The United Nations: Syria, and the urgent need for change

SyriaI began the week with a public talk I gave about Libya and the wider international refugee crisis, in part to publicise my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis.During the Q&A session which followed, I was asked several questions, two of which are cropping up with increasing regularity.

The first, (‘would Libya be a better place had Ghaddafi not been deposed?’) is one which I will certainly revisit at a later date. Indeed, I am all the more eager to do so after Wednesday (14 October) when a clearly annoyed UK Prime Minister David Cameron (seemingly rattled by the question so close to his increasingly enthusiastic attempts to engage UK forces in attacks on Syria) answered the question ‘have you learned from the mistakes made over Libya’ with the question ‘would you prefer it if Ghadddafi were still in power?’

The fact that the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister is either so lacking in basic intelligence – or is willing to pretend he is – as to believe that Ghaddafi-in-power and Ghaddafi-out-of-power are the sole states of possible Libyan existence, or that there was no other factor (leaving Libya entirely without assistance following a Civil War, for example) would be worrying, were we not all just getting used to it by now.

In any case, as I say; another time.

The second – in fact asked in a few different ways by a few different members of the audience – was ‘how can the Syria crisis end?’, or ‘what can we do to stop it?’

The question is in fact more complex than it first appears – and certainly more so than most leading politicians seem to regard it.

Because the Syrian conflict is complicated not only by the question ‘is victory possible?’ (though this is a sensible question: as the West backs the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Russia and Iran back Assad, and Saudi Arabia backs IS, it is possible that the war will end only if someone backs away, or if China decides to enter decisively on either Assad or the FSA’s side – it supporting IS would require a series of positional changes beyond the realms of likelihood) but also ‘is victory desirable?’

This does not, of course, mean that we should be promoting the cause of permanent warfare in Syria. The greatest thing which could possibly happen there would be for all sides to immediately throw down their weapons and begin committed, sensible negotiations (though one thing currently missing from the Syrian War – and its analysis – is anyone seriously calling for peace, beyond those calling for one side or another to crush its opponents; this will certainly be revisited in a later blog).

But it does mean that there are significant problems associated with what might happen to large numbers of Syrian people in the aftermath of any of the three major forces actually defeating the other two.

To explain, we will begin with Bashar Al-Assad. He is supported by much of Syria’s Alawite minority, (Alawites are a part – though a particularly isolated and controversial one – of the Shia branch of Islam. Amongst other things, they believe in a tri-partite emanation of divinity. In Syria, the only place where they exist in any great number, they made up around 14 per cent of the state’s pre-war population of 27 million), and others, including some of the state’s poorest people (Assad is an Alawite, though his regime is secular). But he has already massacred more than 200,000 civilians, the majority of Syrians are not Alawite and we must expect far more of the same should he win the war.

Assad’s original opponents, the Free Syrian Army, have been at pains (in common with Assad) to state it is not fighting a religious war. But there is no doubt that some of its supporters – if not also some of the people within its ranks – are Sunni Muslims who may embark upon reprisals against Alawites should the FSA overcome Assad’s forces and take charge of Syria. It would not be the first time Alawites were massacred by members of Syria’s Sunni majority. The Alawites’ fears of a systematic slaughter – based on clear historic precedent – cannot be easily discounted.

The idea that IS, the ‘third’ (chronologically) and ‘second’ (in terms of power and reach in Syria) actor in the war might take control of Syria is something virtually no-one wants. It recruits primarily from outside the state, and where it recruits within it, does so through terror. Almost literally no-one could see its victory – and likely murder of millions – as anything other than a disaster.

Though others – notably Hezbollah and Al Nusra – are active participants in the conflict, they are as yet either not fighting for themselves (Hezbollah is currently allied with Assad) or are not yet powerful enough (Al Nusra is an Al Qaeda affiliate, but far less powerful than either IS or Assad) to stand any serious chance of emerging as rulers of Syria. This may change, but at present, the West-supported FSA, Russia and Iran-supported Assad regime and the Saudi-backed IS are the only groups with any real chance of ending as ‘winners’ of the Syrian Civil War.

