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.

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July 26, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: Romney’s Overseas Adventures

This post is most certainly not about the United Nations. For those of you who came upon this blog once I’d taken in that direction, you probably don’t know that it started out as a way for me to vent about international relations writ large and the US’ foreign policy. So, we’re going to take it back to the roots and do a little bit on a topic near and dear to me: Willard Mitt Romney.

Today marked the opening leg of Mitt Romney’s No Apologies/You Really Like Me World Tour. In planning this jaunt, the Romney for President team made sure to pull out all the stops in making sure that things went well. The trip would only take the candidate to firm US allies, whom Governor Romney could accuse the President of ignoring. In the United Kingdom, Romney would be able to highlight his experience in saving the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Poland would be a chance to slam President Obama on his Russian “reset”. The crown jewel of the voyage would allow Mitt the chance to really hammer home how much better a friend to Israel he would be than Barack.

The trip to London was off to a rocky start as a piece in the Daily Telegraph has an unnamed Romney aide quoted as saying “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special” and that the “White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.. While this Anglo-Saxon claim might not be as historically accurate as depicted, it leaves the viewer wondering what Gov. Romney would bring to that relationship that President Obama doesn’t. This special relationship though would be a new attraction for Mitt, who in his book No Apologies doesn’t speak well of the island.

Gov. Romney hoped to put all that behind him and kicked off this morning with an interview with Brian Williams to help set the mood:

But he told US television there were “disconcerting” signs about Britain’s readiness. “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” he said. “There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.”

The comments weren’t well received by his hosts in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron, who Mitt met with earlier today, has rejected the idea that Britain isn’t prepared. Mayor of London Boris Johnson later whipped a crowd into a fury by telling them, “There’s a guy named Mitt Romney who thinks we’re not ready. Are you ready?” The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. It’s also worth pointing out that both Johnson and Cameron are members of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

The Israeli leg was scheduled to include a fundraising dinner on July 29th. The problem: that falls directly on the Jewish “Day of Mourning”, a day of fasting and prayer. While the campaign has made clear that the fundraiser will be held an hour after the breaking of the fast, the optics involved still aren’t the best. Adding onto Mitt’s woes is that in an attempt to block the enthusiasm Mr. Romney’s visit to Israel will generate, the White House is launching a counter-offensive. While Gov. Romney is in the Levant, the White House has President Obama signing the Israel-United States Cooperation Act, a boost to already strong US-Israeli ties. Maybe Poland will have a better reception for Governor Romney?

All of this though is merely having some fun knocking the Governor for style points. We can’t read overly much into these foibles, as the personal relationship that a President has with other Heads of Government is important, but by no means the only indicator of a successful foreign policy. Instead, the reason that we focus on these missteps by the Romney campaign are because they are quite literally all that we have to go on at this point.

The foreign policy statements from Gov. Romney have been exceedingly sparse. In his most recent speech, he offered up plenty of rhetoric, but nothing in the way of solid proposals for what he would do differently than the incumbent. Those things he has suggested in the past, such as building up the armed forces, directly contradict other things he has put forward, such as lowering taxes while cutting the deficit.

This trip will surely be compared to the Obama campaign’s world swing during the ’08 election, and not positively. The Romney camp will spin it that just because the Governor doesn’t have throngs of people cheering for him doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t successful. I’d point out that then Senator Obama also gave detailed policy speeches during his time abroad. Mitt’s itinerary has what was once a major foreign policy speech downgraded to remarks in Jerusalem. The foreign policy crowd is pretty attentive, Governor. Give us something real to discuss, and maybe we’ll stop talking about the little things.

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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June 29, 2012

I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed: Failures of Transparency and Accountability at the UN

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with my attempts to protect the UN from scurrilous attacks and slander. It’s a sad truth that the United Nations is often beset by its critics as being a weak-willed and corrupt institution, overabundant in ways to erect roadblocks to progress and lacking in its oversight. Sometimes those critics, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.

