. The legality of such a move would quickly come under question, and likely lead to increased speculation on the nature of the ruling, as the Presidency of the General Assembly is currently held by a Qatari. It would place the Secretariat in an awkward position if the Syrian delegation challenges such a ruling and attempts to maintain their seat on the GA floor.

Also, there exists a problem of timing. The Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of delegations, according the General Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, no later than a week prior to the convening of a session. The difficulty with Kaminski’s proposal here lies in the fact that the current session has already convened. In the past, General Assembly delegates didn’t reside in New York year round, and so the convening of meetings after the September General Assembly was a rarity, and highlighted the unusual nature of the Security Council’s readiness to meet at a moment’s notice. Now, the 66th Session won’t be gaveled out of until the next session is set to begin, leaving the delegation from Syria seated right where they are.

Now, an Emergency Session could be convened under the Uniting for Peace resolution, which would allow for a new Credentialing Committee to be selected, and the Syrian credentials to be placed under review. However, I have listed previously the difficulties I see in calling such a session, and my analysis stands in my opinion. And let us think for a moment what would happen should an Emergency Meeting of the Credentialing Committee be called forward to consider the Syrian’s credentials post-haste. If you think the UN has an image problem now, imagine the laughter on conservative radio and television. “The UN convenes emergency session to determine whether Syria allowed to speak at meetings” practically reads like a headline of The Onion.

Even if such a session were to be called to order, the rules of the General Assembly only state that the Credentialing Committee is to determine whether to accept the legitimacy of the credentials as presented to the Secretary-General by a Head of State or Foreign Minister of the given country. For the credentials to be rejected, the Committee would have to rule that the international community no longer recognizes the rule of Bashar Al-Assad in a de jure sense. While many states have called for Assad to step down, none have ruled that his regime no longer controls Syria. To do so would require a replacement governing body, a role few believe the Syrian National Council or any of the other competing opposition groups are ready to play.

Playing off the points against the likelihood for utilizing the Uniting for Peace resolution, I also believe Kaminski is rather cavalier with his belief that the forces the United States would be marshalling would then be easily constrained into maintaining the status quo with all other states, preventing a rush of politically-based removal campaigns. The reason the United States drifted away from utilizing the General Assembly as a tool of policy-shaping in the first place is that it came to find the newer states of Africa and Asia too uncontrollable for their tastes, instead taking refuge in the Security Council for matters of peace and security, content with its veto there. While the US may be able to achieve victory here, and was able to beat back calls for Israel’s suspension in the 1980s, I don’t believe that’s a risk that the Obama Administration should take, as the victory may well end up a Pyrrhic one.

Aside from the more technical points, I think that Kaminski also overestimates the effect a suspension from the General Assembly would have. A great deal would come down to how the vote is split. I can’t see Russia and China, two states whose sway in the Security Council have prevent harsher measures from being taken, looking favorably upon such a push in the General Assembly, and may well come out more firmly resolved against pressing for Assad’s departure. Likewise, states that have been fine with condemning the human rights abuses of Syria may be slightly more hesitant to remove a fellow member from the Assembly.

Likewise, will the removal of Bashar Ja’afari from the General Assembly Hall truly convince him to leave the regime? As Colum Lynch pointed out, the diplomatic corps has been far more loyal to Assad than Gaddafi’s during Libya, likely due to lessons learned from that uprising such as having diplomats send their families home to Syria, within the regime’s reach. And a suspension from the General Assembly’s work would mean that a Mission to the UN would still be maintained, and the right to speak still accorded within the Security Council, as well as interaction with the Secretariat. Hardly the clarion call for defectors.

He finally makes the claim that there exists greater flexibility on the issue of seating, as evidenced by Libya’s diplomatic corps’ about face:

Additionally, in February 2011, Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, was somehow able to request an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – a right reserved for U.N. member state delegations – on the same day he announced that he would represent the Libyan people rather than Moammar Gadhafi. Both cases suggest that under exceptional circumstances, there may be more maneuverability in this area than usually acknowledged.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t quite hold up. While Dabbashi had forsworn the orders sent from Tripoli, he was still sworn in as the recognized Permanent Representative of Libya. Once Dabbashi’s disconnect from Qaddafi was clear, the Libyan government quickly withdrew Dabbashi and appointed a new Permanent Representative. Likewise, soon thereafter, the international community at the time was prepared to recognize a new government, in the form of the National Transitional Council, which was seated as the new Libyan government at the start of the current General Assembly session.

All told, I empathize with Kaminski’s desire to find new tools to leverage against Syria. I myself have called for removing of Syria from international bodies, such as its seat on a human rights committee within UNESCO. However, as you may recall, even that small step failed to gain traction. In the face of continuing Syrian repression against its citizens, a feeling of helplessness is understandable. However, removal of Syria from the General Assembly isn’t the path forward to ending the bloodshed. For now, it’s better to keep your enemies close; leaving Syria sitting in Turtle Bay outweighs the satisfaction that would come with booting them out.