With all this in mind, I wanted to share an (extremely) edited version of a post I wrote around 18 months ago, on exactly this issue…

‘The international system is not fit for purpose.

As long ago as October 2012, on a national news broadcast in the UK, a UN representative was asked ‘has the UN failed Syria?’

On the face of it, the answer is ‘yes’. An uprising by citizens was brutally crushed by the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Religious extremist groups entered Syria to fight the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Russia was alleged to have supplied weapons to Assad, and the UN did not respond. The UK, France and the US began sending supplies to the revolutionaries, and the UN did not respond.

Four years and seven months into the Syrian Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, by Assad, by IS, by the FSA, and by a number of smaller groups (Assad’s forces have killed by far the most civilians).

More than 11 million have been either forced from their homes or forced from their entire country by fighting (seven million people are ‘Internally Displaced’ – forced from their homes but still in Syria – while four million are refugees; forced from their entire country by missiles, bullets, fire and chaos).

Given the needs of four million refugees and seven million Internally Displaced People (those forced from their homes by bullets, bombs and fear of death who have still remained in Syria) and the answer to ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ is clear: yes.

But the question was unfair. It is still unfair. The question behind the question – the question it is most important to ask – is not ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ but ‘has the international community failed Syria?’

And the fact is that the simple, honest answer was, and remains, ‘yes’.

When we ask ourselves ‘why has it failed?’ we can only conclude that it is because the international system – as it exists today – cannot possibly act in the interests of people living within a state.

And in the end, we are pushed back towards the UN.

But before we get there, we should consider that the UN itself only exists to solve the basic problem of the international system: its total, consistent, and spectacular failure to regulate itself.

That is, dangerous leaders with unjustifiable ideas, rise time after time, and states consistently develop new means – or enthusiastically adopt old means – of killing people and/or amassing wealth at the expense of others. And the result is death. Always, without exception, death.

Sometimes people agree to step in, to ‘put a stop to’ the ‘excesses’ of a regime, leader or state.

But even these solutions generally cause as many problems as they solve.

As an example, we can look at the three most recent ‘international co-operations’ on the world stage, the ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

For the purposes of this topic, it matters little that the first intervention won approval from the UN, only to be run as an invasion by the US and UK, or that the second was not approved by the UN, only to take place anyway, as an invasion by the US and UK.

Nor does it really matter that the third won UN approval only as the result of the abstention of a third of the UN Security Council and then saw a French, US and UK-led NATO force act, in effect, and arguably illegally, as the air force of Libya’s anti-government combatants.

What is more important, in terms of the current subject, is what the three engagements share.

First, each centred on a regime regarded by all – or significant parts (the US and UK in every case) – of the developed world as ‘dangerous’.

Second, a stated desire by developed world actors to act ‘in the interests of the people’ living under the regime in question.

Third, the use of the military might of the developed world on civilian as well as military targets (just because NATO designates a school as a ‘military target’ does not make it so).

Fourth, the removal of the regime regarded as dangerous.

Fifth, the teetering, edge-of-collapse, chaos left by the months or years of bombardment and attack, and the absolute weakness of the system and government which emerged from it.

There were differences, too.

Afghanistan, unlike Iraq or Libya, was run by an expressly religious regime. Also unlike the other two, Al Qaeda was an established presence, and unlike in Iraq or Libya, it is very likely that when the US and UK pull troops out, the regime they toppled – and claimed victory for so doing – will regain power.

In Iraq, the situation is quite different. Its murderous dictator was secular, and never allowed Al Qaeda into the state. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the UK and US intervention had no noticeable effect on Al Qaeda’s strength, in Iraq, Al Qaeda was directly affected, entering and becoming powerful within the state as a direct result of the US and UK’s intervention.

It is true that, as in Afghanistan, the new regime is teetering on the brink of collapse, and innocent civilians are killed regularly in car bombings, drone strikes, by IEDs and gun battles between terror organisations which are unlikely ever to face justice for their actions.

