Undoubtedly, the best chance to stop the Syrian civil war was before it properly started, in 2011. But such chances are all too often missed, and the UN is judged more by its success or failure in stopping wars that are visibly happening than in preventing ones that nobody knows about.
Once a war is in full swing, the world expects two things of the UN – that it should stop it, and that it should help the hapless civilians who are suffering its effects. It should also prevent escalation, whether ‘vertical’ (the use of more and more deadly weapons) or ‘horizontal’ (the geographical spread of hostilities) – but again, the world seldom worries about that until it is too late.
Mr Keating’s pertinent observation that the Security Council “is not an abstract independent institution” applies to the UN as a whole. The Secretariat and the various funds and programmes, including those dealing with humanitarian needs, can in practice only operate in the narrow political space conceded to them by member states, all of which put their own interests first and the effectiveness of the UN a long way behind.
The peacemaking efforts have been most obviously hampered by divisions in the Security Council. The most promising was the six-point plan put forward by Kofi Annan as Special Envoy in 2012. This was accepted in principle by all parties, but foundered on the insistence of the Western powers that Assad’s departure must be accepted as a precondition of negotiations (rather than a possible outcome, which Russia at that time was willing to accept), and also the determination of the US to exclude Iran (manifestly a decisive actor in the war, however much one may dislike it) from the conference table.
More recent efforts by Annan’s successors have been dogged by similar disagreements, with Western concessions coming too late to forestall a hardening of the Russian position, especially since Russia became directly involved in combat operations in the autumn of 2015, helping to turn the tide of war in favour of its protégé, Assad. The sheer complexity of the conflict, with shifting alliances among different parties fighting on the ground as well as their external backers, has also made effective mediation more and more difficult.
In an all too familiar pattern, lack of agreement on a political or military solution has left the UN playing a predominantly humanitarian role – ‘mopping up the blood rather than staunching the flow’. But here, too, as in previous conflicts (Bosnia and Sri Lanka come particularly to mind), political divisions have hampered the relief of suffering and the UN has again incurred criticism as it struggled with the dilemma of securing access to victims without compromising its impartiality. Although the Syrian conflict has coincided with the period when the UN has been trying to apply lessons from Sri Lanka through the Human Rights up Front programme, it has not escaped accusations of partiality or even complicity because of its willingness to work with the regime, or at least with humanitarian organisations that the regime directly controls.
At the same time, virtually all parties to the conflict have consistently disregarded the most basic principles of international humanitarian law, civilians being cynically and routinely subjected to bombardment and starvation. The Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning these breaches, but since there is no consensus in the Council on sanctions against the perpetrators – and still less on any attempt to hold them judicially accountable for their crimes – these resolutions have been largely ignored by the parties on the ground, thereby further eroding the Council’s authority. And even the UN’s crucial work of supporting refugees outside the country has been compromised by the unwillingness of member states either to fund these operations adequately or to accept refugees for resettlement in meaningful numbers.
Arguably the UN’s most useful contribution was provided by the Office for Disarmament Affairs in and after 2013, when it organised and verified the removal of very large stocks of chemical weapons from the country. It is regrettable that public comment has focused on President Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” on the use of these weapons through military action, rather than on this important measure of disarmament, preventing a very dangerous escalation of the conflict, which was the fruit of a rare moment of cooperation between permanent members of the Security Council. Although there have been reports of chemical weapons being used since (not only by one side), this has been on a smaller scale, and an important international norm has by and large been preserved.
Photo: Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria at a press conference on 22 June 2012. Copyright UN Geneva/Jean-Marc Ferré