Time for the United Nations to throw in the towel?
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced on May 13th that he regretfully accepted the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint United Nations-League of Arab States Special Representative for Syria. The resignation will take effect on May 31, 2014. He follows former Secretary General Kofi Annan, who tried unsuccessfully to find a formula for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict and resigned in August 2012 after only about five months on the job. Mr. Brahimi stuck it out for almost two years, but finally decided, like Kofi Annan, that he was just spinning his wheels. No successor has been named as of yet.
The Secretary General described Mr. Brahimi’s resignation as a “tragedy for the Syrian people” and a “failure” for the United Nations. “He has faced almost impossible odds, with a Syrian nation, Middle Eastern region and wider international community that have been hopelessly divided in their approaches to ending the conflict,” Ban Ki-moon told reporters. “That his efforts have not received effective support from the United Nations body that is charged with upholding peace and security, and from countries with influence on the Syria situation, is a failure of all of us.”
Ban Ki-moon was blunt in laying a good portion of the blame for lack of progress in reaching a peaceful resolution of the crisis on the Syrian government. Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's UN Ambassador, cited such criticism as the reason why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has refused to even take any phone calls from the Secretary General.
For his part, Mr. Brahimi, who later in the day delivered his final status report to the Security Council meeting in a closed door session, expressed his frustration this way: “It’s very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state. I’m sure the crisis will end, but all [stakeholders] should consider how much more death, how much more destruction will occur…before Syria can become a new Syria.”
Although he did not say so outright, the tipping point for Mr. Brahimi’s decision to resign may well have been the decision by Assad to run for another seven-year term in a pro-forma presidential election to be held on June 3rd. This decision runs counter to Mr. Brahimi’s attempts to mediate at meetings in Geneva the terms for a transitional government with full executive powers and a path to free and fair elections acceptable to the opposition as well as the regime. The meetings had ended in failure after the two sides could not even agree on the order of agenda items for their discussions.
When Mr. Brahimi spoke with reporters after the Security Council briefing, he said that he had informed Security Council members of an offer by Iran, Assad’s patron along with Russia, to help in trying to obtain a postponement of the presidential election. “It is too late in the day for that,” Mr. Brahimi said he told the Security Council.
Aside from the political dimension of the conflict, there is a grave humanitarian crisis that continues in most of the country despite a brief pause in fighting in and around Homs which allowed people trapped in Homs to depart unharmed. The conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, has led to over 150,000 deaths, with many more Syrians injured and displaced. Despite a Security Council resolution calling for all parties to facilitate access for humanitarian relief to those in need in Syria, to cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival, and to enable the rapid, safe and unhindered evacuation of all civilians who wished to leave, which was passed unanimously in February 2014, the humanitarian situation remains dire. “Far from getting better, the situation is getting worse,” said Under-Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos last month.
There is a stalemate in the Security Council preventing it from following up with measures to enforce its prior humanitarian resolution, largely due to the prospect of a Russian veto. In order to parry charges that his country is being obstructionist, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters on May 13th that his country had circulated a draft resolution that would use the negotiation of local cease fires, such as in Homs, as the model for enabling the delivery of humanitarian aid nationwide. The United States and France are leading the effort for a stronger enforcement resolution as well as referring the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ambassador Churkin, not surprisingly, said his country was opposed to such a referral.
The most progress being made in Syria involves the removal of its declared chemical weapons for destruction. The removal is reportedly about 92% completed. However, even this positive development is clouded with some uncertainty. Reports of chlorine gas attacks on civilians are being investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, claimed there were “indications” that Syria has waged as many as fourteen chemical attacks involving chlorine since agreeing to give up its chemical weapons. “Right now, we are examining the samples that were taken,” he told reporters in Washington on May 13th where he was meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry. "What it shows is that (the) Bashar al-Assad regime in spite of its commitment continues to be able to produce chemical weapons and to use them," Mr. Fabius added.
There are also unconfirmed reports that the Syrian government may not have fully declared its chemical weapons stockpile and that some chemical weapons may have been secretly moved over the border to Lebanon where Iran’s jihadist proxy Hezbollah has significant power and presence.
Lakhdar Brahimi recognized the almost impossible odds of success even during the early days of his tenure. More than a year ago he told reporters: "Every day I wake up, I think I should resign. But I haven't so far. One day, perhaps, one day I will resign, and I assure you, you will find out." That day has now arrived.
Mr. Brahimi’s successor, should there be one, will be unlikely to do any better than his predecessors. In reality, there is not really very much that the Security Council or the United Nations as a whole can do to solve the Syrian crisis, any more than the League of Nations was able to deal with the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. They are both proxy wars, with regional and international players arming one side or the other.
Indeed, nothing has really changed since I wrote back in August 2012 – well before the latest stand-off between Russia and the West in Ukraine – regarding “the revival of U.S.-Russian Cold War-like rivalries.” It is such East-West rivalries, overlaying the involvement of Iran and its Sunni rivals along with the intervention of foreign jihadists, which have contributed to the paralysis of the United Nations in Syria:
“President Obama’s policy of trying to push a re-set button in the relationship between the two countries has backfired. As evidenced by its intransigence at the United Nations, Russia is protecting the Assad regime to thwart the West and its NATO ally Turkey in their efforts to extend their reach through regime change in a region where Russia believes it has vital strategic interests… Hopefully, after the protracted deadlock at the Security Council, the Obama administration is starting to come to grips with the futility of relying on the United Nations to confer some sort of international legitimacy on its foreign policies. We’ll have to wait and see.”
We have waited nearly two more years and the Obama administration still has not learned.
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