Dithering over Damascus

JiC welcomes Andrew Jillions back with this thought-provoking post on the recent inaction of the UN Security Council in the face of ongoing violence and human rights violations in Syria. 

A Syrian protester in London (Photo: The Mirror)

There’s no doubt that the Assad regime has been buoyed by the international community’s dithering over the situation in Syria. Russia and China’s veto saved Syria from outright pariah status, as well as stymying the immediate possibility of intervention. Visiting Damascus yesterday, Russia’s foreign minister was given a hero’s welcome while some estimates suggest that the death toll has at least doubled since the vote. Draw your own conclusions, but the consensus seems to be that the UN Security Council has lived up its pre-Libya reputation as a toothless and irrelevant anachronism.

Beyond the focus on the Russia and Chinese vetoes, however, the Syrian boost also comes from the perception that there isn’t an appetite for military intervention among the other members of the Security Council. The Security Council’s vote comes on the back of months of inaction, where the dominant policy position seemed to be one of hope – hope that the Syrian situation would somehow resolve itself, if only given long enough. Despite the vocal condemnation of Russia and China none of the other P5 members really want the hassle, or expense, of another intervention. In many respects the veto was a boon to those countries more in thrall to public opinion. If Russia and China are willing to shoulder the public opprobrium that comes with failing to act, all the better.

If this seems an unfair gloss, especially given the vocal condemnation from the UK, US and others, it is worth recalling that this was not a vote on intervention, but a vote on the future possibility of intervention. The Syria situation, after all, has been rumbling on for almost a year now with nary a sign of direct intervention. Although billed as a ramping up of the pressure on Syria, the text itself is filled with banal exhortations to find a peaceful solution, one that doesn’t challenge Syrian sovereignty or trigger Article 42 action. What a good thing appeasement has such a great track record as a strategy for peace! Steven Cook’s observation seems even more relevant after the vote:

“Assad still has bullets left, people to resupply him when his stocks run low, and loyal officers to fire them. What more does he really need?”

A member of the Free Syrian Army in Zabadani (Photo: Reuters)

It is shameful that intervention has been taken off the table as an option.  But it is also a stretch to think that intervention would have occurred had there been a positive outcome at the UN Security Council.

In fact the idea that intervention is a necessary part of the Syrian endgame seems to be a minority opinion, even beyond the Security Council. Part of the reason for this is that Syria is enmeshed in regional politics in a different way from Libya, particularly when it comes to Iran and her proxies. The realist assessment is that there is a very real danger of a limited intervention triggering a much wider – and more deadly – conflict. On the flip side – and this is certainly part of Russia and China’s set of worries – ostensibly “humanitarian intervention” in Syria could set off a chain of events that fundamentally weakens and/or sparks Western intervention in Iran.

Some point to soft intervention à la Libya as the middle ground option. Giving the Free Syria Army the arms and advice needed to mount an effective challenge wouldn’t destabilize the region. Blue suits, not green boots. In all likelihood this is already taking place behind the scenes and it is the sort of action that a UN resolution could potentially have justified. But it is also hard to square the promise of soft intervention with the NATO air strikes that proved decisive in the battle against Gaddafi. As Stephen Walt convincingly argues, the vetoes are payback for railroading Russia and China into the Libyan intervention – and liberal interventionism – they never wanted.

There are echoes of great power balancing here.  Seamus Milne somewhat incongruously combines the claim that even soft intervention is delegitimated by the Western imperialistic overtones, part of an attempt to ‘own’ the Arab Spring, with the causal warning that intervention would in fact escalate the killing, fanning the flames of sectarian conflict. His more sensible argument is that now that Western intervention isn’t an option the opposition has a real motivation to negotiate for peace. And Assad can be similarly pressured by Russia and China. He owes them, after all.

According to Jillions, the UN Security Council vote was a victory for Assad an his regime (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps so but, in the meantime, the slaughter continues. In these situations there is very rarely a politically or ethically “right” course of action, especially when going by the numbers. The pragmatic arguments against intervention can’t be ignored. But what worries me is that these resemble the unlearned lessons from Rwanda and elsewhere.

Firstly, states are matching up real deaths against nominal deaths. Maybe intervention will lead to a higher death count than non-intervention; certainly non-intervention will result in a high death count. Second, before any of the softer diplomatic measures can take effect, the bulk of the killing is likely to have been done. Behind the great power bargaining over Syria is a humanitarian disaster and a failure to prevent and punish violations of international justice. Warnings about the potential for civil conflict to rubber in and body counts to go up as a result of intervention hide the bloody ‘resolution’ Assad’s forces are presently attempting to effect.

There may be good arguments for taking intervention off the table and looking for a diplomatic solution. But the crucial worry isn’t that intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis is set aside as an unrealistic option. The international community’s use of the responsibility to protect framework allows room for selectivity; there is no obligation to intervene in Syria just because it happened in Libya. But taking away even the threat of intervention is a dereliction of the responsibility to honestly consider all the options in order to end a humanitarian crisis. Hard fought for international justice commitments are replaced by realpolitik, and the focus shift away from the scores of people being killed by Syrian government forces.

Ending criminal killing was supposed to be the red line for the international community. The result of the Security Council’s dithering isn’t compromise, it’s capitulation. Assad wins.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in China, Human Rights, Humanitarian Intervention, Peace Processes, Responsibiltiy to Protect (R2P), Russia, Syria, UN Security Council. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dithering over Damascus

  1. Wonderful Blog!
    For Russia, the leaders don’t really care about people, especially children. They are harboring a child abductress who is pretending to be a Russian mother.


  2. Pingback: Syria: Appeasement in Disguise? | Justice in Conflict

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