In the case of roadblocks, often the structure of the body is at fault, with Member States exploring ways to hinder inquiries and reports that reflect poorly on its interests. The most recent example is the delay in the release of the Group of Experts report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent weeks. The report is mandated by the Security Council as part of its sanctions regime against Kinshasaa and the a late-drafted annex to the latest deliverable points fingers at the Rwandan government for sowing insurrection in the DRC. The United States sought to hold off on the publication of the damning annex, first citing procedural reasons, then asking that the Rwandan government be able to review before release. Eventually, the US agreed to allow the document to be published in full, with the Rwandan government immediately issuing a statement of denial.

The Group of Experts report incident is less representative of the UN as organization, and more reflective of its role as collection of states. However poorly stonewalling in the Security Council of technical reports reflects on the body, though, it is still a political creature by nature. The Secretariat, on the other hand, has done little to help change the stereotype of an organization riddled with mismanagement. Indeed,  the lack of desire for transparency shown by the permanent staff at Turtle Bay seems absolute, even when the revelation of misdeeds serves its own interests.

A prime example of the latter comes in the UN’s incomprehensible handling of the situation surrounding peacekeepers assigned to Haiti. Following the accusation that Nepali blue helmets had inadvertently introduced cholera into earthquake-ravage Haiti, the UN managed to display precisely how not to handle a crisis. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United Nations refused to acknowledge its role in the spread of the disease, complicating efforts to treat the outbreak. Rather than stepping forward, accepting responsibility, and rotating out the Nepali contingency, the attempt to ward itself from criticize only provoked greater mistrust from the Haitians it was meant to protect.

The Haitian incident reflects the UN’s unease at responding in an accountable manner to external criticism. Even more unfortunate is its inability to handle internal criticism. After facing the fact that its Ethics Office is less than adept at handling cases of misdeeds by upper level staff, the General Assembly authorized the creation of the UN Dispute Tribunal in 2009, granting it binding authority to impose decisions even on top officials. The Secretariat has pushed back since its inception to attempt to weaken the body, but the Tribunal handed down its first decision recently, slamming the UN Ethics Office for its lack of protection in the case of whistleblowers.

This report from al-Jazeera provides more details on the case and its outcome:


On the one hand, I sympathize with those within the Secretariat who have to handle such cases on a regular basis. As indicated in the article, and detailed in former Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding made clear in his memoir, there are often forces at work preventing the effective management of employees. Among those issues are the system by which states are provided as near ‘equitable geographical distribution’ in staffing opportunities as possible, resulting in a quota system that doesn’t effectively bring on the most qualified staffers. Also, the system by which complaints regarding worker efficiency are processed is often met with an uproar that dwarfs the same in various national governments with retaliatory accusations are the norm in this climate.

Despite that, the actions of the UN in failing to protect legitimate whistle-blowers are still inexcusable. And the culture surrounding this attitude goes straight to the top floor in UN HQ. The Secretary-General is known for his mild-mannered nature compared to his predecessor, his desires to push for greater unified efforts towards sustainable development and outreach to the citizens of the states that make up the UN, and his unimpressive joke-telling abilities. The Wasserstrom case, and his gutting of the minimal authority granted to the Ethics Office in 2007, shows another side of Ban, one that is more concerned with preserving the freedom of action of the Office of the Secretary-General than of true reform.

This is a clear case of scolding because I love. The UN is an institution that deserves far more appreciation than it gets, and owes the world a far better system than it presents. The need for greater reforms from top to bottom are apparent to anyone. Challenges faced by would-be reformers in any bureaucracy are daunting, not least due to entrenched mindsets and long-time benefactors of the current system. However, reform is indeed necessary, less the good continue to be obscured by the bad in the UN system. The Secretariat, and especially the Secretary-General, needs to recognize a crisis at home that it actually has the power to fix, one that affects its ability to fulfill its other missions and in turn hurts the globe writ large. It’s hard to convince the world that you’re a global force for good when you refuse to face up to your own flaws.

