Posts tagged ‘syria’

August 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 5, 2012

The U.N.’s peacekeeping mandate is just fine, thanks for asking

The world has yet to reach the point where there is a dearth of articles on the United Nations whose assumptions are off-base. The latest in this series has the provocative title of “Has the U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?” Written by Brian P. Klein, a former Foreign Service Officer in Japan and Council on Foreign Relations Fellow, the essay takes an absurd number of shortcuts and liberties with the actual work of the U.N. to somehow reach a conclusion that I don’t entirely disagree with. In the interest of setting the record straight, we begin.

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

Right off the bat, we’re confronted with an unforced error by Klein. There were never, I repeat, never peacekeeping troops inside of Syria. ‘Troops’ gives the impression that there were forces of the traditional sort first employed in 1956 by the United Nations Emergency Force separating the Egyptian and Israeli armies, the kind who carry arms with the mandate to shoot in self-defense and act as a buffer between clearly defined sides. What he probably meant to refer to was the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, whose goal was to oversee a ceasefire. But these were unarmed Observers, whose mandate was to watch and report, which they did under increasingly difficult circumstances.

As to the second point, Klein’s argument suffers again from failing to define the terms he uses. Conflict resolution encompasses a multitude of areas, including the provisions of Chapter VI for mediation before violence, an area that the Security Council has actually been lacking in providing lately. Had he been arguing, as many have, that the United Nations was not designed to suppress intrastate violence, vis a vis interstate warfare, he would be given more leeway by me. As he was not, we carry on.

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

The Annan Plan was, in fact, always unlikely to succeed, but not entirely for the reasons Klein lists. Rather than being an inherit flaw in the plan, as Mark Goldberg noted at UN DispatchAnnan was never truly given the support needed to succeed. We can’t be certain what would have happened had Russia in particular buckled down and pushed Assad to accept the terms of the Annan Plan. However, without that support, Assad would have never accepted the terms. Further, I’m confused as to what Klein suggests would have been a more feasible scheme for Annan to have pitched or what a more ideal move by the international community would have been.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

His argument that 2,400 water projects could have been funded sounds convincing. But why would that money have been best spent producing wells? Why not inoculating against common diseases? Why not funding a spread of human rights literature?

What Klein touches on here is a less specifically about the United Nations, than about the management of limited resources.  All organizations, be they IGOs or governments, face these questions, and there will always be disagreements on how their resources are best used. There will also always be suggestions that these resources are being used improperly, no matter what the target.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.

Klein conveniently ignores the fact that Arab League itself went to the United Nations in support of its peace plan for the region. Following the first veto of Russia and China, the League only returned to the U.N. after the failure of its own observer mission, rather than the U.N. butting in on the initiatives of the regional organization. That the Security Council found itself unable to agree on a course of action actually did little to prevent either the meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, nor the funneling of arms by Gulf states into the hands of rebels.

As far as the ‘censure’ of the Security Council by the General Assembly, the actual event lacked the drama that Klein infused into the action. A resolution condemning Syria’s ongoing abuses included a preambulatory clause, a framing of the issue to translate into non-U.N., “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”. In other words, shame on the Council for not agreeing on sanctions. A big difference between that and a censure in the diplomatic world, and one calculated to move certain members of the Council. That said members of the Council didn’t vote for said resolution is unsurprising.

The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.

Klein’s argument has some historical merit. The United Nations envisioned by Roosevelt involved ‘Four Five Policemen’ acting in unison to combat the world’s ills, and put down revisionist regimes who sought to overthrow the world order. That vision became the Security Council’s Permanent Members, who, by the design of the Soviet Union, were given a veto over the actions of the Council should their own interests be at stake. From the very beginning, the Security Council was created to only act when all the Great Powers were in unison. Barring that unity, as here in Syria, it can’t unleash its military forces against a given target.

The early years of the United Nations also saw the rejection and/or ignoring of two crucial mechanisms to so enforce the peace as placed in the Charter. The Military Staff Committee of the Security Council was meant to be composed of the Chiefs of Staff for the Armed Forces of all the Permanent Members, providing tactical advice to the Council as it fulfilled its mandate of keeping the peace. It exists to this day, a vestigial organ of the Council, which has not briefed its members in over sixty years.

