Idlib the latest example of UN’s irrelevance

Idlib the latest example of UN’s irrelevance

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Syrians stand on the rubble of a destroyed building that covers a street after Assad regime airstrikes in the town of Ariha, in Idlib province. (AP Photo) 

Almost a decade after it started — and after many, many chemical weapons attacks on civilian populations, the systematic use of starvation sieges, and the utter devastation of entire cities and regions at the hands of the Damascus government and its Russian and Iranian allies — the Syrian civil war is still raging, and it is still seeing an escalation of human brutality with almost every passing month. 

Now, Mark Cutts, the UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, is expecting that the regime’s latest assault on Idlib province, the last major rebel holdout in the country, will see “a massacre on a scale that has never been seen in this entire war.”

In situations such as these, there are normally two avenues to head off a complete humanitarian disaster. The first is for the UN Security Council to fulfill its obligations under international law and deploy peacekeeping troops to separate the warring sides. The second is for some Western country or alliance, usually headed by the US, to intervene with overwhelming force against the aggressors. 

However, the US has long washed its hands of Syria and has no standing to intervene now, after it failed to enforce its own red lines on the use of chemical weapons earlier in the war under the Obama administration. Under President Donald Trump, it also has no interest in humanitarian interventions.

And, as far as the UN is concerned, one permanent member of the Security Council, Russia, will be at the forefront of the killing in northern Syria, just as it has been at the forefront of the sieges of civilian areas and the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilian hospitals and international medical organizations in the years since it joined the war on the side of Damascus. Any move by any other Security Council member aimed at doing anything about the situation in Syria will be vetoed by Moscow. Western countries have long since stopped trying. 

As so many times before, this leaves us asking: Just what is the UN for if it cannot and will not do anything about even unquestionable humanitarian disasters, like Syria, Myanmar, Yemen and so many others proliferating around the world at the moment?

In the best case scenario, the Security Council can just about get itself to do stuff when some far-off small country, in which no permanent member has an interest, does something truly horrific. For reference, Rwanda did not count as far-off and small enough to meet the criteria — in that case, it was protected by France. 

Nowadays, any country that is not at least in some sense a protectorate of the US, or a former colonial possession of Britain or France with close ties to their former imperial masters, can count almost by default on Russian or Chinese backing in the Security Council. China will back just about any country that is willing to embrace an expansion of Chinese influence and commercial ties, as it rises to a prominent position in the global trading system. Meanwhile, Russia is desperately flailing around, grasping at any opportunity for geopolitical relevance and any opportunity to stick it to the West — mostly driven by internal politics in Moscow, as well as Vladimir Putin’s Cold War fixations. 

Just what is the UN for if it cannot and will not do anything about even unquestionable humanitarian disasters?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

For these two reasons, just about any conflict and any humanitarian abuse anywhere in the world is an opportunity for a proxy conflict between Russia and the West, or an opportunity for Beijing to gain leverage over some smaller nation so as to draw it into their sphere of influence. Thus, one can guarantee that any attempt by any side to do anything through the Security Council will be vetoed by some member or other. 

There has been exactly one occasion when this was not the case: In the 1990s, when American reigned supreme, Russia had no desire or capacity to relitigate the Cold War, and China was not yet a global player. That world is gone. And, with it, any chance that the Security Council can serve any purpose. So we find ourselves once again calling for a complete overhaul of the Security Council and the UN system, and the abolition of the unilateral vetoes.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Director of the Displacement and Migration Program at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C., where he chairs the Rohingya Legal Forum. He is also author of “Rohingya: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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