Archive for ‘MENA’

March 30, 2012

In Defense of the Dictator’s Club

In what should be no surprise to anyone who has had an eye on Geneva in the last few weeks, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had a piece published in Foreign Policy‘s “Argument” section. The topic? The UN’s continuing unfairness towards Israel, in an article titled “Theater of the Absurd”. In this particular instance, the Deputy Minister has an issue with the Human Rights Council’s latest vicious attack against the much-maligned state, claiming that the body has been hijacked, much like the Commission on Human Rights before it.

Last week, at its 19th Regular Session, the UN HRC passed a resolution launching an investigation of the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank by Jewish citizens of Israel. The vote on the matter was 35 in favor, 1 against, and 10 abstentions, with the lone “no” vote cast by the United States. Pay attention to those numbers, as they become important later.

In response to the decision, Israel has not only forbidden access to its territory to any investigation under the resolution’s mandate, but severed all working ties with the Human Rights Council. This is the environment in which the Deputy Minister penned his Foreign Policy article. In it, he cites the continued presence of tyrannical states on the Council as a preclude of its legitimacy:

Only 20 of the 47 nations on the UNHRC, a minority, are considered “free” by the independent NGO Freedom House. The majority of nations currently represented on this self-styled “human rights” body do not allow basic freedoms for their own people, let alone concern themselves with global civil liberties.

The current roster of the UNHRC is a virtual who’s who of global human rights offenders: It includes Cuba and Saudi Arabia — not to mention Mauritania, where modern-day slavery is an entrenched phenomenon. Last year, while Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi was massacring his own people, the Human Rights Council drafted a report full of praise for the former dictator’s regime for its “protection of human rights.”

Let’s work our way backwards in examining these claims. The report the Deputy Minister mentions is the Universal Period Review, a mechanism the UNHRC has developed to look at the human rights records of every UN member state, Libya in this case. The New York Times article Ayalon cites pulls some choice quotes out of this draft UPR, signaling the corrupt nature of the endeavor. The praise from a who’s who of international pariahs comes across as highly disturbing. The problem with this narrative, however, lies in the fact that none of the states listed were members of the Human Rights Council at the time. Rather, the rapporteurs for each report, in this instance Argentina, Norway and Senegal, solicit input from literally every member state of the UN. Plenty of other states registered concern at Libya’s rights record in that text, and the recommendations for reform at the end include several that were rejected by Libya.

Minister Ayalon’s concerns about the makeup of the Council are somewhat valid, and we’ll address those shortly. However even by his math in the quoted text, something is off. In the event all the “not free” states voted in favor of the resolution, which they did, that wouldn’t give thirty-five votes, the number actually case. As it turns out, some of those free countries, such as Austria and Belgium, joined their non-free counterparts. The rest of them, save the United States, chose to abstain on the draft, rather than putting forward a no vote. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Deputy Minister’s position that the Council is being hijacked. Were Austria and Belgium forced to vote yes? Were the ten states who abstained muzzled? I would think not.

As I indicated before, I do have to concur that it is still disturbing that rights violators often make it onto the Human Rights Council. This is less a product of willful maliciousness but an unwritten set of rules in Turtle Bay. Most bodies like the HRC fill the seats through an allotment of a certain amount to each Regional Group at the UN. These groups then produce consensus candidates which take up their seats regardless of human rights records in the HRC or contributions to international peace and security in the Security Council. The fact that Togo sits on the UNSC this year is as much a fault of this system as Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council.

The Deputy Minister is also correct that Israel has had more resolutions specifically targeted at it than any other state. As he says, many human rights abuses escape inquiry at all. However, he is incorrect in asserting that the HRC refuses to make strides against legitimate cases of rights violations. For example, the work of the Council over the past year with regards to Syria are extremely commendable. Several special sessions have been held alongside the appointment of a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. Likewise its swift action against Libya last spring belies the normal argument that the Human Rights Council is full of dictators who are loathe to depose one of their own.

Many of these positive outcomes from the Council is a byproduct of the United States’ deciding to engage with and seek a seat on the Council, rather than shunning it as originally planned. It is with that in mind that the state of Israel should think much harder about its position towards the United Nations. I will readily admit that there does exist a bias among many of the Member States against Jerusalem. This has been reflected by the insane number of resolutions passed in the General Assembly condemning the state. But the solution is not, as Ayalon seems to suggest to pick up the ball and go home (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it is time to establish a new organization that more faithfully adheres to a true human rights agenda. Democracies should reassess their participation in a council that places political calculations over the protection of human rights, while providing cover to some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The need to institute reforms at the United Nations is apparent to anyone who’s spent time studying it. But the idea of starting up a new organization, a League of Democracies as has often been fantasized about, should remain just that: a fantasy. For democracies putting off ties from states that do not fully live up to Western standards would be a critical mistake, especially when they outnumber you. Rather, constructive engagement is key to rising all states to the same level, rather than bringing them down as Ayalon seems to suggest.