June 27, 2012

The Group of (X) is the Future of Multilateralism. Solve for X

After an unplanned descent into wearying illness, I find myself severely behind on the times. The month of June has been anything but slow at Turtle Bay and beyond, with multiple global flare-ups that I’ve wanted to cover. I plan on getting to most of those in due time, but for now, I want to take a look at a much the past few weeks from a much broader perspective. Further, I’d like to thank Sean Langberg for provoking this train of thought to the forefront of my mind at his excellent new blog.

The first week of June was spent, while simultaneously fighting off sickness, taking part in an annual event known as the G8 & G20 Youth Summits, as part of the American Delegation. There I was joined by peers from around the world, representing each of the states of the G20, and the European Union. Over the course of a week, I and seven others sequestered ourselves in a room in DC to discuss our various homeland’s opinion of issues of international law, and eventually hammered out a joint agreement of principles.

Serving as an undercurrent throughout the experience was the question of what purpose the various “Group of” bodies serve in the international sphere. The common consensus among those states from the G8 states was that smaller collaborations were the key to breaking through problems. Those from the wider G20 clearly believed that only greater representation at the table among those affected by decisions would prove effective in the long run. Both rolled their eyes at the inability of the United Nations to get anything done.

Their point seemed to be proven when the United Nations hosted the Rio+20 sustainable development summit on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Conference that fully launched the environmental movement among the international community. The conference failed to produce either the sweeping, binding commitments towards a green future that only the extremely optimistic had thought stood a chance, or any sort of new path forward at all.

And yet at the actual G8 and G20 summits, held weeks apart Camp David and in Mexico, there were also extremely few tangible outcomes at either. The hoped for breakthrough on Syria between the US and Russia failed to materialize, and those G20 states of the Global South can’t have been pleased with the excessive focus Europe received during Mexico. Both the G20 and Rio have been panned heavily for having too much in expectations and not enough in results, which begs the question: what good is having a seat at the table if nothing gets done still? And is there a model that’s able to actually live up to the pressures placed on it?

As a point of comparison between the two systems, one loose and one structured, the former is actually the older invention, dating back to before the Concert of Europe. The intergovernmental organization (IGO), with its state-based membership, governance by treaty, and dedicated set of civil servants working to serve the organization, above the fray of governments, is the younger on the international scene at almost two centuries old. Born of a novel approach to settling disputes over navigation in 1815, the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine was the first to embody these ideals.

The idea was run with in the creation of the International Telegraph Union and found its calling in the League of Nations, seen by the last vestiges of the 19th century’s style of diplomacy as the hope for the future. Despite the failures of the League, this model has served as the basis for a wide range of IGOs, from the United Nations to NATO to relative newcomers such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, it’s striking that the last of these chose to follow in the footsteps of past organizations in its structure, considering the very Western history of the arrangement.

Despite the rise of formal IGOs, the determination of whether to have looser ties or more permanent structures is still fluid and based strongly on the preference of the states that make up the group and the purposes it seeks such a united front. For example, the age of decolonization saw the rise of the Group of 77, the confederation of developing states inside the United Nations that pushes the South’s agenda. Even this group, whose numbers now include 138 states, made sure to draw up a binding Charter at its founding, though eschewing forming a Secretariat.

This ambiguity is absent in the ad-Hoc “contact groups” that spring up around hot spots in international affairs. The 1990s saw the establishment of the Contact Group on the Balkans, whose influence lasted well into the Kosovo crisis. As the Arab Spring turned on Muammar Qaddafi, the Friends of Libya was established to coordinate an international response. And today, Kofi Annan announced that he is set to host a new “Action Group” on Syria this Friday in Geneva, the first confab at which China and Russia have agreed to attend. And yet even these very focused confluences find it difficult to achieve tangible goals or even aligned policies.

Paradoxically, as the world grows more closely interconnected, the states who have the power to affect wide-reaching change rely on each other for more things and are thus loathe to break ties or stress points at the expense of others. From climate change to counter-terrorism to human rights, the list of matters that link states inextricably seems to be growing, with attempts at prioritization among the US and its allies seemingly nonexistent, especially when compared to the comparative focus of China and Russia, who are more able to work via status quo arrangements. This inability to find points of consensus may be a less of a systemic issue and more of a strategic failure on the point of states, but is a reality nonetheless.

