The international community is not, as sometimes claimed, an oxymoron. It works surprisingly well and is improving through time. This week the international community faces a new challenge and opportunity, as the Syria problem lands squarely in the UN Security Council (UNSC), where I believe the world’s conflicts should be addressed.
For most of a year the situation has escalated both on the ground and in the international response. Syria’s violent suppression of nonviolent protests has led to armed resistance by some regime opponents and threatens to escalate into sectarian civil war. More than 5,000 have died. My predictions of a protracted stalemate are proving depressingly correct. But the international response has not been static.
At first, bilateral relations played the major role. Individual countries such as Turkey tried to intervene diplomatically to convince the Assad regime to change course and stop the violence. This did not succeed, and Turkey among others turned against Assad. (Indeed, Syria’s only important reliable friends these days are Iran and Russia.)
Next the regional organization came into play. The Arab League developed a peace plan that required the Syrian government to pull back its forces from cities (some of which would then be de facto opposition territory). Syria resisted implementing this plan, and the Arab League sent in monitors to poke around in Syria and report whether progress was occurring. It wasn’t. First the Gulf states withdrew from the monitoring mission, and then the Arab League as a whole suspended it, called for Assad to hand over power to a transitional government, and asked for action by the UN Security Council.
That’s how the matter came to be discussed this week in the UN. And there they all were — the five permanent members, this year’s ten nonpermanent members, the ambassadors of Syria and of the Arab League. To underscore its importance, the USA sent secretary of state Hillary Clinton to sit in the U.S. seat, and European countries sent foreign ministers. It is a “world order moment.” (Syria, however, used the occasion mostly to attack the Arab League and particularly Qatar, which participated in the air campaign in Libya and has led efforts to remove Assad from power in Syria.) The discussions began Tuesday, continued today behind closed doors, and are expected to culminate in a vote on Friday or Monday. Here’s is a great video summary of the situation as of Tuesday, from al Jazeera:
In these UNSC discussions, the USA and Britain have called for Assad’s ouster and the imposition of economic sanctions on Syria if the violence continues. The United States declares that it is not looking for another Libya-type resolution, which authorized force to protect civilians but was stretched to include fairly direct assistance to rebels who overthrew the government. Russia and China were upset by the stretching of the Libya resolution, and want language in any new resolution that rules out military intervention.
Russia declares that trying to change Syria’s regime by force or even by sanctions could trigger a bigger regional war, presumably along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide between Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s allies. More fundamentally, both Russia and China have violently suppressed domestic unrest in the past, and they want the international community to uphold a strong norm of sovereignty, based in the UN Charter, that essentially says any country can do what it wants within its own borders. That old norm is being challenged of late by a new norm of sovereignty, the Responsibility to Protect, that says the international community may violate sovereign as a last resort if necessary to save civilians from mass atrocity events. The intervention in Libya was a successful application of that principle, halting an imminent massive slaughter in Benghazi, notwithstanding Russia and China’s grumbling about the later uses of air power to help the rebels overthrow Gaddafi.
Syria is no Libya, however. Russia has promised to veto any resolution that does not rule out military intervention, and this means any military intervention would have to occur without a mandate from the UN Security Council. That idea is tempting to some, and Anne-Marie Slaughter believes that the situation in Syria could become so dire as to warrant a Kosovo-style intervention, i.e. without UN authorization.
If you had a request from the Arab League backed by the protesters themselves and you had a – perhaps a super majority on the Security Council, meaning nine, 10, 11 out of the 15 vote to support, then I would be willing to countenance action even in the face of a veto as we did in Kosovo. When it comes down to this kind of humanitarian intervention, I think the rules surrounding the veto are more complicated, and there are precedents as in Kosovo for acting even in the face of a veto.
But this kind of coalition-of-the-willing action is becoming less attractive in recent years, and it seems unlikely that the west would use force against the Syrian regime without the unique legitimacy afforded by the UNSC.
My prediction (why not?) is that the international community will succeed in passing a UN resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s violence and telling Syria to halt it. Possibly it will even endorse the Arab League plan, which among other things calls on Assad to step down. It will not impose sanctions, or perhaps just weak symbolic ones, and it will make clear that the resolution does not authorize outside military force.
Daniel Serwer notes Russia’s interest in vetoing a resolution if only to look strong with an upcoming presidential election. But President Obama has his own election year and would in no way use military force against Syria, so there is not really any conflict about a Libya-style use of the UN to legitimize a western air campaign.
The western powers have every reason to want a resolution to pass, not be vetoed, and therefore they will be limited by what Russia will allow (abstaining but not vetoing). They will press for a few days to see how far they can get, and then take the deal. And that’s a good thing because it means the international community is functioning as it’s supposed to. Not good for Syrian civilians, perhaps, but good for world order. The region is unsettled and the Arab world split, so it is important for the international community to speak with one voice, and that voice is the UN Security Council.