In reality, the Human Rights Council is no more a “Theater of the Absurd” than Ayalon’s outrage is a farce. The Deputy Minister asserts that Israel will remain willing to work with UN inquiries that “don’t already confer guilt”, but if such inquiries are approved, or silently condoned, by those Israel would invite to a new organization, where does that leave Jerusalem?

March 14, 2012

Mirror, Mirror: The UNSC as a Reflection of Syria

It’s been over a year since protesters in Syria began to march for reforms in Bashar al-Assad’s government. As the situation continues to escalate, the UN Security Council continues to work towards a solution to the problem, preferably one that doesn’t involve further bloodshed and death. Despite the pessimism that has pervaded work on Syria, the need for a political solution is still apparent, as the current phase of military struggle has yet to produce solutions for either side. The real problem comes in determining how to shift from the level of armed conflict we see at present to a political attempt at an accord between the two sides, a problem reflected in the UNSC’s members proxy insistence “I’ll stop shooting when you will”.

The wariness of the government and the increasingly armed opposition is proving to be a major hurdle to diplomacy at all levels of the United Nations and beyond. In the Security Council’s chambers, the United States and France are working in tandem with Morocco at another attempt to pass a draft resolution on the situation, an internationally binding call for peace. The draft, which hasn’t even come close to being put in blue, can be found at UN Report. While comparable to the previous efforts to pass a resolution, the current document differs in how it reflects the calls that were in the Press Statement of the Council, issued on March 1st, and its concern the need for humanitarian aid to be able to move freely within the most affected areas. Unfortunately, while it required the unanimity of the Council, the press statement falls even below a Presidential Statement in terms of enforcement, leaving the current draft the sole hope for an enforceable call to the table for the parties and push for NGOs and other aid workers to deliver much-needed supplies into Homs and other areas. Such an effort would coincide with the calls of Valerie Amos, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance, who in concluding her visit to Homs, plaintively wondered where the citizens of the Baba Amr neighborhood, heavily targeted by shells, have relocated.

The main sticking point in the resolutions’ passage, however, can be found in Operative Clause 4, which is the subject of Russian and Chinese ire:

OP4    Calls upon the armed elements of the Syrian opposition to refrain from all violence immediately upon implementation of paragraph 3 of this resolution;

As paragraph 3 is the clause dealing with the implementation by Damascus of the Arab League’s Plan of Action from November, Russia and China are skeptical of the West and Gulf States’ intentions in the proposed language. Any allowance for the Free Syrian Army to continue attacks on government forces with impunity is a sure step to regime change in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing. Likewise, the Western members of the P-5 smell stalling and a desire to continue selling arms to Syria in Russia’s concerns. A high-level meeting of the Security Council on Monday highlighted these differences, while offering small morsels for a united stance by the full Council.

The mirror image that can be seen between the US, UK, France and the Arab State’s clash with Russia and China and the Syrian opposition’s distrust of Assad is hampering any chance of actual dialogue moving forward. This isn’t to say that concerns of potentially negotiating in bad faith are entirely unwarranted or validated on either side. The opposition has seen time and again promises of reform from the Assad regime coupled with increased attacks and shelling on civilian populations. Meanwhile Russia and China are hesitant to encourage political turnover that could later come back to haunt them, though I give less credence to the “Libya prevented Syria” theory than many do.

Outside of Turtle Bay, the Joint UN-Arab League envoy, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is facing similar problems in gaining the trust of the opposition and government. This morning, Annan stated that a Syrian response to his plan for mediated talks with the opposition had only prompted “more questions”, a highly diplomatic way of implying that Damascus was stalling for time. Meanwhile, the opposition finds itself splintering further still, with two top members resigning in recent days. For Annan, the task of pushing forward with mediation between not two Parties, but at least five, is a challenge in and of itself. Media reports that he ended his visit to Syria “empty-handed”, however, belie the time that seasoned observers knew would be needed in pushing for a deal. Annan is scheduled to brief the Security Council on his efforts thus far via video conference on Friday morning.

