For the UN Syria is both Promise and Peril
25th September 2013
The agreement between the United States and Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons should please — but also terrify — anyone hoping to return the United Nations to relevance. After the ugly, ignominious train crash of the United Nations’ inspections process in Iraq a decade ago, the question is whether the United Nations can deliver both international legitimacy and a genuine prospect for peace.
Syria’s suffering did not begin with the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons — and it won’t end with their removal. The timeline that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, agreed to last week is impossible to meet. Russia’s incentive to pressure Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to give up chemical weapons, his strategic deterrent, was more about preventing unilateral American military action than about easing Mr. Assad from power. As this 30-month war drags on, the fighters are less likely than ever to have an interest in putting down their arms to allow for a peaceful political transition of power. If the United Nations endorses the American-Russian deal, it will no doubt be blamed if and when the deal fails.
So should supporters of the United Nations system despair? Is this Iraq all over again?
No. Unlike in 2003, the United States is not using diplomacy — or the United Nations — to justify military action, but rather to avoid it. Russia, meanwhile, is trying to reclaim a seat at the global decision-making table — beyond the use of its veto power at the Security Council — and to end Washington’s tendency to enforce regime change by fiat. On both fronts, that is a positive (if modest) development for the international order.
The bad news is that the Assad regime, by escaping immediate punishment for its use of chemical weapons, lives on to fight another day. Its military resilience has already confounded many observers’ predictions, and the fracturing of the opposition, and its increasing infiltration by militant Islamists, give Mr. Assad significant negotiating power. The civil war will continue to rage on at an immense humanitarian cost, with the regime (correctly) convinced that it is fighting an existential struggle against dangerous and disorganized opponents.
The good news is that the West, having abandoned its expectations of Mr. Assad’s imminent fall, may now return to last year’s Geneva Communiqué as the basis for a political transition to a broad-based, representative government. With a military stalemate prevailing, a peace process — as carefully structured and forcefully negotiated as the one designed by Richard C. Holbrooke to end the war in Bosnia in 1995 — is sorely needed. Led by the United States, Russia and the United Nations, the negotiations must also include both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such a process could keep Syria from splintering and put it in the hands of a broadly acceptable government.
Not only must a real and lasting price be exacted for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, but the disarmament agreement must also be the catalyst for a political transition toward a legitimate government in Damascus before Syria as a state is destroyed.
The prospects are daunting, and the dangers are plenty. Russia may decide to run out the clock on what will be a tortured inspections and political process, and argue (with some justification) that the opposition is increasingly unmanageable and unacceptable as a negotiating partner. But if Mr. Assad feels cornered and uses chemical weapons again, the United States may feel compelled to respond with military force, even without United Nations approval.
For the West, one lasting lesson of the Syria crisis should be that the politics of national security today require a legitimacy that must be earned, in practice as well as principle. It is no longer enough to justify military intervention by pointing to a crime against humanity. In the wake of misbegotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American and European leaders must now also demonstrate that an intervention has a plausible chance of improving the lives of those in peril, as well as advancing the security of those going to war in the name of peace.
For Russia, China and other nations that reflexively oppose Western-led interventions, the test of legitimacy is no less acute. For if they persist in blocking United Nations action where action is justified, they will hasten the day of the organization’s irrelevance. Just as few states or peoples want the Security Council to be a rubber stamp for unilateralist American policy, so, too, will it lose credibility if it serves as a shield behind which unspeakable outrages can take place in the name of safeguarding sovereignty.