The United Nations (UN) was established in 1945 with the hopes of ushering in a more peaceful, just and democratic world order. After the carnage and bloodshed that two world wars had wrought on Europe and beyond in less than 30 years, the demand for an international peacekeeping organization was high. The UN was meant to replace the now-defunct League of Nations, which had failed in every sense during the interwar period to avert the slow-motion buildup towards all-out war between the great powers. Learning from the mistakes of its predecessor, the UN now extends universal membership to all states in the international system – the League of Nations was fond of expelling its more jingoistic members, like Japan and Italy, while others could simply choose to leave, like Germany. It also boasts an executive decision-making body that can authorize the use of force against any of its member-states, thereby ensuring peace and security between the nations of the world. But when states turn their weapons inwards and threaten their own citizens, the UN has been much less effective at keeping the peace.
This is precisely the case in Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been fighting for its survival against an intractable uprising-turned-civil war for the past 17 months. The statistics are appalling: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims at least 19,000 casualties, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts 120,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates 1.5 million internally displaced persons. These figures continue to rise daily, while nongovernmental organizations have been instrumental in shedding light on the brutal nature of the Syrian crackdown. Human Rights Watch, for instance, has published several damning reports of the Syrian regime’s criminal activities, documenting the torture methods used in its underground prisons and the indiscriminate attacks on civilian population centres. The Syrian government cannot provide security, justice or liberty for its citizens.
When governments fail to fulfill these basic functions and human lives hang in the balance, the United Nations is supposed to step in and address the problem. This was, after all, one of the rationales for its creation. So what has the UN done for the people of Syria so far? The UN Security Council (UNSC), authorized to pass binding resolutions as the highest level of political authority within the organization, has tried and failed on three separate occasions to pressure Syria by enforcing economic sanctions and threatening military intervention: on 5 October 2011, 4 February 2012 and 19 July 2012. All three times, Russia and China have jointly vetoed these resolutions after an ambiguously worded resolution in 2011 led to the Western military alliance NATO acting in Libya to help rebels there depose Muammar Qaddafi. Of course, the deeper calculus behind Russian and Chinese vetoes is the great power conflict bogging the Security Council down in inaction. Only five countries have veto-wielding status on the UNSC: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which usually pits Western countries against rival international blocs. Russia has extensive strategic and economic interests in Syria, while China has adopted a rigid policy of non-intervention in several conflict zones demanding the UN’s attention.
One positive initiative undertaken by the UNSC has been to authorize former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 2012 to engage the Syrian regime and rebels in ‘promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.’ This led to Annan’s reconciliatory Six-Point Peace Plan and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) intended to implement it. Unfortunately, this plan has been underfunded and understaffed from the beginning, which has led to the suspension of its activities through June and July ‘owing to an intensification of armed violence across the country’ – the same armed violence that the UNSMIS was supposed to stop. The viability of the peace plan had always been in doubt since the government has repeatedly broken its commitments while the rebels have refused to negotiate with Assad in good faith. Even the former head of the monitoring mission, Norwegian General Robert Mood, has said that “it is only a matter of time before a regime that is using such heavy military power and disproportional violence against the civilian population is going to fall.” The observer mission failed in its mandate, but the blame lies squarely on an illegitimate government savagely repressing dissent.
Indeed, the Syrian government’s days do seem numbered. After months of guerrilla warfare in and around the countryside followed by pitched yet indecisive gun battles in Syria’s major cities, the rebels scored a crippling blow against the president’s inner circle in mid-July 2012. A massive explosion allegedly planted by a bodyguard at the national security headquarters in Damascus killed Assad’s defence minister, deputy defence minister and brother-in-law, head of intelligence, and deputy vice president and head of national security, while injuring dozens more. This crescendo of opposition has taken on a new urgency in light of several recent high-profile defections: Syria’s ambassador to Iraq defected in early July, followed shortly thereafter by the ambassadors to Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates. The first Syrian parliamentarian defected from the northern province of Aleppo in late July as the Syrian military prepares for the ‘mother of all battles’ in the second-largest city, Aleppo. The highest-profile defection so far has been that of brigadier-general Manaf Tlass, son of the former defence minister and childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad. Much of the rebel Free Syrian Army is supposedly made up of military defectors: soldiers, officers and generals.
If the UN Security Council cannot and will not act to prevent more loss of life in Syria, what can be done? The precedent for multilateral intervention in civil war-like situations has already been set by the NATO-led bombing of Kosovo in 1999. As Syria slips further into civil war, the prospect of a bloody, chaotic and prolonged endgame looks increasingly worrying. At this point in the conflict, discussion and diplomacy have been tried and found wanting. The fact that Russia and China are willing to shelter Syria on the UNSC should not obscure the fact that the al-Assad regime has lost the support of the majority of the Syrian people, that Syria has been expelled from the ranks of the Arab League, that the European Union and several Western countries have imposed their own economic sanctions, and that non-permanent member-states of the UNSC voted for sanctions and intervention – and against Russia and China.
Decisive leadership is needed, plain and simple. Where the UN fails to take a stand, interested actors need to step up and assume the responsibility themselves. Whether it is powerful countries like the United States, regional heavyweights like Turkey or Saudi Arabia, fellow Arab governments in countries like Egypt, Jordan or Iraq, or traditional middle powers like Canada willing to take a principled stance, those interested in finding a solution need to stake out their positions and better coordinate their efforts. Merely calling for the killing to end and for the Syrian president to leave are not helpful on their own; they need to be backed up by a firm commitment and action plan for taking concrete action with concerted steps. What will replace the Syrian government? Who can guarantee this orderly transition? How can the tension between national sovereignty and international intervention be resolved? These are the questions that need to be asked now, by those with the courage to ask them. Those that can answer must step up and make their interest known. Those that cannot need to stop complicating the problem and start contributing to the solution.