Despite disheartening setbacks, there are some signs for cautious optimism in gaining Russian acquiescence on a text in the Council. This weekend, the Russian Federation met with the League of Arab States to discuss Syria, producing Five Points of agreement on how to move forward in ending the conflict. The points, while short on detail, do offer the clearest sign yet that Russia may eventually come around to supporting the UN’s diplomatic push fully:

1. Cessation of violence from all sides.

2. An impartial monitoring mechanism.

3. No external interference.

4. Unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.

5. Firm support for Kofi Annan’s mission to launch a political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups in accordance with the mandate contained in the terms of reference approved by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States

So the question remains: how do you push for two sides riddled with mistrust to lay down their arms? The answer: the same way you do in every civil conflict, through a combination of cajoling, threats, promises, and bribes by the supporters of the opposing sides. Unfortunately for the Russian and Chinese position, it’s unlikely that the Free Syrian Army will be ending their strikes against the government prior to the withdrawal of tanks and armed forces from cities and towns. Syria giving in to this request, however, places the onus on the FSA to hold up their end of the bargain, or give Syria renewed diplomatic strength to restart their assault. A Russian threat to withhold arms sales and withdraw trainers for advanced systems without compliance to a Security Council resolution, along with a promise to redouble the Syrian line of credit in the event of a violation of a ceasefire by the FSA, would move the chance of talks along swiftly.

Similarly, the Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, can take concrete steps towards a solution by toning down their rhetoric for the time being, including the calls for military intervention and their actual continuing supply of arms to the FSA. These actions are prolonging the conflict, providing credence to Assad’s embattled rhetoric, and hindering the efforts of the UN to actually bring a peaceful solution to bear. If Qatar and the Saudis wish to invade Syria as badly as they seem to want to at times, I suggest they do so and unite world opinion finally, in a state to state conflict that the UNSC was designed to quash. In any case, cooler heads in Riyadh and Doha would be appreciated. By the same token, the Syrian National Council, currently the most organized opposition group, though barely, should revoke its decision to form a ‘Military Bureau’ to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army. Now is not the time to show enhanced unity of cause by escalating the military conflict.

I would also at this point consider amending language to the US draft from its current request for Annan to work with the Syrian government, other parties in Syria, and member-states, to upgrade Annan’s mandate from being provided by the General Assembly and the Arab League to the Security Council and Arab League. While this may not affect Annan’s mission operationally, it would add increased weight to his attempts to foster peace, including the backing of the most powerful body in the UN system. Further pressure could be placed by demanding that these Parties cooperate fully with Annan, but I have my doubts this suggestion would be heeded.

Finally, I would note that this draft resolution is a good, workable framework for negotiating with Russia and China over an actual call for a ceasefire. The language as proposed for Operative Clause 4 surprised me in how directly it supported the oppositions’ status as the aggrieved over the government, enough for me to presume that the clause was there as a negotiating start point. Instead, Secretary Clinton on Monday was unabashed in the need for the government to stop shooting first. The consternation from Russia was palpable. The United States, though correct in its principles, should yield to the politics necessary to pass this political document for a political solution. As the Russian-Arab Five Points indicate, there are points of commonality in the positions of the fifteen Council members. Rather than continue to insist that the exact wording of the resolution remain intact, the West needs to focus on the momentum that will come from finally gaining a statement from the Security Council on Syria and lay down their own rhetorical arms. Passage of a resolution at the Security Council level, in theory, could serve as a catalyst for their mirror images to do the same. Continuing to delay over the insistence that the other side blink first is a recipe for continued strife and increased carnage.

March 8, 2012

UNESCO. C’mon. You’re killing me.

As you may have noticed by now, I have an affinity for the United Nations system, in all its splendor and for all its bruises. As such, I take it quite badly when portions of that system are attacked unfairly. The latest whipping boy of the system has been the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For having the most benign sounding name ever, it is constantly finding itself in turmoil it seems. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration withdrew from the organization entirely. We returned in 2003, but relations aren’t exactly prime right now.

Last year, funding was stripped from UNESCO by the US and Israel for its members voting to allow a seat for Palestine as a full member state. Emphasis on “state”. A relatively obscure law in the United States kicked in, revoking all funding for UNESCO and threatening the same to any other body within the United Nations system that allowed for a Palestinian State to take a seat, circumventing Israel/Palestine peace talks. I did not approve of this move. The Obama Administration has made clear that it wants to get a waiver for the current fiscal year for UNESCO from Congress, and has included its normal funding levels in the FY13 Proposed Budget. The likelihood of this being approved by Congress is lower than the odds that Joseph Kony will see how reviled he is on Facebook and turn himself in. But I digress. It was a move that showed support for the United Nations, and so I was happy.

But UNESCO’s Executive Board is currently meeting, and the collection of states are taking steps that make me bang my head against my desk and cause me to question my support. Before continuing, let me make clear that I know this goes against my separation of Member States from the institution, but really now, I feel this is worthy of my scorn. The first issue is a bit more complex than the second. Equatorial Guinea’s strongman president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo donated a large sum of money to UNESCO in 2008 to establish a life sciences prize named after him. Considering Equatorial Guniea’s rampant corruption, drug trafficking, and abuse of human rights, there was mild consternation at this prize by the human rights community, up to and including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The prize has been on hold since it was first approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board due to backlash.