So how will things actually happen and move forward with all this gridlock? Surprisingly enough, Rio+20 may have the answer to that question. While various groups have panned the end result of the Rio Conference, as Mark Goldberg points out, what is almost more important is what happened on the sidelines. Various commitments and initiatives were undertaken and launched between the public and private sectors on the edges of Rio. Smaller NGOS and entrepreneurs like Uncharted Play were able to gain exposure they never would have to various power holders, be they government officials or representatives of larger corporations. It turns out things got done in Rio, just between people, not states.

This isn’t to make the mistake of claiming that states aren’t important as we progress; as the continuing primary actors in the international sphere, their action or inaction carries the most weight. However, the secondary and tertiary actors in the forms of international corporations and organizations of civilians have the ability to work around states at times to promote their own ideals and goals. The downsides of this, such as gathering of power by largely unaccountable corporations, are apparent, but the chance for positive influence being pushed upon decision-makers within governments can’t be ignored.

What’s more, states still require forums for leaders and representatives to come together to discuss issues that affect the interests of each and all. Open dialogue and communication of interests and red-lines are among the most under appreciated factors that allows for peace between states. Instances in history where states have tried to keep their neighbors or adversaries guessing, as Eisenhower did in the 50s with China, tend to backfire due to overreaction on either side. The United Nations Security Council, while also the target of efforts to have it expand its circle of Great Power states, constantly proves its worth by providing the only forum for the Permanent Five states to air their grievances and concerns related to their security to each other on a regular basis.

The international community and its various ills are too dynamic to have the luxury of a one-size fits all model of multilateralism. Some issues, such as tackling long-term poverty and hunger, require the permanent efforts of bodies such at the United Nations, a Group of 193. Some, like countering violent upheavals in the financial systems of the world, require the intervention of the Group of 20.  Others will require the United States and China to sit down as a Group of 2 to work out issues bilaterally. And still others will require the citizenry of the world to attempt to work together in whatever ways possible as a Group of 7 Billion. In attempting to solve the problem of which permutation of states will best be able to save the world, we may just find that the answer is limitless.

May 30, 2012

Two Truths and a Lie: Mugabe and the UNWTO Edition.

The blogosphere has been aflame for the last day or so, as news broke that the United Nations had become a self-parody. The culprit: the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO, not to be confused with the WTO), who had confirmed many clichés by appointing President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as a “Tourism Ambassador”. While I tend to instinctively push back on critiques of the UN, I’ve been known to have to just shake my head at some of the choices the body and its subsidiaries make, and this one seems pretty outrageous.

Or is it? There’s a bit more nuance to the story than you can easily get across in 140 characters, and so I present to you an adaptation of the game “Two Truths and a Lie”. Like game itself, there are portions of this story that are accurate and one that is not. I’d like to clarify between them.

Truth: The UNWTO has named Zimbabwe as a Co-Host of its next General Assembly

At the end of the last meeting of the UNWTO in October of last year, the Member States bid to see who would win the distinction of hosting the next General Assembly meeting in 2013. In the end, the bid was won by both Zimbabwe and Zambia in a co-hosting role. How did this happen? As it turns out, the UNWTO’s decisions are implemented by the Executive Council, which is made up of 20% of the body, and seats apportioned by geography. Zimbabwe has utilized this distribution to gain a seat on the Executive Council, and further leveraged that seat to gain its Co-Host status. Zimbabwe is determined to use the opportunity to revitalize its image abroad.

The truth of the matter is that Zimbabwe should be playing no such host role, even if it is shared, and even if it is with so minor a body as the UNWTO. The repression and economic mismanagement of the Mugabe government is ongoing, and shows no sign of stopping. Promised reforms have yet to materialize almost a decade after a “power sharing” agreement kept Mugabe in his chair, and will not halt after the UNWTO Assembly has completed. This isn’t even comparable to the outrage expressed around North Korea’s Presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament, as at least that was due to alphabetic rotation. The Member States have willing chosen Zimbabwe to serve as a co-host, a folly at best.

