Saturday, May 03, 2014
WRMEA, May 2014, Pages 14-15
Syria poses a classic dilemma for the United Nations. It cannot do anything opposed by a permanent member of the Security Council, in this case Russia. But there is another dimension, as former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali eloquently complained: the U.N. has no army, no police force of its own. It cannot act unless member states provide the wherewithal for it to do so.
The countries who are prepared, or able, to commit substantial forces are not necessarily those best politically or ethically suited to operations. While Moscow, with help from Iran, has actively provided support for Syria’s military and Bashar al-Assad’s morale, we have to ask about the failings of the rest of the world, and in particular the West.
Diplomacy is interconnected. Washington’s tacit continuation of the Cold War after Glasnost exacts a price, fueling Russian revanchism, and a desire to tweak the Eagle’s feathers. Hardly an occasion has been missed to humiliate Moscow. It is true that Russian rulers have often behaved stupidly and reflexively, playing to populist resentment at home, but they have surely been provoked—and the rewards for being sensible have not been so great.
It began with Russian support for Desert Storm, which was a huge breakthrough. (Indeed it is worth remembering that Syrian troops also played a role in that first Iraq war.) Sergei Lavrov was Russia’s permanent representative to the U.N. at that time, and he smarted under the combined humiliations of the West’s insistence on taking Iraq resolutions farther than their clear intent, and the maintenance of brutal sanctions when they had lost international support.
Russia’s invention of an Orthodox International to be the ghost of the Comintern has certainly trapped it into a geopolitical tangle from which it sometimes has difficulty extricating itself. It went along with sanctions against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic because it was clear to all but a coterie of leftists and nationalists that Belgrade’s actions were beyond the pale of international law. But then it ended up supporting him in ways that persuaded him, like Assad, to continue in his course of action.
The West’s reaction was equally shortsighted and presaged Syria. Secretary of State James Baker thought the U.S. did not have a dog in the fight. Britain and France assumed that the Bosnians would lie down and die, expeditiously, so if it were done, it were best done quickly. They feinted, providing U.N. peacekeepers who did not keep the peace but collaborated in the Serb siege of Sarajevo, while monitoring and counting how many shells were rained down on civilians.
While we deservedly point the finger at Russia, in Rwanda the only dog in the fight barked in French. Paris supported the murderous regime and nobody else cared enough to intervene. Countries withdrew their forces and left the few behind isolated and at risk, doing their best to protect the victims.
It is in fact difficult to see a way out of the Syrian crisis in the absence of any credible actors with any moral authority. There are so many double standards that observers could easily grow cross-eyed. The U.S. is hopelessly compromised by the military, financial and diplomatic support it provides for lawless behavior by Israel, whose intervention in turn would possibly have only one positive outcome—uniting Syrians against it. The U.S., if not hampered by the Israel lobby, could make up to Iran and break the spurious unity of Alawite and Shi’i, but under the influence of the same lobby the U.S. was putting distance between itself and Turkey, which could have taken action—except, perhaps, for its less-than-exemplary behavior toward the Kurds, who straddle the regional boundaries.
In the end, where there has been action, it is because world public opinion turned against both the perpetrators and the passivity of the onlookers. That did not work too well in the case of Darfur, of course. However, it seems to be at least one of the principles behind Ban Ki-moon’s increasingly strong statements.
When he was running for the office, U.N. Secretary-General Ban pledged full support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” steered through the U.N. by his predecessor, Kofi Annan. Ban was sincere to the point of career suicide, since the temporary U.S. “permanent representative” at the time was none other than John Bolton, the paleocon who had made it his life work to destroy the ICC—and, for that matter, the United Nations.
Ban’s restrained delivery, sadly, means that his statements are not always taken as strongly as intended. In some ways this is a diplomatic plus. He can tell the truth without being mortally insulting to those he tells the truth about, which is indispensable in offering the U.N.’s intermediary services.