So too provisions for Member States to place divisions of its air force available to the United Nations for immediate use at a moments notice evaporated soon after the Charter’s signing. Initial Cold War mentalities, soon followed by a desire to limit the strength of the U.N. precluded such steps from being taken. I’ve argued previously that should the Council continue to insist on launching new and more complicated peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions that the MSC should be revitalized, the air forces should be provided to the U.N., or both.

Despite all that history in his favor, Klein still seems to have forgotten instances where the full authority of the UN were unlocked, giving way to “all necessary means” resolutions of the Council. With those three words, we’ve seen free rein for the armed forces of its members, the United States in particular, to carry out the Council’s mandates. We’ve seen it in the 1950s in Korea, in the 1990s in Iraq, and, somewhat creatively, in Libya in 2011. The former two were the sorts of interstate conflict that the United Nations was specifically designed to counter and bring to a halt.

With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.

This paragraph is in essence advocating getting rid of the Security Council, one of the few bodies that is actually empowered to act and bind states to its decisions, and keeps several members of the Permanent Five in the U.N. to begin with. Moving on!

This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.

Again with the lack of distinction between interstate and intrastate conflicts. Rwanda was a disaster, and yes, U.N. peacekeeping troops were withdrawn. However, this was due less to the ability of the United Nations than the will of the Member States. No states at the time were willing to increase the mandate of the protection force in Rwanda, despite calls on the ground to do so, and in the face of increased violence opted to simply terminate the mission. The specifics of this incident keep it from fitting neatly into Klein’s framework.

As for Clinton’s foray into Kosovo, yet another intrastate conflict, it’s still shaky whether NATO acted in accordance with international law when bombing Serbia. So to be honest, not sure if he’s advocating removing the provision that only the U.N. Security Council can authorize the use of force from its position as a basis of current international law.

These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.

Klein chose the wrong example to highlight his argument by far. MONUSCO is one of the most effective peacekeeping missions, and most strongly empowered to protect civilians. In July, MONUSCO utilized attack helicopters in conjunction with the Congolese Army to protect civilians against the M23 militia. The Congolese government even wants the Security Council to increase MONUSCO’s mandate. Unless Klein is saying that the U.N. should as a matter of blanket policy ignore states that actively ask for help in enforcing peace and protecting civilians inside its borders, contra the second pillar of the Responsibility to Protect, this seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, all of Klein’s arguments about providing for greater humanitarian aid in lieu of U.N. peacekeeping missions preclude two things. First, how much worse would the violence be on the ground without the presence of these missions. Second, how on Earth the NGOs and other humanitarian agencies he cites would be able to do their jobs lacking proper protection from active conflict. It’s not as though aid workers aren’t in enough danger as it is operating in war zones or places where violence is still the norm post-conflict. Is he suggesting that NGOs begin hiring of armed mercenaries to provide that service?

Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.

Klein is right in that sanctions don’t completely alter the rules of economics; as the demand remains, the supply will find a way. What he doesn’t mention is that those arms embargoes he scorns exist give states the right to enforce them, through means such as stopping ships on the high seas. He also remains correct that states who don’t like Security Council decisions are not likely to follow them and will seek ways around them. There will always be those, individuals and states alike, who seek to circumvent those rules, but to act as though the world would be a better place without them is a fallacy.

Less sarcastically, he is correct about the absurdity of the U.N. budget spent in operating costs. Part of it comes from just how sprawling the United Nations system is; efforts to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing are costly. But were the U.N. as a whole to be judged by the same mechanisms that monitor NGOs spending, it would receive a failing grade.

Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.

Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Again, poor example. The International Crisis Group recently released a report noting the folly of withdrawing MINUSTAH from Haiti too quickly, stating “it would be foolhardy to rush that process given the serious gaps in consolidating security and justice. Despite the voices advocating for a more rapid exodus, it is unlikely that full departure can or should be accomplished before a third peaceful handover of democratic power takes place at the end of the Martelly presidency, five years from now, which also should correspond to the completion of the second five-year police development plan”.

His overarching point that UN projects that directly impact people on the ground are sorely underfunded does stand, however. The fact that the humanitarian fund for Syria remains under half-pledged, let alone received, is saddening. However, to pull that funding directly from peacekeeping operations would exacerbate problems elsewhere. As noted earlier, the determination of how to divide limited resources is vexing, and should be vexing. If it weren’t, the process would be lacking any sort of analysis or reflection, which would result in a worsening of any organization’s effectiveness.

It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.

