x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Security Council paralysis on Syria is a genetic disease

The UN Security Council's impotence on Syria has revived debate over how to make this important institution more meaningful.

A Syrian rebel activist had this comment to make as he pondered the failure of the western powers to come to the aid of the anti-regime forces. "You provoke the people to rebel against the regime and then you stay away," he told a reporter. "And then you send your journalists to see how Bashar Al Assad kills his people."

The activist's criticism may lack diplomatic finesse, but you cannot blame him. It may be true that Washington has never promised military support to the rebels, but when a senior administration official described President Bashar Al Assad as "the equivalent of a dead man walking" and President Barack Obama predicted the fall of the regime, it was logical to think that deeds would follow words.

In fact, the UN Security Council has not even been able to agree to a resolution calling for Mr Al Assad to step down, thanks to a veto by Russia and China that has given the regime a window to finish off the uprising.

Instead of action by Washington, we have seen a lot of diplomats furiously examining their fingernails while they avoid the accusing gaze of Syrians whose families are being crushed in the Baathist campaign.

One diplomat who has not been silent is the Qatari head of the UN General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nasser, who declared that the Security Council was "not fit for purpose" because it allowed Russia and China to paralyse its action. The Security Council, with a power structure set by the victors of the Second World War and little changed since then, should be urgently reformed, he said. "If the Security Council reflected the whole world in a fair way, then we would see a more effective council."

The president of the General Assembly - who is elected by UN members to serve for a year - does not usually launch direct attacks on the United Nations system, but this year is exceptional. The credibility of the Security Council as the guardian of world peace is in sharp retreat just as the demands on it are rising.

Its paralysis over Syria has revived the debate over how to bring the Security Council into the 21st century. Having five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - of the 15-member council does not reflect the new balance of powers in the world. But the search for a "fairer" reflection of the balance of power in the modern world has eluded the UN.

Many options have been considered: raising the number of veto-wielding permanent members - one proposal was to add Japan, Germany, Brazil and India - or abolishing the veto in favour of a more democratic voting system, or giving the right of veto to regional groupings which would elect countries to represent them on an annual basis.

None of these proposals has gone far enough for any of the veto-wielding countries to have to declare their readiness to say goodbye to their golden inheritance that, of course, they jealously guard.

Their only justification is realpolitik: the UN system has to recognise the interests of the major powers and if it does not, they will do what they want to anyway, as happened in the 1930s under the old League of Nations. If the veto system leads to long periods of paralysis - as was the case during most of the Cold War - then that is better than breakdown.

What, then, is the interest in Syria of the major powers as represented on the Security Council? Is it to protect civilians? To remove a dictatorial regime? Or to cut off Iran's right hand in the Arab world?

The humanitarian argument no longer holds water, in the view of many countries. Last year, the UN Security Council authorised the Nato alliance to use force to protect civilians in Libya from the attacks of the Qaddafi regime. This resolution passed thanks to Russia and China abstaining, and was promptly used by Nato as a blank cheque for regime change.

Many countries believe this was the right thing to do, to get rid of Qaddafi. But other countries which allowed the Libya resolution to go through - including India, South Africa, Russia and China - feel they were taken for a ride. And they are determined not to get fooled again. Their suspicions are further aroused by the fact that the western powers are not keen to hold an investigation into how many civilians they "protected" and how many they killed in their bombing campaign.

In the words of India's ambassador to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, the Nato action has undermined support for the UN's "responsibility to protect" civilians, a doctrine known in diplomatic jargon as "R2P". "The Libyan case has already given R2P a bad name … the only aspect of the resolution that was of interest to them was 'use of all necessary means' to bomb the hell out of Libya," he told India's Frontline magazine.

It is not quite the Cold War again, but the division is widening between, on one side, the western powers and their Arab allies, and on the other, the Russians, Chinese and other countries suspicious of Washington's goals.

Yesterday John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, took to the airwaves of the BBC to promote his plan for Libya-style air strikes on the Syrian armed forces. After going through the pressing humanitarian reasons for intervention, his parting shot was this: "In Syria we have an opportunity to change the landscape of the Middle East." In other words, to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran.

When Mr McCain talks like this, suspicions spike that US concern is strategic, not humanitarian. And why not? All countries have interests.

Whether America arming the rebels is the right thing to do, given the baleful example of what happened when the US supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan, is another question.

The fact remains that the Syrian rebels are pawns in a big power game, whether they like it or not. They cannot expect anything from the UN Security Council. And while the case for reform of the council has got stronger, there is no chance of that any time soon.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @aphilps