Brahimi has been on the job for more than a year now, talking about talking, while in Syria the carnage, and the spillover, has gotten ever worse, with al Qaeda affiliates honing their battle skills among the opposition. Meanwhile, while Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have come to the aid of the Assad regime, Russia has shipped in weapons. Also, there are reports of North Korea ramping up help to the regime.
On August 21st came the worst chemical weapons attack yet, in which according to the White House the regime killed more than 1,400 people, 426 of them children. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting (which the new U.S. ambassador, Samantha Power, did not manage to attend), and the result was… nothing. This week, the five permanent members of the Security Council held a closed-door meeting on Syria (this time, Power was present), and the result, once again, was… nothing. What matters in the UN universe is not the agony of war, or the actual violations on the ground of international taboos, but such stuff as the preferences of veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Russia and China simply won’t play ball. Game over.
Of course, the UN is expected to soon produce a report from its team of chemical weapons experts, who finally got into Syria these past two weeks. Theirs was a brave mission, in which they came under sniper fire while trying to make their rounds. But the price of their admission, haggled out over the past few months between the UN and the Assad regime, was that their mandate does not require them to decide who used chemical weapons; they were allowed in merely to determine whether chemical weapons were used at all. In this, they have been greatly preempted by the White House press briefing that just reported “with high confidence,” plus a map of the attacks, that the Syrian regime, with Bashar Assad as “the ultimate decision maker,” had launched multiple chemical weapons attacks, previously on a small scale, and on August 21st on a far bigger scale.
If anything is to be done about the use of chemical weapons for mass murder, that leaves the U.S., and any allies President Obama can muster, to deal with these atrocities. It’s an open question whether Obama, when he does make up his mind, will decide on action that makes any kind of strategic sense, or will choose simply to stir this hornet’s nest. But for the moment, at least, it has become virtually impossible to hide behind the UN. That does not by any stretch guarantee a good result, or even a least bad result. There are widely varying views over what, if anything, should now be done. But the benching of the UN at least allows room for some clarity of debate, responsibility, and decision. That’s a step in the right direction.