Until recently, that is. Obiang, rather than withdrawing the prize as recommended by the Executive Director of UNESCO, has graciously allowed it to move forward without his name. Human Rights Watch, among others, isn’t of the opinion that the prize should be offered at all, with or without his name, and UNESCO’s own lawyers indicate that the prize can’t be awarded with a name change due to the stipulations of the donation. But, being a bold champion of freedom, a commission of the Executive Board has approved the prize by a vote of 33-18 with six abstentions. The full Board still has to approve, but with that lopsided a vote, I’m not sure a renewed campaign to sway the outcome will be effective in time.

The second rage-inducer is quite a bit more straightforward. The international community has, for a full year now, been on course for a systematic removal of Syria’s authority and role in the system. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, Syria isn’t a part of many international organizations to begin with. But last year, for reasons passing understanding, the Arab bloc at UNESCO put forward Syria as their representative to fill a seat on the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to it. The West has been pushing since then to have Syria removed, which would be in line with actions taken against Libya in the run-up to the passage of Security Council Resolution 1973.

According to a copy of the draft resolution obtained by Nabil Abi Saab, however, that doesn’t look to be in the cards. As Reuters explains:

Ambassadors, including those of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria’s situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board meeting this week.

Seventeen states led by Russia last week attempted to block the move and appear to have managed to convince members to water down the resolution.

“It is a strong condemnation. Eighteen countries of the executive council have signed it and it will be presented later today for vote,” a diplomatic source at UNESCO said.

A strong condemnation is great, really. But it shows far less resolve than is warranted for the situation at hand. What’s worse, it was such a simple move, removal of a country that is being further isolated by the day from a committee that, let’s be honest here, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Rather than sending a message of warning to Damascus, the passage of this resolution shows a lack of unanimity from the world that has been the plague of formulating a political solution to the crisis. The continued presence of Syria on the committee also manages to drag down the credibility of UNESCO, already low in the United States and potentially spreading to other Western states. Again, I understand that the Executive Board is composed of Member-States and so their decisions are outside the control of the Executive Director and Secretariat of UNESCO, but between the acquiescence to the delivery of the Obiang prize and the lack of resolve on Syria, UNESCO is letting me down here. So get it together, UNESCO. I want to keep on defending you, but you have to give something back to this relationship.

March 1, 2012

Tea and Kofi: The Next Month for Syria and the UN

One of the most under appreciated aspects of the UN Security Council is the rotating Presidency of the Council. Under the Provisional Rules, the President of the Security Council serves for a month, before the member that follows under the English alphabet takes over. Running the Council means you get to set the Provisional Agenda for the month, and lay out the course of Council debate for the next four weeks. This especially matters when it comes to handling ongoing crises, as different states take different approaches to the matters before the UNSC.

As of tomorrow morning, Togo hands over the gavel to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At the end of March, the UK will pass the Presidency to the United States of America. The US and UK always serve back to back, barring the presence of the United Republic of Tanzania on the Council, but I believe the next two months will show a marked change in the presence of the situation in Syria at the horseshoe table. As if to signify its commitment to taking on Damascus head-on, the United Kingdom already has a draft Presidential Statement on deck:

The members of the Security Council express their deep disappointment that Ms. Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was not granted authorization to visit Syria by the Syrian Government in a timely manner, despite repeated requests and intense diplomatic contacts aimed at securing Syrian approval.  The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to grant the coordinator immediate and unhindered access.

The members of the Security Council deplore the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, in particular the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence such as Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib.

The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel  to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance, and call upon the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the United Nations and relevant humanitarian organizations to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and allow evacuation of the wounded from affected areas.

Presidential Statements don’t have the weight of international law behind them like resolutions do. But due to the fact that they require unanimity to be issued,  they are seen as a firm declaration of the Security Council’s intent to see a situation resolved. This specific text focuses on the need to deploy aid to the most areas hardest hit by Assad’s shelling campaign, which I find to be unlikely to make much of a difference, as its implementation would go against the siege strategy Damascus is employing. Despite this, odds of the draft passing are actually quite high, as China has already stated that Beijing is in favor, in principle, of humanitarian aid to be delivered to Syria, leaving Russia in the position of joining with the rest of the international community, or be alone against delivering medicine to civilians.