But unlike in Afghanistan, where the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of the former government, poised to sweep back to power as soon as US and UK troops leave, in Iraq, the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of a group which has never before held power in the state, and is poised to sweep to power as soon as US and UK troops leave.

In Libya, the situation is completely different to exactly the same degree: although here, too, extremist religious paramilitaries who have never before held power in the state have been allowed to sweep in unopposed in the wake of devastation dealt out by Western states, and look set to seize power, unlike in Iraq, France this time joined the UK and US in hammering the republic, and here, rather than facing little risk of arrest the paramilitaries face no chance whatsoever of being arrested for their murders.

In the light of these completely dissimilar situations, those people calling for intervention in Syria, where a murderous government is battling murderous religious extremist paramilitaries, must ask themselves: ‘What, exactly, do we think will be the result?’

In order to prevent exactly this sort of situation – the replacement of a government of murderers with another government of murderers – AND to prevent powerful states from inflicting regime-change on weaker ones for their own benefit, we developed the United Nations.

In the case of Syria, it may at first appear that there are some particular, unique, factors at work preventing the UN from acting to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

Namely, that of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council, Russia and China have close trade links with the Assad regime, while the US, UK and France’s major interests in the region amount to alliances with Syria’s major local rivals Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, and enmity towards its main local ally Iran.

Under such circumstances, with one group having much to lose from Assad’s removal and the other much to gain from it, how could any self-interested states possibly agree on any one proposal?

But scratch the surface and it becomes clear that exactly this problem presents itself in almost every situation, and there is another challenge: what, exactly, would the UN do in Syria?

We know that attacks – even airstrikes agreed by the UN and carried out by NATO – have a poor rate of success, unless one counts as success ‘we replaced a murderous regime with a) another murderous regime and/or b) with no regime, but instead with murderous bandits throughout the country, filling the rubble-strewn power vacuum we created for them.’

We also know that not only are invasions with regime change as a target illegal, they also have a consistent record of absolute failure to provide their own stated aims: greater regional stability and improved lives for citizens.

It is pretty clear, then, that in Syria – and perhaps everywhere else – what is required is a new approach.

Fortunately, it is relatively simple. Unfortunately, it is dangerous, potentially messy, and long-term.

But at least it, unlike the current system, stands some chance of working.

The UN must deliver itself a mandate to enter Syria, place its operatives between the government and rebels, and prevent any further bloodshed.

Of course, the first major problem with this is that it will require states to volunteer to send their own citizens to form a ‘human wall’ between two groups of people already ankle-deep in blood. Who would be first to do so?

The second section of the mandate must be that the UN arrests the leading members of the Assad regime – and the leading members of the religious extremist paramilitary rebel groups – and forces them to stand trial at the International Criminal Court.

If any of them are found innocent, they may return to their own home countries, where all other foreign mercenaries – pro- and anti-Assad – will also have been sent by the UN.

The third part of the four-part mandate must be that at this point – and no earlier – a democratic election, free, open to all, and overseen by the UN, must be held.

This is not the call of a Western liberal intellectual (though arguably, that is what I am), convinced that the problems of the world can be solved simply by people scraping an ‘x’ into a box.

But it is the only way the people of Syria can possibly feel they have any control whatsoever over their state and their destiny.

But there is a problem with the proposal for a democratic election, namely that in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, national and international terrorists have responded to election results with which they disagree with terror and death.

Which is why the fourth mandate must be delivered and enacted: the UN to remain in Syria, offering every possible constitutional assistance, AND with the power to treat any act of violence against a Syrian citizen as an act of violence against the wider international community, making its perpetrator subject to arrest, trial and punishment by the ICC.

This package requires a long-term commitment and carries significant risk of loss of life.

But we must ask ourselves: are we serious about Syria? Are we committed to assisting it to succeed as a state in its own right, capable of forming and maintaining stability within its own borders and good relations outside of them?