His statement in March went far beyond what most previous U.N. officials would have dared to say about a sovereign state. “Three years ago, the Syrian people stood up in peaceful protest to demand their universal rights and freedoms. In response came brutal force, escalating bloodshed and the devastation of civil war,” he declared, putting the blame clearly on the Assad regime.
“Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world,” he went on, “with violence reaching unthinkable levels. Syria’s neighbors are bearing the increasingly unbearable humanitarian, security, political and socioeconomic effects of this conflict.”
Ban said he “deeply regrets the inability of the international community, the region and the Syrians themselves to put a stop to this appalling conflict,” and appealed “to the region and the international community, and in particular to the Russian Federation and the United States as the initiating states of the Geneva Conference on Syria, to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process.”
So the secretary-general was not just pointing the finger at the parties in the conflict, but also at the other United Nations members who have failed the Syrian people. Valerie Amos, the U.N. under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was even more forthright, adding, “Our collective voice should be raised in protest at the flagrant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law…The international community needs to show the courage and determination to do all that is necessary to reach a political solution. Without that, we will see years more of destruction and continued brutality meted out to the people of Syria.”
It would, of course, be easy to dismiss this as empty rhetoric. But it is in fact more substantial rhetoric than the U.N. exhibited in the past, when under the shield of sovereignty and cowardice it kept its peace about the Balkans and Rwanda.
Ban has been equally forthright on the Palestinian question, calling out Israeli breaches of resolutions, the embargo on Gaza, etc.—at a time, one might add, when Egypt, a member of the Arab League, has been colluding in keeping the Strip isolated.
Some naming and shaming is certainly called for. In this benighted age, there are few independent moral figures. One could not even be sure that the late Nelson Mandela, whose gratitude for support against apartheid sometimes over-rode his ethical sense, as in his support for Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, would get this right.
That makes it even more important for a figure like Ban Ki-moon, backed perhaps by the “The Elders,” the group of statespeople set up by Mandela and Kofi Annan, to call on the various capitals—beginning with Moscow and Tehran— to act, to tell Assad that his time is up.
But that will only be the beginning. If there is a post-regime period, it will need international support. That would be a good time to call Moscow’s bluff—and invite the Russian army to send contingents of peacekeepers to the force that will be needed to maintain security in Syria.
Of course, Crimea does not assist. Moscow denies the right of Kosovars, after ethnic cleansing and massacres, to secede from the state that tried to drive them out. Washington tacitly supports the right of Israel to annex Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights and displace the indigenous inhabitants.
American negotiators back Israel in its attempt to redraw the internationally accepted 1967 line, but Washington condemns Moscow’s (rather clumsy) attempt to redress arbitrary borders drawn up by a Communist-ruled Kremlin. There are even echoes of Palestine in the Crimea: who should vote in a referendum? The Crimeans, who were driven out en masse by Stalin, or the settlers who came in afterward?
And that brings us to the birth of the United Nations. Following World War II, the key principle—evoked in the Middle East resolutions, surviving in East Timor and Western Sahara and invoked in Kuwait—is the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. By moving in troops in large quantities and staging a dubious referendum in Crimea, Putin is breaking a cardinal principle on which the shaky post-war peace has depended. Boundaries are not sacred: they can be renegotiated, they can be arbitrated and litigated—and, in truth, the Crimean boundary is far less sacred than many others.
But the prospect of changing them by force, or with the threat of force, is what united the Security Council against Russia, which was forced to use its veto on March 14.
Putin united the world against Moscow. Yes, the U.S. invaded Panama, Grenada, Vietnam and more, but it pulled out afterward. If Saddam Hussain had just installed a friendly regime in Kuwait and pulled out, he would not have united the world against him.Russia might not suffer military consequences from its actions, but it has orchestrated diplomatic disaster for itself and others. Watch out for a referendum in the settlement zone, citing the Putin precedent. But it will make no difference. Like Morocco and Israel, Russia might have possession, but the overwhelming majority of U.N. members will not recognize it. Ban should wait to talk to an elected Ukrainian government that one hopes will blunt the influence of the nationalists whose rhetoric and actions have done so much to foment separatism in Crimea.