Truth: The United States never joined the UNWTO, nor should it ever

The United States never opted to join up with the UNWTO after its founding in 1970, nor its predecessor the International Union of Official Travel ‎Organisations. This choice was probably for the best. Don’t get me wrong, the goals of the UNWTO are admirable, in particular their desire to promote sustainability and use tourism as a means to reduce poverty under the Millennium Development Goals. The agency likewise has over 400 “Affiliate Members”, mostly private sector representatives, who take part in the General Assemblies and bring together the public and private spheres.

However, that is about as far as my praise goes. While I promote the necessity of the United Nations as a whole, I do not believe that every agency and body within the UN system is of an equal standing or equal importance. The World Tourism Organization is one of the few bodies that I honestly believe would serve absolutely zero United States interests if we were to join up. Membership in a multilateral organization would do little to further enhance the US’ current standing as the second most visited country in the world. Nor would taking part in UNWTO meetings on ethical tourism likely have much of an impact on US policy.

Lie: Robert Mugabe was named a UN Tourism Ambassador

The main outrage that is being expressed is not at the host status of Zimbabwe, but the belief that the UN has named him a “Tourism Ambassador”. Here’s where the story breaks down. As noted by the UNWTO itself over its Twitter account, there is no such position that is being offered or has been offered at any point. So where did the notion come from?

The earliest use of the term I can find tracks back to this blog post that went up nearly a week ago from the Heritage Foundation. While they make several accurate points, the link that Mr. Brett Schaefer provides to cite his usage of the term “Tourism Ambassador” gives no evidence to back him up. The title was destined to sit idly until it exploded yesterday; gaining new life once the Guardian picked up on the meme, albeit in a slightly more muted form, which was then listed on the Drudge Report.

In reality, the UNWTO sent out an open letter to the Heads of State and Government of its Member States, asking them to sign onto the relevance of travel and tourism to today’s economic challenges. As Joshua Keating notes, those that have responded includes: “Mexico, South Africa, China, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Colombia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Armenia, Romania, Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Thailand, Georgia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines, Seychelles, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, and Gambia”. This is hardly the singling out of Mugabe that assigning an honorary “Ambassadorship” would entail.

In summation, the meme that a “Tourism Ambassadorship” was given to Mugabe is patently false. I myself took part in spreading it on Twitter yesterday, before becoming aware of the actual situation. In truth, there are definitely reasons to be upset about the role that’s been granted Zimbabwe at the UNWTO. There’s no need to make up fake ones.

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 23, 2012

Crying UNCLOS

Hearings finally opened today in Senator John Kerry’s push to get the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year’s end. The onslaught by Kerry comes as significant pushback is still being registered by his Republican counterparts, and calls that the trea-

I have to pause at this point to note that this is my no less than fifth attempt to write substantively about UNCLOS and its importance to the United States to ratify. I will further note that I don’t believe that I’ll be able to finish this post as intended. For me to actually be able to write about UNCLOS and the specific effects non-ratification would have on the United States, I would have to read the thing. And that is something that I just cannot do. Not for you, not for my love of the UN, not without serious bodily harm as a consequence for my not studying the text.

What is preventing me from reading the treaty? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is composed of seventeen parts. Which are in turn composed of three hundred and twenty articles. Nine annexes are also included within the Convention. Within that tome of international legalese, it finds rooms to preemptively settle scores of disputes that would likely arise between the various sea-going nations, ranging from matters of determining the Exclusive Economic Zone of each state to freedom of movement for armed vessels. Over 160 nations have so far signed on to and ratified the Convention, leaving the United States on the outside looking in, and me unable to look at the words “Law of the Sea” without my eyes glazing over.