Also, London’s taking over at the Security Council makes it more likely that Syria will find a permanent place on the Agenda. As it stands, the situation in Syria has been debated under “The Situation in the Middle East” on the Council’s agenda, a catch-all that includes the Israel-Palestine crisis. Placing “The Situation in Syria” on the Council elevates the issue as being clearly one that negatively affects international peace and security, as why would it be discussed by the Security Council if it didn’t? What’s more, this move can’t be vetoed by Russia and China, as it would be a procedural vote, and nine votes clearly exist for the motion to pass.

As the UK’s draft is set to be tabled, the United States and France are working on a draft resolution to the same effect. I say “working” because the text is still only being circulated to “like-minded countries” for now. I’ve yet to see a copy of the full text, but it looks like al-Arabiya has, even if they aren’t publishing it in its entirety. I’m not sold on the idea of a purely “humanitarian” resolution doing much or going very far in deliberations, as I’ve noted before. The United Nations Security Council is a political body by nature. Even when it resorts to authorizing force under Chapter VII, as Clausewitz said, what is war but an extension of politics? It looks like several Western diplomats agree with me, despite their best efforts:

Russia, U.N. diplomats said, has indicated that it would support a resolution that focuses exclusively on the humanitarian crisis without any mention of the political situation. Arab and Western diplomats, however, say that such a resolution would be unacceptable to them.

While the Brits take over in the Security Council, the General Assembly has pledged to work together with the Arab League to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. Having been tasked to appoint a Special Envoy for the region, much as I predicted, Secretaries-General Ban Ki-Moon of the UN and Nabil al-Araby of the Arab League have drafted the biggest name they could: Kofi Annan. While some may be doubtful of his appointment, the luster that comes from a former head of the United Nations can’t be denied.

Annan visited UN Headquarters today to discuss his new role, his arrival coinciding with UN Under Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs Valarie Amos being denied access into Syria. USG Amos’ inability to enter Syria’s border is especially concerning as it makes uncertain the future of Annan’s mission before it even begins. While in the past, Annan has been able to work with President Assad, it’s unsure if the relationship they developed will be able to become exploited to come to a political solution. His mandate, as given by al-Araby and Ban, is a broad one as it pertains to actively engaging all parties in Syria, effectively hoping to channel Annan’s clout with the regime and the ability to interact with the opposition sans bias. As it stands, if a political solution exists, it is much more likely to be brokered by Annan than by Moscow or Beijing.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of protests in Syria, it’s apparent that neither side is set to back down easily, particularly not now that the opposition finds itself awash in arms from neighboring states. At the Security Council this morning, the Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe upped the official total death toll in Syria to 7,500, highlighting the upswing in refugees and internally displaced people, now estimated at 25,000 and 100,000 respectively.

The United Nations, despite calls of ineffectiveness in handling the Syrian crisis, is still knee-deep in attempting to ensure that the violence against civilians comes to a halt, particularly at the Human Rights Council’s 19th Session and through the on the ground work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. In this light, between the United Kingdom running the Security Council for the month of March and Kofi Annan launching his quest for a solution, the next thirty days are sure to be a diplomatic whirlwind placing renewed pressure on Syria, with the United Nations at its center.

February 27, 2012

With Being a Great Power Comes Many Responsibilities

I don’t consider myself a realist, not truly. I believe that there are instances where motives other than power and gain thereof should promote policy-making. I believe that it’s part of the national good to work through multilateral organizations whereever possible and to share the burden of keeping the peace with friends and allies. I believe it’s possible to make moral decisions and good decisions and sometimes, just sometimes, have them wind up being the same thing. Which is why I’ve had such a problem with attempting to square myself with the ongoing problems in Syria. I’ve devoted more digital ink to the situation there than any other subject, barring the United Nations itself.

For observers of Syria in the Western world, the sense has been growing that the situation, if ever within the realm of possibility to control, is no longer within our ability to influence in a positive manner. To be frank, it hurts. It is frustrating beyond measure that the best we can hope for in this situation rapidly seems to be becoming “a short civil war”. It feels somehow wrong to even admit that possibility that there won’t be a solution that can be imposed from outside, as we sit here in front of our computer screens and watch atrocity after atrocity be committed. Today’s publication from Mother Jones on a “target list” circulated by the Syrian government, while well known to Syrian activists for months, is yet another look into the lengths the Assad regime is willing to go to cement its rule that is jarring to tuned-in liberals and conservatives alike.

A large part of this feeling comes from what has been a core part of our national identity for several generations now. The belief that the United States, due to its unique placement in the international system, is omnipotent and therefore can and should be able to fix all the world’s ills is a meme that has been proliferate and gaining strength since we charged to the rescue in 1917 and only grew with the end of the Cold War. However, that sort of belief, in ourselves and other states in us, is a falsehood that we should be quietly working to correct. The Syrian opposition may well have learned the lesson from Kosovo and Libya that eventually, the United States is coming. That we have to be coming, because that’s what the United States does. That belief can’t continue; as Robert Caruso made clear earlier today, the footprint for even a “limited” intervention would be far greater than many in the United States would be willing to consider. And no matter how gung-ho she may be in private, Secretary Clinton’s public concerns over arming the Syrian opposition are most certainly valid.