Finally, a policy point that we can fully agree on! The United Nations should do more to help prevent conflicts before they reach the state of continued violence. It should also be in the business of building peace post-conflict. If only there was some sort of Peacebuilding Commission within the U.N….

In all seriousness, I agree with several of Klein’s points regarding the allocation of limited resources and his desire for the United Nations to highlight areas where it has historically shone. However, his thesis that the United Nations does more ill than good when it comes to ‘conflict resolution’ is one that is both poorly argued and not backed up by empirical evidence.

August 19, 2012

Remnants: The UN Agencies Still Struggling to Save Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 25, 2012

There’s a Fine, Fine Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 9, 2012

A Revolution without Dancing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 14, 2012

Whirlwind Diplomacy: 48 Hours at the UN Security Council

The last 48 hours have been absolutely insane at Turtle Bay. You would think that one crisis coming to a head and landing before the UN Security Council would be crazy enough. But no. Over the last two days, the Security Council has dealt with three such crises, has at least one looming, waiting for it when they reconvene on Monday. I could easily devote an entire post to each of these issues, but instead, I’m going to attempt to round-up the highlights here in one fell swoop.

Guinea-Bissau

Only two weeks ago, the UN Security Council was praising the smooth nature of the first round of elections Guinea-Bissau. Today, the interim president, outgoing prime minister and a presidential hopeful are reportedly detained by the military in an attempted coup. Over the last 9 years, the small West African state has had 5 coups, or coup attempts, which averages at an attempt to overthrow the government every 1.8 years. The most recent of these endeavors was launched on Thursday, though it’s still incredibly unclear who’s currently leading the attempted overthrow and what their intentions are, aside from disrupting the current Presidential elections. While Jay Ulfelder rightly points out that two coups does not a trend make, it does raise the prominence of ECOWAS once again, coming off its successful management of the debacle in Mali.

As fate would have it, the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration was discussing the country’s elections as recently as Wednesday. Its chair, Ambassador Maria Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil, added her voice to the cacophony of immediate condemnations of the military’s machinations, including that of the Secretary-General. After meeting on Friday morning, the Security Council released a press statement that “firmly denounce[d] this incursion by the military into politics”, and called for ” the immediate restoration of constitutional order and the legitimate Government to allow for the completion of the on-going electoral process, including the legislative elections”. While seemingly a tame response, it is extremely early in the crisis, with very few facts established. As the situation takes shape, and should the coup leaders’ efforts continue, a Presidential Statement or resolution will come out of the Council on the matter. For now, it will likely be on the shoulders of ECOWAS, supported by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa Said Djinnit, to attempt to make sense of the clashes.

Sudan/South Sudan

Only the United Nations can force South Sudan to withdraw from its recently seized territory. At least, that’s what Juba said yesterday, in response to demands from the international community that they release their military hold on the border oilfield of Heglig:

Speaking in Nairobi, Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s lead negotiator at talks to resolve the dispute with Sudan, said his country was ready to withdraw under a U.N.-mediated plan.

“On the ground, we are ready to withdraw from Heglig as a contested area … provided that the United Nations deploy a U.N. force in these contested areas and the U.N. also establish a monitoring mechanism to monitor the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he told reporters.

The South Sudanese insistence on a neutral peacekeeping force to separate the north and south is a departure from Thursday, when in a press conference, President Kiir of South Sudan scoffed at the Secretary-General’s call to pull back his forces, telling reporters he told Ban Ki-Moon “I’m not under your command”.

Khartoum isn’t waiting for the United Nations, however, and is launching an assault to retake the oilfield, as well as conducting strikes against several other areas of border territory. The Security Council issued a Presidential Statement on Thursday calling for the South to pull its forces from Heglig and for Sudan to end its aerial bombardments of border villages. The Sudanese Army shows no signs of slowing its advance, though, and the rhetoric from Juba remains bellicose. Should the two armies actually meet, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is predicted to be held on Monday. Ambassador Susan Rice has long-held a special interest in the Sudanese conflict, and is sure to use the United States’ role as President of the Council for April to the maximum effect.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

It was meant to be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the hermit state’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Instead it turned out to be a fizzle, earning new condemnation on the DPRK, and the revocation of food aid from the United States. The food aid was to be part of a deal in which the North Korean government halted future tests of missile technology. While the DPRK was insistent that the rocket was meant to place a satellite into orbit, absolutely nobody took them at face value.

