Posts tagged ‘arab league’

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 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 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.

December 5, 2011

Backblog: Russia Delivers Missiles to Syria

Over the course of the last week, I was engaged in helping put on a Model United Nations conference for high school students. I’ve been with the group for over seven years now, serve on their Board of Directors, and love it to death. But it also means that for about five days every year, I’m almost utterly cut off from the daily news. So when I was actually able to take a second and skim the international section, I was able to take note of what I saw as an interesting development. Unfortunately, while I was able to jot it down, I wasn’t able to find time to post my thoughts. So here they are, slightly edited. Afterwards, I’ll throw in my two cents on some more recent developments since I wrote this piece last Thursday.


The Russian Federation announced today that it has followed through with a previous sale of supersonic cruise missiles to the Syrian Arab Republic. The deal, which was completed in 2007 to the tune of $300M, provides 72 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. From the AFP article:

“The missiles, which operate as part of the Bastion mobile coastal defence system, will be able to protect Syria’s entire coast against a possible attack from the sea. Each Bastion system is equipped with 36 cruise missiles as well as truck-mounted radar and other equipment.”

The United States and other Western governments have been pushing Russia to cut ties with the al-Assad regime, particularly in light of the recently released report on Syrian human rights abuses presented to the UN Human Rights Council. Rather than withdrawing support, Moscow has seemed to move closer instead to Damascus.

While the sale was completed before the current uprising began, the delivery of the missiles themselves to Syria is a crucial show of support to the government in Damascus. A cancellation of the sale would have indicated a wavering in Russia’s stance, an opening which would be seized upon the UN Security Council by Western powers seeking to mirror Arab League sanctions on Syria. Instead, a veto of any strong action against Syria seems more likely than ever.

Further, the delivery of anti-ship missiles can and should be read in the same light as Russia’s deployment of warships off the coast of Syria: a deterrent against intervention. Turkey is reportedly if not moving to take unilateral action against Syria should the crackdown against protestors not cease, at least considering such a move if Ankara deems it absolutely necessary. A Russian threat to back Syria in defending its borders would cause any power to hesitate in launching a humanitarian intervention.


Since then, Syria has offered to accept the observer mission the Arab League previously mandated inside its borders, on the condition that the sanctions regime imposed upon it be lifted. Much to the Arab League’s credit, the offer has been strongly rebuffed so long as the crackdown continues. Simultaneously, Syria has conducted live-fire exercises of several of its missile systems, in a move that was surely intended to deter Western governments from considering intervention, much in the same manner as the Russian ships’ presence. The Arab League’s steadfastness gives hope of swaying China into the abstention column on the Security Council in the coming weeks, but my pessimism on Russia remains, as will be made clearer in a forthcoming post.

November 17, 2011

At what point do we hear “Do Svidanjia, Assad”?

Things are getting very interesting in Syria. Whether that would be “good interesting” or “bad interesting” all depends on where you come down on the prospect of civil war, the continuation or dissolution of the Assad regime, and the merits of the Responsibility to Protect. Which is to say that the member-states of the United Nations Security Council is going to be making some very interesting choices soon from the point of view of the Syrian government and protestors.

What is apparent is that things are managing to get even uglier in Syria. Months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad have until recently only to months of repression and slaughter by the Syrian government. Yesterday was the bloodiest day of the crackdown yet, with over 90 killed according to observers, adding to the over 3,500 killed since March according to the UN. Despite insisting throughout this period that Assad is sure to survive the ongoing uprising, prognosticators on the future of the state have gotten a few surprises in recent days. These events both make the possibility of the United Nations stepping both more likely and far more remote.

Tilting the balance in favor of intervention is the unprecedented levels of regional isolation the Syrian Arab Republic is currently feeling. While the Arab League has gained a reputation for empty promises and vague gestures of condemnation towards recalcitrant members, on Sunday the League threatened to suspend Syria’s membership and levy sanctions should the violence not stop and a League drafted proposal to monitor the ceasefire not be enacted. Syria attempted to forestall this conclusion by calling an emergency session, but was quickly rebuffed by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of yesterday, Syria has been suspended from the League of Arab States, and has been given a deadline of three days to halt the violence and place the terms of the agreement into affect before sanctions are enacted. Doing themselves no favors, following the announcement of the Arab League decision on Sunday, pro-Assad protesters took to the streets, looting and burning several embassies along the way, causing even greater international condemnation.

As Max Fisher of The Atlantic notes, however, this is no longer a simple case of unarmed protesters being massacred in the streets – civil war is brewing. Armed conflict is most certainly on the rise in Syria, as defectors turn from the Syrian Army in greater numbers, and groups like the Free Syrian Army begin to coalesce. Just yesterday, the FSA launched an attack on a compound belonging to Air Force Intelligence, known for their use of torture in interrogations.  As you can see in the video below, civilians are no longer allowing tanks to move through Syrian cities unhindered.