I don’t believe that this sort of thinking marks a belief in American Decline, or worry that we’re going to lose our status of preeminence in the international order. Rather, the exact opposite is true, that this viewpoint is one of a country that is finally comfortable with its role in international affairs. A large part of being a mature, responsible Great Power, or superpower even, is knowing that you can’t be everywhere at once. Even the world’s greatest power has limits and must reach a point where it determines whether its core interests are at stake. I truly want to have faith that the international community can unite to end the killing in Syria, and wish Kofi Annan the best of luck in his role as the joint United Nations-League of Arab States envoy in trying to strike a cease-fire. But the United States can’t do everything alone. Indeed, there are some lifts that are too heavy even for a coalition to achieve, as lack of consensus at the Friends of Syria meeting showed last week.

I haven’t given up hope that Syria surprises me in a positive way, clearing a path towards a solution. This became less likely than ever this morning with the announcement that the Syrian National Council, which the United Kingdom has indicated it will support as the legitimate government of Syria, has splintered with the formation of the Syrian Patriotic Group. The lack of a united opposition is just one of the reasons that United States is looking less and less likely to become directly involved, though indirectly providing material through our sales to allies. And it may be time for those of us who advocate for changes in norms, as represented by the Responsibility to Protect and other liberal international causes, to recognize that not every problem has a solution that can be pushed down by the United States. Or if there is one, there are associated costs and off-sets that we must be willing to accept. There are many responsibilities that Great Powers face, including one to their own people, and to the system at large, to maintain that status. To paraphrase a recent post by Jay Ulfelder, the moral response here may well be to act in the interest of the greater international community by forgoing intervention in Syria and be able to take on the world’s problems that we can solve.

February 23, 2012

Secretary-General: Not the Chief Legal Scholar of the UN

The ever-impressive Laura Rozen sat down with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota on Tuesday for a wide-ranging conversation. Among the topics that came up was ongoing tension among the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear program. An IAEA mission left Iran this week after failing to gain access to the Parchin military facility to the inspection team on the ground. Brazil and Turkey have been working together for years now to attempt to find a solution to the stalemate outside of the P5+1 negotiation process, so it’s no surprise that Minister Patriota wanted to discuss the matter. What truly caught my interest was his statement regarding the potential for Israeli preemptive strikes:

“No doubt adding an additional flashpoint of military action in a volatile region will greatly exacerbate tensions,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told Yahoo News in an interview in New York Tuesday. The international community should proceed “with the utmost caution.”

“There is a role for him in this,” Patriota said he had proposed to the UN chief. “One sometimes hears the expression, ‘all options are on the table.’ But some actions are contrary to international law.”

Patriota’s comments come as the United States, United Kingdom and Russia have asked Israel both privately and publicly not to carry out a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I agree with Mr. Patriota that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be the catalyst for an even more unstable Middle East, and that states should actively seek to discourage Tel Aviv from taking such a course of action. I further believe that the United Nations most certainly has a role to play in continuing to foster negotiations between Iran and the rest of the world on how to verify that its nuclear program is peaceful. I’m slightly more hesitant about his stressing the need for the Secretary-General to weigh in.

The United Nations Secretary-General has many jobs as the head of the world’s most far-flung international organization. As the chief of the Secretariat, he manages thousands of civil servants around the globe, each strive to improve . As the face of the United Nations, Mr. Ban has to bear the brunt of criticism when things go wrong, when his nominal employees perform horrific acts, or when states dig their heels in against taking strong action counter to the rest of the world. Under the Article 99 of the UN Charter, the Secretary-General has a role in maintaining peace and security, having the unilateral ability to bring items of concern before the Security Council. Here’s where things get more conflicted. A denouncement of Israel planning strikes against Iran is perfectly valid as a practical matter; as a matter of legal principle, however, I’m uncertain whether “legal scholar” is a hat the Secretary-General does or should wear.

The UN Charter maintains some vagaries when it comes to Article 51’s defense of self-defense. International law experts have grappled with its terms for over six decades now, though the majority cite the need for “an armed attack” to occur prior to being able to invoke the clause. This becomes difficult to align with the notion of the preemption of an imminent attack, as intelligence-gathering has gained in sophistication since the drafting of the Charter. The cloud surrounding the concept if anything has grown murkier over the last decade, in no small part thanks to the Bush Administration’s acceptance of “preventive” action. Kofi Annan had no such qualms, however, addressing the General Assembly in 2010 denouncing the concept in its entirety. That was an immediate past Secretary-General, not a sitting one, though Annan didn’t hesitate in speaking out against the US’ war against Iraq.