On the bright side, as pointed out by Danger Room, the North Koreans don’t particularly seem to be learning from their missile tests, and have shown little improvement in the last decade, in part because of the harsh sanctions that are levied upon the state after each launch. Also, in a surprising turn, the North Korean government has acknowledged that the launch was a failure, the first admittance of a lack of success by the state in recent memory.

The UN Security Council led off its busy Friday with closed-door consultations on how to respond to the DPRK’s launch, at the request of the United States. However, no PRST was agreed upon by the Council, despite language being circulated by the US Mission. In speaking to the press stakeout outside the Council chambers, Ambassador Rice stated the following on behalf of the Council:

The Security Council held consultations to address the serious situation and listen to the concerns arising from the launch by North Korea. Members of the Security Council deplored this launch, which is in violation of Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

Members of the Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response, in accordance with its responsibilities, given the urgency of the matter.

This is hardly the strong statement that many wanted, or expected, from the UN, as almost all members of the Council agreed that the launch was in violation of previous UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions upon the DPRK. The divide lies in the appropriate level of action to be taken in response. China’s Ambassador, Li Baodong, remains insistent that any response the international community takes should be one to greater facilitate dialogue, and a return of the DPRK to the inert Six Party Talks. What this means is that China stands firmly opposed to any new and greater sanctions on the DPRK which the United States and the West would like to see. Weighing on the negotiations on a response also is the strong chance that North Korea, following its failure to launch a missile, will instead test another nuclear device to maintain its show of force.

Syria

As of 11:20 AM EDT on April 14th, 2012, the first resolution on Syria, Resolution 2042, was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, after a year of protests and conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic. After numerous warnings from Joint Special Envoy of the UN and League of Arab States Kofi Annan, the Syrian government in a surprise turn of events agreed to actually implement a cease-fire and the proposed Six Point plan. While they missed the original Tuesday deadline, in a report to the Security Council on Thursday, Annan indicated that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was at least partly complying with the terms of the peace plan. This was more than enough of an opening for Russia and China to begin to take credit for Annan’s successful efforts, and call for swift approval of a UN monitoring mission to verify the cease-fire.

The United States gladly went to work, and circulated a draft resolution that, in no uncertain terms, demanded that the Syrian government comply with the peace plan, and granted broad powers of investigation to the observer mission. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador, balked at this sweeping authority and the political implications of the text, leading to the Russian Mission circulating its own stripped down version of the resolution. In the Russian draft, Western “demands” that Syria provide freedom of access to the monitors were replaced with language “calling upon” the Syrian government to do the same.

Both drafts called for an advance mission of thirty observers to be deployed immediately. According to the Department of Peacekeeping operations, these advance observers would be pulled from other UN missions in the region, with logistics provided from a base in Italy. These blue berets can be deployed into Syria in as little as twenty-four hours from now.

After much negotiation, a new draft was put into blue text, the version that immediately precedes voting. After a few technical changes by the Russian Mission, the draft taken up by the Council for a vote this morning has been approved by Ambassador Churkin, giving it the green light for adoption. The new version drops the “demands” language, and only “expresses its intention” to deploy a full observer mission, putting off its development for a later resolution, depending on how the cease-fire holds and a report from the Secretary-General on the 19th of April. The Secretary-General is also to report immediately to the Council on any violation by either side in the conflict.

With the passage of a resolution, a small sigh of relief is emanating from the Council chambers. But the battle over Syria is in no way over. The fight among the Security Council members is likely to continue anew once the Secretary-General gives his report in five days. Likewise, the ceasefire itself is tenuous at best; reports are still coming in of Syrian government attacks on protestors, and heavy weapons still remain within cities across the state. It is certain too that the Russian Mission will jump at the chance to lay blame at the feet of the Free Syrian Army should they launch an attack on the Syrian government.

In all, the last forty-eight hours have been a whirlwind of chaos and diplomacy. So many other issues still lay at the feet of the international community, from continued strife in Mali, to the outcome of the resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear program which are taking place in Istanbul. The Security Council’s Agenda is still packed, and unlikely to lighten anytime soon.

April 11, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close: Syria and the UN General Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 5, 2012

The Imagined Paralysis of the Security Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 14, 2012

Mirror, Mirror: The UNSC as a Reflection of Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Cessation of violence from all sides.

2. An impartial monitoring mechanism.

3. No external interference.

4. Unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.

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

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

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

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

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