Syria and the UN at a crossroads

Syria and the UN at a crossroads

I write this week from New York, where the United Nations Security Council has been called to take action on the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons. The debate at the Council comes following the UN inspectors’ report that confirmed that Sarin gas was used in the attack in Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus under control of the Syrian opposition), in the early morning of Aug. 21 2013.
The Security Council is expected to meet over the coming days to consider what steps to take to dispose of Assad's chemical weapons’ arsenal. However, if the Council fails to take decisive action on a case as clear as the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against civilians, which resulted in the death of 400 children and 1,000 other civilians, that failure would signal a turning point in the Council and United Nations history.
On Thursday (Sept. 19), US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to project a sense of urgency and demanded that the UNSC act decisively and quickly to implement the deal reached by Russia and the United States in Geneva earlier, on the disposal of Syrian chemical weapons. “Now the test comes,” Kerry said. “The United Nations Security Council must be prepared to act next week.”
Last Saturday (Sept. 14), the United States and Russia reached a so-called “framework agreement” in Geneva to remove and destroy Syria’s chemicals weapons.
Soon after the agreement had been reached, the Russians and the Americans differed on how to move forward. The US said that the next step was for the Council to pass a binding resolution to enforce the accord. The United States and others have called for the adoption of a resolution forcing Syria to give a full accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, and destroying its stockpiles within months. They have insisted that the resolution be based on Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, so that force could be used to enforce it. On the other hand, Syria’s ally Russia would like the UNSC action to be linked to Chapter Six, where only political and diplomatic means could be used to enforce it.
However, there has been no word from the super powers about accountability for the attacks. Highlighting this missing gap, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Sept. 17 demanding that the UNSC resolution include a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), to achieve justice for victims of the attack of Aug. 21. HRW added, “To lock up the chemical weapons and not prosecute those who used them is an affront to the civilians who died. Referring Syria to the ICC is essential for justice for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Syria by all sides since the conflict there began.” According to some experts, because Syria is not a member of the ICC treaty, the Security Council’s consent is necessary to give the court jurisdiction over the case.
Other human rights groups have objected to the way the US and Russia have handled the problem, reducing it to a difference over how to best dispose of Assad’s chemical weapons. After all, they point out, Assad has killed over 100,000 people in Syria using conventional weapons, compared to 1,400 killed in the chemical attack of Aug. 21.
Along similar lines, on Thursday (Sept. 19), Denmark transmitted a letter to the UNSC, on behalf of Syria’s National Coalition for Opposition and Revolution, the main opposition group in Syria. The letter was a reaction to the UN inspectors’ report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Among other things, the letter urges immediate action by the Security Council to secure control and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. However, the Coalition insisted that the Security Council refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The US and some other friends of Syria are optimistic that the UNSC resolution would be decisive and can help stop the bloodshed in Syria, and may strengthen the opposition’s hand.
However, many are concerned that the opposite result would take place. The Russia-US framework, if adopted by the Security Council, may in fact play in the hands of the Syrian regime, by giving it legitimacy as an international partner in the implementation of the deal. It may also give the regime room to maneuver and time to inflict more pain on its opponent, while it shields it from international sanctions. That would be especially the case if the UNSC resolution is not based on Chapter Seven, and therefore has no teeth, or a credible threat of force to ensure its implementation.
One reason for the pessimism is the hesitant manner in which the US Administration has handled the recent Syrian crisis. First, it threatened to use force unilaterally, and then referred the matter to the Congress, then asked the Congress not to vote on its request. Incredibly, the lack of consistency was interpreted by the Syrian regime as a retreat by the US. The regime may now feel that it is immune from outside intervention, so long as it refrains from using chemical weapons again.
Over the past thirty months, the Syrian regime has killed over 100,000 of its own people, while forcing seven million Syrians to be either refugees outside their country, or displaced inside it.
The Security Council has repeatedly failed to shoulder its responsibilities under the Charter, because Russian vetoes have prevented it from adopting meaningful resolutions. But lack of leadership on part of the other fourteen UNSC members has made it easy for the Russian to succeed.
Next week will be a new test for the Security Council. Unless it adopts a resolution with teeth, there is little hope that anything would change in Syria.
On the other hand, if the Security Council is able to send a united message on chemical weapons, the Syrian regime may stop and listen. If the resolution that comes out of the debate includes serious consequences to the regime if it fails to implement it, it could turn the tide, especially if it is followed by renewed commitment to help Syrian defend themselves against the regime’s killing machine.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view