If the Secretary-General does speak out against Israel taking unilateral action, it should be seen as a plea to keep the situation from spiraling out control and exacerbating the current threat to international peace and security. I’m less certain that it should be seen as international condemnation of the principles behind the theory of preemptive action and a rebuke of the concept in general. I personally feel a great deal of ambivalence towards the concept; the UN Charter leans strongly against its legality, and yet I have trouble squaring away that were I to be a world leader, I would ignore accurate intelligence to uphold it. It’s a matter that should be debated and rightly deserves a renewed focus in the current environment, but I believe that debate should be at the International Court of Justice, not the halls of the Secretariat.

February 14, 2012

Libya: Neither Paradise nor Beyond Thunderdome

Since the end of the NATO bombing portion of the Libyan civil war, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether the West acted in the right in intervening in the first place. The thrust of the two main arguments are that either: the United States and its allies prevented a massacre, upheld the Responsibility to Protect, and the future of Libya is a far brighter one than if Qaddafi had been allowed to hold power; or, the entire mission was a mistake from the beginning, one lacking the strategic components necessary to be worth it, and the aftermath is a Libya that is far from the ideal that the former group paints it as. Both groups have solid points, though I myself lean more towards the former. It’s hard to argue, though, with the fact that Libya’s transition to democracy is anything but smooth.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) which first consolidated the revolution against Qaddafi into political power has been less than effective when it comes to actually governing the state. This isn’t all that much of a surprise to me, considering that while several members did formerly serve in the regime, way back when, the Qaddafi government was basically one-man. Any semblance of lasting institutions were completely torn-down over the Colonel’s lengthy rule, and rebuilding those is going to take time, far less time than most outsiders are willing to provide rebuilding states. When one person has controlled all decisions, and changed laws and rules according to his whim, how then do you know how to run a state? And don’t accuse me of paternalism at this point; it’s not that I think the Libyans are incapable of self-rule, just that they don’t have practice.

One of the most frustrating things to see in the aftermath of conflict is an insistence that new governments move faster, seize control of their territory quicker, raise themselves to the standards we have set for them. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that new governments have a responsibility to move as quickly as possible in providing, among other things, security and good governance to their people. Pressure should be kept up on these states, less they think that its acceptable behavior to the international community. But I don’t expect perfection overnight, or for a government to completely rebuild its civil society in six months time. As someone who opposed the War in Iraq at its outset, one of the least convincing arguments I’ve heard about why it was a terrible idea is the current lack of political stability in Iraq, which oddly enough is one of the right’s largest reasons why we shouldn’t have withdrawn our uniformed forces. But I digress.

I’m not an expert in democratization, but I do believe that these things take time. Tripoli fell just shy of six months ago; Qaddafi was killed four months ago. Going by the standards that many seem to arbitrarily set on either completely new political entities like South Sudan or new regimes such as the one in Libya, the United States itself was an abject failure for the first several years of its existence. Soldiers went unpaid and over-armed, the central government wasn’t sure how to enforce its will on new territory, the original system set up to govern was found to be completely unworkable, there were questions on how to handle loyalists who still lived in the new country. The list goes on. Two centuries of practice exist between now and then, leading many to believe that the country sprung forth in its current form.  The basic principles remain the same, so far as state-building goes, and those two-hundred years of practice aren’t easily transferred.

It’s in this light I came across an article in the Washington Post, helpfully posted by Daniel Solomon, describing a new challenge faced by the NTC:

Representatives of about 100 militias from western Libya said Monday they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and allow them to press the country’s new government for further reform.

The move was a blow to the National Transitional Council, which helped lead the eight-month uprising against longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi that ended with his capture and death in October. The NTC has struggled for months to stamp its authority on the country, and has largely failed to decommission or bring under its control the hundreds of militias that fought in the war.

There is an initial, visceral reaction to this news, one that speaks to many of the fears that go hand-in-hand with the Arab Spring writ large. The fear that for all our best hopes, this will end in a new enemy to the United States. I think that there’s reason behind this reaction, but I do think that there’s also room for cautious optimism. This development could go one of two ways, by my seeing. The first, far preferable way to outside observers, is that the militias in the new Federation accept the results of future elections and continue the development of a political wing to their machinations. Members of this Federation could contest seats in the National Parliament elections this summer against those backed by the NTC. They could then go on to become either a loyal opposition to the members of the NTC, or the leaders of the government in their own right. Or, given the difficulties that the NTC has in unifying command under the Defense Ministry, the Federation could face the same problems and lose control of its groups, furthering violence as they turn on each other. Neither path is a foregone conclusion at this point.