Luckily for me, it’s not my job to read this overlong treaty. And it isn’t even the job of the Senators who will be hopefully voting on the treaty in the near future. Instead, that task likely falls to their various Legislative Directors and Assistants. I do not envy them at this juncture. But judging from the resistance that is being registered by certain Republicans, those staffers haven’t read the documents all that well themselves. As Mark Goldberg puts it in his back of the envelope whip count, this should be low-hanging fruit, but instead stands a solid chance of not reaching the 2/3rds majority required for ratifications.

So I give up. Rather than try to explain the scope and breadth of why the US should join UNCLOS myself, and I’ll let Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go to town on why opponents are mistaken in their resistance to the treaty:

Are there any serious drawbacks to joining this Convention? Opponents of the treaty believe there are, but they are mistaken. Some critics assert that joining the Convention would impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, joining the Convention will increase and strengthen our sovereignty. The Convention secures the United States an expansive exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, with vast resources in each. U.S. accession would lock-in our rights to all of this maritime space.

Some say that the Convention’s dispute resolution provisions are not in the U.S. interest. On the contrary, these procedures – which the United States sought – help protect rather than harm U.S. interests. As in many other treaties, including free trade agreements, such procedures provide the United States with an important tool to help ensure that other countries live up to their obligations. And U.S. military activities will never be subject to any form of dispute resolution.

Other critics have suggested that the Convention gives the United Nations the authority to levy some kind of global tax. This is also untrue. There are no taxes on any individuals, corporations, or anyone else under the Convention.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta on the national security benefits of acceding to UNCLOS:

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our [navy’s] actions. We undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?

At the other end of this arc sits the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners. We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there despite Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and help to further isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

 These are the key reasons for accession, which is critical to our sovereignty and our national security. That is why I fail to understand the arguments opposed to the treaty.

And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on the military’s ongoing desire to join UNCLOS:

The United States is a maritime nation—militarily and economically. We have the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone and the world’s largest and most capable navy. We stand to benefit from the additional legal certainty and public order this treaty would provide. Moreover, this certainty will become increasingly important as the global security environment becomes more competitive and more complex.

From the beginning, U.S. negotiators have been involved in the development of the Convention and have ensured it would both serve and protect our interests. Not joining the Convention limits our ability to shape its implementation and interpretation. We will need that influence if we intend to continue to lead in global maritime affairs.

Now is the time for the United States to join the Convention. We should not wait. The global security environment is changing. The Pacific and the Arctic are becoming increasingly important. And some nations appear increasingly willing to assert themselves and to push the boundaries of custom and tradition in a negative direction.

And Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin on the economic importance that the US ratifies the Convention:

Ratification is now critical to the important U.S. economic and national security interests advanced by access to the vast mineral and rare earth metals resources on the ocean floor. These mineral resources are vital to a wide array of defense and high-tech manufacturing products and systems – computers, mobile phones, lasers, aircraft engines, specialty glass, and missile guidance systems are just a few of the many products that contain rare earth metals. Considerable financial investment is required to access these mineral reserves and ensure that the U.S. has a reliable long-term source of supply that cannot be interrupted, monopolized, or otherwise controlled by foreign governments. That investment is only going to be secured for rights clearly recognized and protected within the established treaty-based framework.

This isn’t a case of liberal internationalism run amuck, or idealism in the face of harsh realities. Rather, the need for the United States to become a Party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea has been voiced by the White House continuously since the Reagan Administration, with support from the Armed Forces and the private sector. The only thing standing in the way for over thirty years has been the willful stubbornness of the United States Senate. A hard-fought battle to get many of the United States demands met in the 1994 Agreement didn’t manage to dislodge the Convention then, so maybe Senator John McCain’s promised amendments will bring the votes of those Senators with reservations. In any case, I’ll gladly support the Chairman Kerry in his push to finally get this treaty out of the Senate. Just don’t ask me to read the thing.

