Mirror, Mirror: The UNSC as a Reflection of Syria

It’s been over a year since protesters in Syria began to march for reforms in Bashar al-Assad’s government. As the situation continues to escalate, the UN Security Council continues to work towards a solution to the problem, preferably one that doesn’t involve further bloodshed and death. Despite the pessimism that has pervaded work on Syria, the need for a political solution is still apparent, as the current phase of military struggle has yet to produce solutions for either side. The real problem comes in determining how to shift from the level of armed conflict we see at present to a political attempt at an accord between the two sides, a problem reflected in the UNSC’s members proxy insistence “I’ll stop shooting when you will”.

The wariness of the government and the increasingly armed opposition is proving to be a major hurdle to diplomacy at all levels of the United Nations and beyond. In the Security Council’s chambers, the United States and France are working in tandem with Morocco at another attempt to pass a draft resolution on the situation, an internationally binding call for peace. The draft, which hasn’t even come close to being put in blue, can be found at UN Report. While comparable to the previous efforts to pass a resolution, the current document differs in how it reflects the calls that were in the Press Statement of the Council, issued on March 1st, and its concern the need for humanitarian aid to be able to move freely within the most affected areas. Unfortunately, while it required the unanimity of the Council, the press statement falls even below a Presidential Statement in terms of enforcement, leaving the current draft the sole hope for an enforceable call to the table for the parties and push for NGOs and other aid workers to deliver much-needed supplies into Homs and other areas. Such an effort would coincide with the calls of Valerie Amos, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance, who in concluding her visit to Homs, plaintively wondered where the citizens of the Baba Amr neighborhood, heavily targeted by shells, have relocated.

The main sticking point in the resolutions’ passage, however, can be found in Operative Clause 4, which is the subject of Russian and Chinese ire:

OP4    Calls upon the armed elements of the Syrian opposition to refrain from all violence immediately upon implementation of paragraph 3 of this resolution;

As paragraph 3 is the clause dealing with the implementation by Damascus of the Arab League’s Plan of Action from November, Russia and China are skeptical of the West and Gulf States’ intentions in the proposed language. Any allowance for the Free Syrian Army to continue attacks on government forces with impunity is a sure step to regime change in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing. Likewise, the Western members of the P-5 smell stalling and a desire to continue selling arms to Syria in Russia’s concerns. A high-level meeting of the Security Council on Monday highlighted these differences, while offering small morsels for a united stance by the full Council.

The mirror image that can be seen between the US, UK, France and the Arab State’s clash with Russia and China and the Syrian opposition’s distrust of Assad is hampering any chance of actual dialogue moving forward. This isn’t to say that concerns of potentially negotiating in bad faith are entirely unwarranted or validated on either side. The opposition has seen time and again promises of reform from the Assad regime coupled with increased attacks and shelling on civilian populations. Meanwhile Russia and China are hesitant to encourage political turnover that could later come back to haunt them, though I give less credence to the “Libya prevented Syria” theory than many do.

Outside of Turtle Bay, the Joint UN-Arab League envoy, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is facing similar problems in gaining the trust of the opposition and government. This morning, Annan stated that a Syrian response to his plan for mediated talks with the opposition had only prompted “more questions”, a highly diplomatic way of implying that Damascus was stalling for time. Meanwhile, the opposition finds itself splintering further still, with two top members resigning in recent days. For Annan, the task of pushing forward with mediation between not two Parties, but at least five, is a challenge in and of itself. Media reports that he ended his visit to Syria “empty-handed”, however, belie the time that seasoned observers knew would be needed in pushing for a deal. Annan is scheduled to brief the Security Council on his efforts thus far via video conference on Friday morning.

Despite disheartening setbacks, there are some signs for cautious optimism in gaining Russian acquiescence on a text in the Council. This weekend, the Russian Federation met with the League of Arab States to discuss Syria, producing Five Points of agreement on how to move forward in ending the conflict. The points, while short on detail, do offer the clearest sign yet that Russia may eventually come around to supporting the UN’s diplomatic push fully:

1. Cessation of violence from all sides.

2. An impartial monitoring mechanism.

3. No external interference.

4. Unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.

5. Firm support for Kofi Annan’s mission to launch a political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups in accordance with the mandate contained in the terms of reference approved by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States

So the question remains: how do you push for two sides riddled with mistrust to lay down their arms? The answer: the same way you do in every civil conflict, through a combination of cajoling, threats, promises, and bribes by the supporters of the opposing sides. Unfortunately for the Russian and Chinese position, it’s unlikely that the Free Syrian Army will be ending their strikes against the government prior to the withdrawal of tanks and armed forces from cities and towns. Syria giving in to this request, however, places the onus on the FSA to hold up their end of the bargain, or give Syria renewed diplomatic strength to restart their assault. A Russian threat to withhold arms sales and withdraw trainers for advanced systems without compliance to a Security Council resolution, along with a promise to redouble the Syrian line of credit in the event of a violation of a ceasefire by the FSA, would move the chance of talks along swiftly.

Similarly, the Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, can take concrete steps towards a solution by toning down their rhetoric for the time being, including the calls for military intervention and their actual continuing supply of arms to the FSA. These actions are prolonging the conflict, providing credence to Assad’s embattled rhetoric, and hindering the efforts of the UN to actually bring a peaceful solution to bear. If Qatar and the Saudis wish to invade Syria as badly as they seem to want to at times, I suggest they do so and unite world opinion finally, in a state to state conflict that the UNSC was designed to quash. In any case, cooler heads in Riyadh and Doha would be appreciated. By the same token, the Syrian National Council, currently the most organized opposition group, though barely, should revoke its decision to form a ‘Military Bureau’ to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army. Now is not the time to show enhanced unity of cause by escalating the military conflict.

I would also at this point consider amending language to the US draft from its current request for Annan to work with the Syrian government, other parties in Syria, and member-states, to upgrade Annan’s mandate from being provided by the General Assembly and the Arab League to the Security Council and Arab League. While this may not affect Annan’s mission operationally, it would add increased weight to his attempts to foster peace, including the backing of the most powerful body in the UN system. Further pressure could be placed by demanding that these Parties cooperate fully with Annan, but I have my doubts this suggestion would be heeded.

Finally, I would note that this draft resolution is a good, workable framework for negotiating with Russia and China over an actual call for a ceasefire. The language as proposed for Operative Clause 4 surprised me in how directly it supported the oppositions’ status as the aggrieved over the government, enough for me to presume that the clause was there as a negotiating start point. Instead, Secretary Clinton on Monday was unabashed in the need for the government to stop shooting first. The consternation from Russia was palpable. The United States, though correct in its principles, should yield to the politics necessary to pass this political document for a political solution. As the Russian-Arab Five Points indicate, there are points of commonality in the positions of the fifteen Council members. Rather than continue to insist that the exact wording of the resolution remain intact, the West needs to focus on the momentum that will come from finally gaining a statement from the Security Council on Syria and lay down their own rhetorical arms. Passage of a resolution at the Security Council level, in theory, could serve as a catalyst for their mirror images to do the same. Continuing to delay over the insistence that the other side blink first is a recipe for continued strife and increased carnage.

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