Splits of this nature aren’t inevitable, but they have always been likely, considering that rather than undergoing the Libyan version of de-Baathification, many officers in the National Army are holdovers from the Qaddafi days. What’s needed in Libya is an increase of trust between militias and transparency on behalf of the NTC. Proposals, not laws yet, for how to divide up Libya’s oil revenues should be prepared ahead of the seating of the new Parliament and made public, and NTC meetings should be made more open until national elections in June. Militias should be encouraged to reach out to each other, in information sharing and training exercises, fostered by the Ministry of Defense. I don’t believe that the many disparate militias will cede control automatically; transition time there is needed, too.

None of this is intended to give a free pass to the NTC for its failings and carpet over difficulties inherent in transitioning to a democratic state. The NTC shouldn’t get just a pat on the shoulder and soothing words for its inability to prevent torture in militia hospitals. Nor is it a naive wish and hope that renewed clashes between militias will just go away. With the number of arms floating around the country, from light weapons to MANPADS, and the current lack of opportunity outside of the militias, the now once-weekly clashes in Tripoli are likely to continue. Rather, this is to say that the United States in particular should be working to assist the NTC and this new group in forming a free and prosperous Libya together.  I stress again I’m not an expert on any of these matters; if what I’m saying is misreading the situation or runs counter to facts, correct me. But in my view, instead of panicking and washing our hands of Libya, we should be fostering ties, and lending assistance wherever possible, through the auspices of the State Department or the United Nations, to keep Libya from pulling apart at the seams.

February 12, 2012

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.

February 8, 2012

What’s next for the United Nations and Syria?

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.

Wait:

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.

February 4, 2012

Et tu, People’s Republic? Et tu?

I have coverage of this morning’s Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria up at UN Dispatch. If you’ve been paying attention to my last few posts here on how Syria is faring at the UN Security Council, you’ll know that the Russian veto came as no surprise to me. A disappointment, yes. But not a surprise. China on the other hand managed to surprise the hell out of me. When I first began hearing rumors of a double veto, I was definitely shocked. The meme that’s existed since the People’s Republic took over the seat from Taiwan, that China will likely abstain on a draft where it the situation is not in China’s backyard and doesn’t authorize force over the will of the state in question rather than veto, may finally be dead.

The reasons why Russia opposed this resolution are known to be numerous, legion even, mostly based around its arms sales and the use of its naval base at Tartus. China’s motivation for vetoing the resolution was overlooked entirely this week. Throughout the last several days of negotiations, not a peep was said about China having substantive issues with the draft. Not one journalist picked up rumors that Li Baodong’s vote would be anything other than an abstention, or if they did I missed the article. I don’t fault them though, as even the United Kingdom’s Mission was completely without warning:

Yes, we were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations. So we thought that they were able to accept the text that was put into blue by the Moroccans.

China’s choice to make its strong opposition to the draft public strikes me as odd. A China who abstains on this draft while Russia vetoes would have the exact same outcome without the public grief that Russia would have gotten. China’s objections would never come to fruition as Russia had already tanked its chances of passing. Why is Beijing inviting bad publicity in the Arab World at a time when ties were beginning to strengthen?

There are two reasons I can think of for China to choice to cast a veto rather than abstaining: the first, that Russia was in the end wavering unless it had support in vetoing, which would forced China to come out against, lest provisions in the document China didn’t accept passed through unopposed. Given Ambassador Churkin’s attempts to amend the text in the minutes leading up to the vote, I doubt this would be the case.

The second is that China is sending a message to members of the Arab World that are less sure about Qatar and the Arab League”s new policies: “We won’t come for you next”. If and when new protests rise up, requiring the members of the GCC to use enough force that the issue makes it to the Security Council, China would veto intervention and continue arms sales. Given how cynical I feel right now, this seems more likely to me, but it still doesn’t square with China’s usual affirmation of the usefulness of regional bodies in solving regional issues. The main reason everyone expected China to abstain was that the request and basic structure of the draft came from and supported the League of Arab States.

No matter what the reason behind it, China seems to be getting less blame than Russia over this, by far. Still, I get the feeling China has likely miscalculated. Things are going to get worse in Syria before they get better. And should Assad fall, as the many new members of the Free Syrian army recruited based on this veto will strive for, the new government will remember who helped keep Bashar in power. Even if the Arab League plan is somehow implemented, the new members of the unity government will still need someone to blame; China has graciously volunteered to keep Russia company in this regard.