Do we have the stomach not for a series of airstrikes, indiscriminately killing people, and likely replacing one murderous, criminal regime with another murderous, criminal regime, or a long war, ending with the return or rise to power of an old or new murderous, criminal regime, but for a long peace?

A peace in which a state emerges ready to take its rightful place in an international system no longer geared to casting death from above, but building peace and comfort from the ground up?

And, just as vitally, do we want to be able to repeat this feat wherever and whenever necessary?

There is a major problem: the make-up of the UN Security Council.

At present, the Council’s permanent members are the US, France, the UK, China and Russia.

That is, the world’s only global superpower, one which shared that title as its major enemy until 25 years ago, one which is shaping up to become one of two global superpowers, or the only one, within the next 15 years, and two states which until 60 years ago ruled Empires which contained far more of the world’s area than that which fell out of them.

It is clear that these states cannot be trusted to act in a disinterested fashion when it comes to international affairs.

They have interests in every part of the world, and we cannot expect them to step outside of those interests for something as nebular as ‘world peace’ or ‘global stability’: they have reputations to maintain, and resources and money to amass!

Equally, those five states between them control almost all of the planet’s military might. India and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons, and India’s army is one of the largest in the world, but neither could hope to challenge any of the five permanent members in the event of real likelihood of war.

It is possible to argue that this single fact is the reason those five states should be the only permanent Security Council members, but this is not even as advanced as playground thinking: it is, in fact, to misunderstand the rules of the playground.

If the strongest is made the distributor of justice, that may discourage some from ‘stepping out of line’, but it also legitimises and excuses the acts of the strongest, regardless of whether those acts are unnecessarily violent, or even legal.

Just as importantly, it means that when the deterrent fails – as it has very often done – the first response the strongest reach for is extreme violence.

A third fundamental problem is that the five are all in the world’s top ten cash- or resource-rich states.

It means no-one else stands a chance, even in negotiations. If guest members of the Council – Tonga or Trinidad, Peru or even Poland – are offered a lucrative trade deal, or threatened with the removal of such a deal, as an ‘incentive’ to vote in favour of, or against, an intervention by one of the states, how many times could they withstand such an offer?

That is not international diplomacy. It is cold, hard, money-driven self-interest.

But it does not have to be this way. To create a working United Nations, we can first remove the current five permanent member states from the Security Council. None of the five should be able to vote, or play any part in ‘pre-vote negotiations’.

Their places will be filled by the world’s smallest and poorest nations.

When a larger state – India, for example – is chosen as a non-permanent member, their local and global interests must be balanced by the presence of another state: Pakistan, in this instance.

The United Nations Security Team will be granted powers including some or all of peacekeeping, arrest, constitutional and political advice (though only in a system-building capacity), and policing, each of which can only be granted on a case-by-case basis, by democratic process and with negotiations and discussions taking place in public.

The team will be funded by an agreed percentage of every single state’s annual GDP, paid by every state whose GDP achieves a certain threshold – for example 15 per cent at least of the richest state’s annual GDP – which might also encourage richer states to help redress the astonishing levels of global inequality, and therefore poverty, which have been allowed by some, and deliberately forced by others, to exist.

This funding model will exist for one sole purpose: to ensure the team is funded, and that no state will ‘volunteer’ troops to serve it – the UN Security Team will exist as its own, independent, autonomous unit, staffed by full-time, professional members, paid for by the UN itself. This will also remove a fundamental flaw in the UN’s current forces – the fact that soldiers ‘seconded’ to the UN must follow the orders of their own state’s military command in the event of a UN order conflicting with that of an individual state.

Finally, whenever an intervention is completed, the state which is formed/transformed by it will take a place as a guest on the Security Council, and will provide expertise – and people – to the UN Security Team for a period of no less than 10 years.

The Syrian state, all but destroyed by the shortfalls of an international system which has failed it – and failed us all – could be the first state to benefit from a genuine effort to make the international system more stable, and the world a more peaceful, less bloody place to be.

It’s a more welcoming prospect than the only alternatives yet attempted.

Rory O’Keeffe is the author of The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, available now.

 

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