April 5, 2012

The Imagined Paralysis of the Security Council

‘The deadlock in the Security Council on Syria can be blamed squarely on the overreach of NATO’ is an idea that has been circulating for almost a year now. The missiles that were launched off the coast of Libya gave hope and fear of another intervention in Syria new life, and the United Nations Security Council was sure to take up the concept in a new wave of international interventions. But that never materialized. After each stifling of action against Damascus in the Council, the blame has been placed squarely on Libya. To wit, Joshua Foust has a new piece up, as of yesterday, wherein he takes a harsh look at the Libyan intervention, and sees in it the catalyst for a new paralysis in the Security Council:

From a strategic perspective, Libya has created a roadblock in the UN Security Council. NATO ignored the text of the UN Security Council Resolution that rejected regime change as an outcome of intervention.  As a result, now other UNSC members, namely Russia and China, will assume that any future moves to invoke the UN to safeguard civilians will be interpreted as code for advocating regime change. Russia and China oppose regime change on principle, and don’t want to see their own policies and integrity attacked in the name of human rights. But by discarding the limitations the UNSC placed on the intervention in Libya, NATO also discarded much of the legitimacy of the UNSC itself – thus making it less likely that the UN can be effective tool for protecting civilians in the future.

The main problem with this argument is that the text itself of Resolution 1973 does not reject regime change as an outcome of intervention. Nowhere in the document does it say that the Qaddafi government is to maintain intact or anything to that effect. The sole limitations on force that were incorporated into the text were that there would be no ground forces used in the implementation of the no-fly zone and that civilians were to be protected using all means necessary. Anything else that may or may not have been agreed upon between the members of the Security Council never made it into the legally binding document.

This is not the first time that arguments over the text resulted in a heightened sense of ambiguity on the ground. The most blatant example is the final version of Resolution 242, calling for an end to the Six Day War in 1967. Differences between the English and French texts have been exploited for decades, mostly by the United States and Israel. This isn’t to say that the practice is to be commended, just to note that it has been ongoing for decades. Vagaries in the approved text of Security Council resolutions are basically a fact of life, while the legitimacy of the Council’s resolutions has gone unquestioned. Any overreach by NATO in implementing Resolution 1973 is far from a death-blow to the acceptance of the Council’s words, by members and non-members alike. Instead, we’ve seen attempts to modify this practice, in Russian attempts on draft resolutions on Syria to insert language specifically ruling out the any possibility of interpretation for authorization of the use of force.

In the statements following the vote on 1973, the majority of Council members stressed the illegitimacy of the Qaddafi regime, using pre-written language that surely closely mirrored what was being said in closed consultations. While Russia did express concern about the lack of modifiers on the use of force, it is on the shoulders of the Russian Federation to veto in such an instant, if they truly did see the potential wiggle room as a threat to their national interests. Instead, Russia and China, along with Germany, Brazil, and India, abstained. Russia and China have been seen as eager to not repeat this “mistake” when discussing Syria, but was it really that much of a con job? In his speech, Churkin acknowledged the churn for the use of force in Libya; China likewise acknowledged that they are “always against the use of force in international relations”. And yet both abstained, noting the special circumstances surrounding Libya. Foust himself noted upon the passing of 1973 that it was “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Qaddafi”, something that surely didn’t escape the Chinese and Russian delegations.

Also, to say that NATO discarded the legitimacy of the UNSC in this instance is false. In fact, everything was done that is supposed to happen when dealing with the use of force. Unlike in the Kosovo situation, which was also labeled as a push to protect civilians and where force was used without official Security Council approval, there was a vote and a mandate for Libya. No ground invasion was launched and a no-fly zone was established: mandate complied with. The equality in which that mandate was carried out, as civilian protection in the face of rebel atrocities surely should have been considered, is a different matter. In any instance, the pushback that occurred in the Council by Russia and China cooled in the months and years following Kosovo. So too did the fury of France, China, and Russia when the United States circumvented the Council to launch an attack on Iraq. So to assume that Russia and China will henceforth push back on United States’ interests merely out of spite doesn’t hold up. If, and when, pushback does occur on Council action, it will be for the same reason it always does, because the resolution in question runs counter to the national interests of the vetoing party.  

Finally, aside from the thorny matter of Syria, a paralysis does simply not exist in the Security Council. For the last several months, the Council has been meeting and working on many issues outside of the crackdown in Homs and other Syrian cities. The most diplomatic energy has surely gone into convincing Assad to end the killing, but other discussions on matters of international peace and security have hardly ground to a halt. In the time since Resolution 1973, the Security Council has passed resolutions on the following situations: Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Western Sahara, the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, the Sudan, the Middle East, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Timor-Leste, West Africa, non-proliferation, peace and security in Africa, terrorism, and children in armed conflict. Not to mention dozens of non-binding, unanimous, Presidential Statements and press statements, including now three PRSTs on Syria. Oh, and a further five resolutions on Libya.

While Foust does not do so directly in his piece, blaming Libya for the Security Council’s inaction on Syria, not only are observers seeing what they would like in their diagnosis, but also missing a larger picture. The Security Council has had disputes before on its role in maintaining international peace and security. It will continue to do so as the lines of sovereignty are tested again and again in the name of the protection of individuals. And the Permanent Members have had, and will continue to have, spats related to actions taken beyond what the Council has endorsed. But the overarching mechanism that is the Council will continue working despite these setbacks. They survived the Cold War; I’m pretty sure they’ll survive Libya.