May 15, 2012

Does Size Really Matter?: The S5 and Security Council Reform

The United Nations has been a dual-track system since its birth. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, those subjugated demanded a world where true equality of nations was held paramount. Meanwhile, the victors who shouldered most of the burden during the past six years required a post-war system where their security needs were held paramount. The Charter of the United Nations reflects that uneasy balance, one that has been challenged since before the ink was dry on the recommendations of the Dumbarton Conference in 1944.

This discord, the push and pull between the General Assembly’s notion of equality and the special prerogatives granted to the UN Security Council, has cropped up many times over the last six decades. The most recent confrontation has the mighty Permanent Five taking on…the Small Five. The Small Five, or S5, is composed of Jordan, Costa Rica, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland and have come out swinging against the lack of transparency among the members of the Security Council. Their efforts have been chronicled by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch (after a fruitless attempt to pull together more information myself several weeks ago).

Despite the attempts of the P5 to keep the S5 from pressing forward with their draft resolution to further open up the processes of the Council, a vote of the full General Assembly is scheduled to take place tomorrow. According to the Swiss Mission, the draft is likely to receive a ringing endorsement from the Assembly. Considering the majority of the proposals contained in the draft, this isn’t a huge surprise. In all, the draft can be seen less in the context of the large states versus the small, as framed by Lynch, but as the continuation of an ongoing battle for political standing within the United Nations structure between the Council and the General Assembly, and in turn the Global North and Global South.

When the United Nations first came into session, it was assumed that the General Assembly would remain on equal footing with the Security Council, given the broad swath of issues under its purview via the Charter. As the membership of the Assembly and the UN as a whole expanded during the years of decolonization, however, the importance of the Assembly began to paradoxically shrink. The weight granted to it by the United States in the face of Soviet obstinacy in the Security Council during the 1950s had become too much of a liability with the large influx of post-colonial states. The General Assembly took on a position more and more in line with the principles of the Global South, from whence the vast majority of its members hailed. This was the face of the United Nations presented for the majority of its existence, as the US and USSR deadlocked the Council on the majority of major security issues.

After the thaw of the Cold War in the early 1990s, a resurgent Council leapt back into the fray, wielding its considerable authority under Chapters V, VI, and VII of the Charter with greater force, and use of force, than at any point in history. This return to form knocked the General Assembly from its pedestal, and onto the back-burner of the more pressing issues of international peace and security. Since then, a renewed clamor has sprung up surrounding the need for widespread reform of the Council, which had waxed and waned since the last major expansion of the Council in 19 63.

As noted in Lynch’s article, however, there is dissent among those states outside of the P-5 on how to best achieve that reform as “another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote — saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council”. What makes their dissent unsurprising in the context of a struggle between the GA and UNSC, is that the Uniting for Consensus group was first established in opposition to the Group of Four (Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan). Each member of the G4 has a counterpart in the Uniting for Consensus group seeking to prevent them from attaining a new form of regional hegemony. In short, the dissent among GA members is comparable to lower-income Americans being against raising taxes on the wealthy, in the hopes that they’ll one day join the ranks of the latter. Reformation of the Council to add in new seats requires amending the Charter, an act that is veto-able in the Security Council; it only makes sense for those who want to become permanent members themselves to have an interest in not offending the P5.

And so the S5 is pressing forward with their recommendations, the majority of which shift the balance of the Council’s functions to allow more participation by the states without seats. In particular, the issue of keeping peace is brought up several times throughout the annex, first in the context of providing a greater say for the chairs of the country-specific Peacebuilding Commissions during informal consultations of the Council. The inclusion of the Peacebuilding Commission chairs would indeed foster a more cohesive practice when it comes to developing missions and deployments to the countries in question. Such consultations would be particularly welcome in states like Guinea-Bissau that relapse into conflict. However, the informal consultations of the Council were first developed precisely so that no outsiders would be privy to the discussions; formal meetings of the Council are open to the public, and thus the informal consultation was developed to hash out positions and engage in the sausage-making of diplomacy outside of the limelight. In the current set-up any leak can be attributed to one of fifteen missions; accepting more players to the game increases the likelihood of spillage of private words in the eyes of Council members.

