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Failures at the UN on Syria bode ill for the body's future

Lack of cooperation among members of the Security Council is reminiscent of the Cold War.

The United Nations has been unable to secure authorisation to visit Syria and determine if chemical weapons were used in fighting last March near Aleppo, and in Homs and Damascus. However, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, France and the United Kingdom have affirmed that soil samples and interviews with victims led them to believe that such weapons were used.

The French and British assessment did not have the same impact as would that of the United Nations. And yet the international organisation has been helpless in Syria amid disagreements between the five permanent members of the Security Council. The mood in New York is reminiscent of that during the Cold War, when UN diplomacy was often hampered by the irreconcilable interests of the United States, the Soviet Union and their respective allies.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. When Barack Obama became US president, hopes were high that multilateral diplomacy would gain momentum. So, when bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Mr Obama in 2009, the Norwegian Nobel committee praised his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples".

However, since then, international diplomacy through the UN has more often than not been a tale of discord, and Mr Obama has not pursued it with any vigour. What has best illustrated the UN's ineffectiveness is the Syrian conflict. It has lasted for over two years, with horrific loss of life and an expanding refugee crisis, without the Security Council striving to collectively end this situation.

Two levels of disagreement between the United States, France and the United Kingdom on one side, and China and Russia on the other, have hindered a solution.

The first involves principle. Moscow and Beijing refuse to give the Security Council powers that may possibly lead to the overthrow of the Syrian regime. They refer back to what happened in Libya in 2011, when they believe a UN resolution to protect civilians was surreptitiously turned by the West into an instrument to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi militarily.

The second has to do with self-interest. In Libya, both China and Russia had economic stakes that were undermined by western policy. Their tangible interests in Syria, particularly Russia's, are not what they once were. But in terms of projection of power, both Moscow and Beijing have chosen to take a stand against the western countries there to affirm that their interests must be accounted for whenever there is major international action in the region.

But the Russian position in particular goes beyond that. The Russians have developed networks of relationships in Syria's military and intelligence hierarchy over the decades, and are reluctant to surrender these. There is also a fear that victory by an Islamist-led opposition may have repercussions closer to Russia, particularly in its Muslim-majority republics in the North Caucasus. In that context, the recent Boston bombings carried out by two men of Chechen origin will likely be used by the Russians to validate their behaviour in Syria.

From the start of the Syrian uprising, Russia and China have vetoed UN resolutions that could be used to justify western military intervention, that targeted President Bashar Al Assad, or that challenged their desired endgame. At the same time, the Security Council has agreed to lesser measures, such as issuing presidential statements, and authorised deployment of UN observers in April 2012, to bolster the option of negotiations. The mission ultimately failed as violence escalated, and the observers were withdrawn.

That the discord at the UN reminds us of the Cold War should not detract from the fact that the conflicts the organisation deals with today tend to be different to those during the years of superpower rivalry. As the author William Shawcross wrote in his book, Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict, established patterns of conflict broke down in the post-Cold War period as combating parties, no longer benefiting from American or Soviet patronage, relied on messier networks of support, giving local warlords more latitude to set their own policies. Shawcross called this phenomenon unstructured or destructured conflict.

In other words, even as Russia and the United States have supported the contending sides in Syria, they have not really controlled dynamics on the ground. That poses the obvious question: can the UN resolve the Syrian conflict if local actors are pushing it in a very different direction?

Many have spoken of a package deal that the United States and Russia might reach over Syria. But that is unlikely. Instead, the Security Council can at best use creative diplomacy to profit from the stalemate, and then only if the warring sides are ripe for a deal and see stalemate as being to their disadvantage.

That is not the case today. Mr Al Assad views deadlock as useful in forcing the opposition to engage with him. Russia, too, has adopted this strategy, hoping that eventual negotiations will stop the war and bolster their Syrian allies. But that would imply asking the opposition to disregard over 70,000 victims and the use of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles against civilians, a tall order indeed.

The UN has failed in Syria, but it has done so because the conflict represents something different for each of the actors involved, and the international community is too divided to define a consensual solution. Instead, to facilitate such a consensus, the parties have sought to give their Syrian allies a military advantage and compel the other side to compromise. This does not bode well for the UN, which invariably mirrors the pathologies of the international order.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On twitter: @BeirutCalling

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