If there’s one favor Russia and China have done for us all lately, it’s been to reduce the United Nations to glaring irrelevance in the Syria conflict. Due to these two, there has been no Security Council resolution proposing to deal with Syria, and it looks like there won’t be. Repeated emergency meetings and draft resolutions have all arrived at a big nothing.
Why is that helpful? Because it removes the fig leaf assumption that the UN is on the job, ergo something is being done. Too often, when terrible events start to build, the UN becomes the go-to place for relays of special envoys, Security Council resolutions, and grand pronouncements by senior international civil servants. Money is spent, statements are issued, diplomatic huddles take place, crash meetings are called, and in a cloud of bureaucratic palaver, the can gets kicked down the road. Erstwhile leaders of the free world can delay any real decisions, because they have deflected the problem to the UN. Meanwhile, on the ground, the troubles keep boiling over.
Examples range from the 1994 decision of Kofi Annan, then head of UN peacekeeping, to ignore the warnings of his own man in the field about the imminent Rwanda genocide; to the pronouncements of the UN’s top diplomats that the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq was one of the UN’s stellar achievements; to the assurances of Annan in 2006, as secretary-general, that his secret negotiator was hard at work arranging the return of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah (ultimately, Israel was left to redeem their mortal remains in exchange for releasing living terrorists). The UN over the past seven years has imposed a series of sanctions resolutions on Iran and North Korea, meant to stop their rogue nuclear projects — with much fanfare and no success. The list goes on. The point is, the UN promises things it cannot deliver, and while those promises are invoked as remedies, or signs of action, people suffer and die, and the problems grow.
In the case of Syria, when the March, 2011 rebellion met with violence that mushroomed into mass carnage, civil war, the use of heavy weapons, and chemical weapons, by the regime, and the emergence of Islamist elements including al Qaeda affiliates among the opposition, it was easier for the U.S. and its allies to hang back and watch — because the UN was, in theory, on the job.
Thus did we see the resurrection in February, 2012, of the retired former secretary-general Kofi Annan, brought in as special joint envoy of the UN and Arab League to try to broker peace in Syria. It was a move obviously doomed from the start , but Annan spent almost half a year jetting around from Geneva to Damascus to Tehran to UN headquarters in New York, before he finally resigned in frustration. Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria kept rising, and the odds of any decent resolution kept falling. Annan was replaced by an old member of his UN inner circle, the current special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi — an Algerian whose angle on the Middle East is pretty well summed up by his 2004 comment labeling the policies of the democratic state of Israel as “the big poison” in the region.
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.