China has even come out in favor of the Arab League’s machinations, a testimony to its commitment to supporting regional organizations, even when they reach decisions that Beijing may personally be uncomfortable with:

“China supports the AL’s efforts to end the crisis in Syria and has called on concerned parties to implement the Arab League’s resolution at an early date and in a substantial and appropriate way. … Concerned parties should make concerted efforts and the international community should create favorable conditions for the implementation process.”

With this reversal from its earlier position of non-interference, the door may be reopened to bringing the issue of Syria before the Security Council. An earlier push led by the United Kingdom and France ended in a twin veto by China and Russia in October, placing the situation on the back burner since then. Following the Arab League’s threat, sanctions may be on the table again, opposed to the relatively simple condemnation of violence with the threat of sanctions that was considered previously.

This still leaves one very large obstacle, however: The Russian Federation.

Despite the pleas of the Syrian National Council, who met with Russian Foreign Minister and former UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russia seems determined to support Assad. Lavrov went so far as to call the activity in Syria akin to a civil war earlier today, while maintaining Russia’s position on keeping Assad in power:

“If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless,” Lavrov said.

His statement speaks strongly to Russia’s concerns about intervention in civil wars, which Moscow tends to view as purely internal affairs. A rising death count won’t soon sway the Kremlin to act; to be completely candid, it’s highly doubtful that if the winner of this year’s Confucius Peace Prize were in Assad’s position that we would not see tanks in St. Petersburg.

Aside from ideological differences over sovereignty, and concerns about losing another foothold of influence in the region, the Russian Federation has many Legitimate Business Interests in place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia cancelled $73M worth of debt Syria owed from the days of the Soviet Union, freeing up Bashar to buy even more arms. According to Amnesty International, roughly 10% of Russia’s annual sale of arms goes to Syria; this would presumably include both light and heavy weapons, though the exact amount is difficult to determine, due to Russia’s reluctance to publish the exact dollar or ruble amounts of its weapons dealings. In either case, a sanctions regime against Syria would come at a time where Damascus is most willing to pay through the nose for Russian armaments.

Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that present day Syria is getting more and more like Libya, circa February this year. As the violence rises and the international community solidifies against Assad, the likelihood of the beginning of intervening, maybe not militarily but at least the issuing of a presidential statement, rises. This may be true, particularly in the event that a draft presidential statement is circulated merely condemning the violence without making a firm statement on President Assad stepping down. The comparison also marks a potential argument against the likelihood of concerted action. Russia’s argument since the moment the first NATO missile struck Libyan territory has been that the alliance has reached far beyond its mandate to use force, and that the eventual regime change that has since transpired was illegal in nature. By raising the spectre that the Russian Federation could be hoodwinked into abstaining on another critical vote under Chapter VII, the odds that Ambassador Vitaly Churkin push back, and hard, against any firm resolution on the matter grows.

The same would hold true of even getting to the nine votes from the Council needed to take action. Resolution 1973 contained the use of force authorization, but the door to that was opened with the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1970. Let’s assume that a British/French draft is tabled with heavy international sanctions against the Assad regime, along the same lines as the European Union’s, modeled after 1970. We have the three permanent Western powers in favor, along with the two WEOG seats, Germany and Portugal, and most likely Colombia as well. Lebanon will be firmly against the move, China potentially abstaining depending on the Arab League’s reaction. Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be persuaded to go along with the draft as they were in October.  That just barely gets you to nine, allowing the West to act over the concerns of South Africa, Brazil and India. This still leaves Russia in play, however.

What would it take for Russia to reverse itself on Syria, allowing for at the very least an abstention from vetoing a new draft? Heightened isolation of the Assad regime may or may not help Moscow change its tune. A new Human Rights Council report on Syria is due out in the coming weeks. A negative report, which it is almost sure to be, may spur action taken by the HRC, along the same lines of that which prompted Libya’s expulsion from the body.

Also, a new diplomatic move in the General Assembly of all places may open the door for Russia to at least abstain on a condemnation of violence by the full Security Council. The GA, acting in lieu of the Security Council as is their right under the Charter when it is not discussing a matter of international peace and security, is preparing to table a resolution condemning Syria for its violence. Further, the sponsors of this draft include the usual European suspects, but is all the more remarkable for being potentially co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The full text of it can be found here. A strong vote in first the General Assembly’s Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian, then the full Assembly, would provide an ample smokescreen to allow for Russia to abstain on a condemnation of violence or at the very least a presidential statement in the UNSC.

What it all boils down to, however, is whether these, in the eyes of many, compelling arguments will persuade the Russian Federation to, if not act, not actively stand in the way of action being taken. The veto system was designed to prevent national interests from being over-ridden by the UNSC, this is the way it has always been and will likely always be. But it is quickly becoming clear that one way or another Assad is not going to end his days as the ruler of Syria. The next government will remember who stood behind Bashar al-Assad to his last and treat that state accordingly, and I highly doubt that Russia’s best efforts at mediation so far, as seen in this draft resolution circulated in August, will win them many accolades. Truly, it’s in Russia’s national interest to say “do svidanjia” to Bashar sooner rather than later.