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When he takes office on New Year’s Day, the new United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres will pick up the most poisoned of chalices – Syria. Last week, following successive Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council, by a large majority, the United Nations General Assembly supported a Canadian resolution condemning the “extensive and persistent violations of international humanitarian and international human rights laws” in Syria. It called for prosecutions of those responsible. Showing that distaste for mass murder by tyrannical regimes is not just a “Western Imperialist” concept, 123 countries voted for the resolution with only 13 opposing. But the US seems to cope with being outvoted regularly in the Assembly; Putin probably thinks he can also.
The successive Russian vetoes have included one preventing the International Criminal Court from investigating potential crimes committed by all parties in the conflict, which suggests that Putin knows where the burden of guilt is mostly weighted. It is interesting to see the arguments about the sacred nature of state sovereignty from the government that annexed the Crimea and detached large portions of Georgia, on behalf of the regime that occupied Lebanon for many years and almost certainly arranged the assassination of its Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The situation has many of the features of the Balkan Wars, but has caused even more casualties and suffering than they did. After Srebrenica and Rwanda, the UN said “never again” all over again. But now, just as the ruthlessly amoral Slobodan Milosevic found useful idiots to present him as an anti-imperialist hero, Bashir Al-Assad has a chorus of support among people who should know better. The Baathists in Syria, now hailed as being the front line of defence against imperialism and terrorism, were traditionally supporters of various ruthless terrorist factions, despite joining the US in Desert Storm against Iraq. Syria also had some of the most adept torturers in the world – which is why the US sub-contracted with the regime to abuse prisoners on its behalf.
Evil is globalized. The Russians in Chechnya showed how well they had learnt from the US to destroy towns and villages to save them, and Putin and the Assad regime apply the same tactics in Aleppo. The kind of massive human suffering in Syria is exactly what Kofi Annan envisaged when he persuaded the world summit of 2005 to adopt his new doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”.
But Moscow has no monopoly on inconsistency or hypocrisy. Among those fulminating at the UN against Al-Assad’s crimes was Saudi Arabia, whose assaults on Yemen include targeting civilians and hospitals with the material and moral support of Britain and the USA. Even Trudeau’s Canada, which moved the General Assembly resolution, is now one of the tiny band of countries that votes with the US over Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Kofi Annan tried, but resigned as special representative for Syria when it became clear that none of the major powers were prepared to take whatever measures were necessary. Russia and Iran directly supported the regime while the West was unable or unwilling to keep out the Gulf States who armed and financed the more mediaeval elements of the opposition. Nor could Washington control Erdogan’s Turkey, which offered varying degrees of support to Islamists while pursuing its feud with the Kurds whenever it could.
While Ban had a fair idea of what Washington would or would not deliver in support for the UN, Guterres now has to cope with a US government whose foreign policy is based on random tweets and eccentric appointments. The likely secretary of state is an oil magnate whose company has fought even the concept of global warming – but who might be even warmer to the Saudis and indeed to Putin. Trump’s nominee for number 2 at State is rumoured to be John Bolton, the palaeocon who has made dismantling the UN his life’s work, and the UN Ambassador designate is a Tea Party supporter whose major foreign policy qualification seems to be that she had Indian parents.
While many people understandably have mixed feelings about the US role in the world, a sudden UNexit is a recipe for chaos. If any grownups do get a hand on the foreign policy tiller, they might appreciate that Washington needs the UN as much as, if not more, as the UN needs the USA. Apart from creating a desert and calling it peace, as the current Russian plan seems to be, Guterres has his work cut out and not just in Syria. He is eminently well qualified for the position and could revive an organization about which even many of its best supporters feel the magic is gone! However, while it would be good if he could count on predictable US input, the mental hiatus in Washington might well give him opportunities to make changes in the UN before the Trump administration can even get around to leaning on him.