“A United Nations Security Council effort to end the violence in Syria ended in acrimony and a veto by Russia and China on Saturday, hours after the Syrian military attacked the ravaged city of Homs in what opposition leaders described as the bloodiest government assault in the nearly 11-month-old uprising.”
This press report thus documents the latest example of the long slide of the United Nations organization into international security irrelevancy. The inability of the UN Security Council to pass a watered down resolution which represented nothing more than the collective opinion of the ten nations currently holding the two year rotating seats as well as the five Permanent Members, is reminiscent of the 46 year stalemate during the Cold War years (1945-1991).
Inspired by the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, the long oppressed citizens of Syria first engaged in peaceful demonstrations which have been harshly repressed by the President Bashar al-Assad's military. As the repression grew in intensity, the protestors gradually sought arms and allies from military sympathizers. The result has been a significant escalation of force by the government and what is likely to emerge as a Libyan style civil war.
While there is near unanimity among regional and Western governments that Assad should step down and be succeeded by a democratically elected government, involvement so far has been limited to the usual “condemnation” of the violent and repressive measures and calls by some foreign leaders for Assad to step down. Unlike in the Libyan conflict, the UN Security Council has not attempted to authorize external assistance for the insurgents. Because of Russian and Chinese opposition and veto threats, the final resolution simply stated the usual diplomatic jargon about “condemning” human rights violations; demands for a cessation by the Syrian government of all such violations; and condemning “all violence . . .including attacks against state institutions . . . “.
The heart of the Resolution and that which Russia and China deemed most objectionable was its declared support for the League of Arab Nations “decision of 22 January, 2012” which called for President Assad to relinquish power to a deputy and start negotiations with opponents within two weeks. The proposal also called for a government of national unity to be formed within two months, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.
It should be noted that the Resolution specifically states that Article 41 of the UN Charter is not applicable. This is important because under Article 41 which is part of Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may adopt coercive measures short of military engagement such as economic sanctions which are obligatory on UN members. Thus the Security Council Resolution was specifically weak in an effort to placate the Russian and Chinese governments and offered in essence nothing more than a “sense of the Council” which, in the face of Syrian intransigence, was unlikely to have any affect other than diplomatic window dressing. Nonetheless the resolution was too strong for the Russians and Chinese.
The UN has proved equally ineffectual in the other major Middle East crisis, that of Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons. Iran is a signatory to the UN sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which prohibits them from seeking nuclear weapons and which is enforced by the UN affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Concern over Iran's nuclear research and development program dates from 2002 when two undisclosed nuclear facilities became known. After years of demands for cooperation including requests for information and access for inspectors, the IAEA, using the information in their possession, came to the conclusion that Iran was indeed engaged in a research and development program for nuclear weapons.
In July, 2006 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1696 which demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities but did not invoke Chapter VII or impose economic sanctions. Since then, the UNSC has passed five additional resolutions, the latest being in June, 2010. These resolutions impose narrowly targeted economic sanctions related to the importation of nuclear related materials and the freezing of assets of individuals and companies related to the program. Resolutions on trade related to ballistic missile production and commercial banking activities related to the nuclear program were also targeted.
The inescapable conclusion is that these narrowly targeted and incremental sanctions have allowed Iran time to adapt to each and wasted five and a half years while the nuclear weapons program went forward.This is reflective of three characteristics of interstate relations at broadly based institutions like the UN.
First is a built in preference by professional diplomats for gradual increases of pressure. They believe that “diplomacy” i.e. “negotiations” are the preferred method for the settlement of differences. But diplomacy is a process, not a goal. Parties to negotiation must have some common goals and there must be an understood end game to the failure of the process. That end game in the case of Iran and the UN would be harsh, broadly targeted economic sanctions. Iran never believed that would be the case and adopted a tactic of delays and insubstantial “talks” while they went forward with their nuclear program.
Second, economic sanctions have a poor record of effectiveness, especially over the short term, which is partially due to the insistence of diplomats on their incremental escalation and partly due to lack of enforcement against states who defy the sanctions and continue trade with the target nation.
The narrowly targeted nature of sanctions is the result of the claim among more liberal policy makers that sanctions unfairly impact the “innocent” populations of recalcitrant governments while the political leadership have the means to avoid their effect. While there is some truth to this claim in the short term, it is a mistaken belief that the general population and the political leadership of a country can be completely separated into two independent entities. The Iranian government has plenty of supporters in the general population. Disruption of the economy does have an impact on elites, and popular dissatisfaction over the medium to long term creates serious problems for governments even in authoritarian systems.
Third and most important however in policy making forums involving large numbers of international participants, is the frequency of contradictory national interests. This is readily apparent in the case of the failure of the Syrian resolution. Russia is Syria's largest provider of military equipment and maintains a Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria, which has recently been scheduled for expansion. This base provides ready access to the Mediterranean Sea and year round naval access to the Atlantic Ocean. China, as the world's largest authoritarian regime, although having minimal economic or security relationships with Syria, is wary of internationally sponsored or supported democratic movements and does not want to legitimize such a movement with s UNSC resolution.
Thus, in the current cases, as in a long history of reluctance or failure to come to grips with international crises, the UN is over emphasized as an essential forum with which to seek solutions. Previous failures occurred in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Bosnian conflict 1992-95 which ended only after a NATO air campaign in 1995, and the Afghan War which was launched by the U.S. and UK prior to UNSC authorization and transitioned to a NATO campaign with the U.S. providing 68% of the troops and only seven members including the U.S. providing 89% of the troops. Even UNSC Resolution 1973 authorizing a “no fly zone” to protect civilians during the Libyan revolt had five abstentions (India, Germany, Brazil, Russia, China) and was later criticized by some states even though it too was a NATO operation.
The reality is clear. United Nations authorization to deal with major threats to international security or human rights crises should only be sought when it is abundantly clear that a consensus in the Security Council exists. When a single nation or distinct minority on the Council seeks to block an international response, regional organizations whose members interests are most involved should proceed independently.
This has finally been the case in the Iranian stand-off. With the threat of an air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel a distinct possibility, the U.S. and the European Union have finally begun the imposition of significant economic sanctions in a last ditch effort to avoid military conflict and the huge risks for a wider conflict that such an event entails. These sanctions, which include a boycott of Iranian oil exports, while still not as comprehensive as they should be, are a clear indication of the failure of the UN.
A regime change and even a quasi-democratic government in Syria would be a major blow to Iran's regional aspirations. Syria is Iran's only Arab ally, except for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which are both armed militias not state governments. A tough response by the West and the League of Arab Nations including economic sanctions and material support for the Syrian insurgents would bring a permanent end to Assad's violence against the Syrian people, rid the region of another dictator, and reduce Iran's influence in one of the most unstable and dangerous regions in the world. Waiting for the UN to act in any meaningful way is an exercise in futility.