Likewise, the draft calls for more participation in informal meetings by those states who have contributed police officers or troops to peacekeeping missions. Such a proposal would be in line with the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter. Chapter VII, Article 43 called upon Member States to make available a negotiated number of armed forces to the UN Security Council at all times. Article 44 then gave those Member States a seat at the table in discussing just how those forces would be used. Without the implementation of Article 43, Article 44 became a moot point, which carried over into the usage of volunteered forces in modern-day peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions. However, the stigma against outsiders still pervades.

The S5 should be well aware of the difficulties that enacting such changes in the working practices of the Security Council would bring, for two reasons. First, they have had some successes in the past in having the Council become more open in its deliberations. Second, as seen in the Chart below, three of the members of the S5 have served on the Security Council, two of them within the last decade.

Country Years Served
Costa Rica 1974-1975 1997-1998 2008-2009
Jordan 1965-1966 1982-1983 X
Lichtenstein X X X
Singapore 2001-2002 X X
Switzerland X X X

They must thus be well aware of the jealousy with which the Security Council guards its ability to set its own rules. The Council is so devoted to ensuring that its rules never change, that they have been operating under their Provisional Rules since 1945; the set has never come to a vote for fear that they would be forced to change. And as United Kingdom Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant stated, the ability of the Council to set their own rules is enshrined in Article V of the Charter.

The above provisions are likely to be begrudgingly supported, though, should they pass overwhelmingly. Less likely to be acceded to are those in the final paragraphs, as they would shift the most autonomy away from the Council while granting the most oversight to the General Assembly:

19. Explaining the reasons for resorting to a veto or declaring its intention to do so, in particular with regard to its consistency with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and applicable international law. A copy of the explanation should be circulated as a separate Security Council document to all Members of the Organization.

20. Refraining from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

21. Establishing a practice, in appropriate cases, of declaring, when casting a negative vote on a draft resolution before the Council, that such a negative vote shall not constitute a veto in the sense of Article 27, paragraph 3, of the Charter.

The sole reason the United Soviet Social Republic was persuaded to join the United Nations was the assurance of its veto power in the Council. As I’ve stated before, while ugly, its uses are in fact in line with international law, as the Charter stands above near all international law. Dealing with the actual proposals themselves, the last point is easily explained away as a rephrasing of the principle of the abstention. While technically not a vote in favor as described under Chapter V of the Charter, abstentions have long since come to be accepted as an appropriate way for a Permanent Member to express dissent with the current text of a resolution without exercising the veto.

The other two are much trickier to handle in a way that would both do credit to the spirit of the request and protect the privileges of the Permanent Five. An option that could be taken, should this resolution pass, is in the first instance to give the Assembly too much of a good thing. I’m certain that, for example, should the United States feel the need to veto yet another resolution on Israel, that it could produce a tome of a document for the General Assembly, which nobody will read. Or, barring that, deliver a single paragraph of reasons behind the vote. The suggestion is vague at best, and unlikely to constrain the threat of veto by Permanent Members, let alone the actual usage.

The case remains strongest for the second of the three suggestions, which recommends that the veto not be used in the instance of a draft tabled dealing with genocide or mass atrocities. While normally the United States and the other Western members of the P5 would be in favor of such a suggestion, the inclusion of it with other recommendations dilutes its purpose and causes them to stand in lockstep with Russia and China over protecting their right under the Charter. While the attempt to produce political pressure on the Council is indeed admirable, it is unfortunate that this paragraph will ultimately be ignored by the Council.

The General Assembly and the Security Council are two sides of the same coin in international affairs. On the one side, you have the ideal state of being, where all states are equal in their sovereignty and their role in international affairs. On the latter, you have a much more realist view, with strong states doing as they will, and weak states doing as they must. The struggle for the United Nations between these two competing ideas is unlikely to be solved by this draft resolution. The S5, acting as the proxy of the General Assembly, aren’t the Lilliputians that they’re pegged to be. But in this instance it’s the Security Council that will most certainly refuse to be tied down.

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?