UN’s political process complicit in ongoing Syrian disaster

UN’s political process complicit in ongoing Syrian disaster

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The Syrian civil war has just entered its 10th year. In that time, we have seen the major global powers use the land of Syria as a proxy war chess board; the rise and eventual fall of Daesh, the most egregious terrorist group in modern history; a government deploy chemical weapons and starvation sieges against its own civilians; and a member of the UN Security Council, Russia, wage a targeted bombing campaign against hospitals. Syria has been one disaster piled on top of another. 

The record of the UN in the Syria war has been equally dismal. Its handling of the conflict must count as the greatest failure in its 70-year existence. Of course, the UN is not a monolithic thing. The humanitarian agencies of the UN have tried their best to cope with the political and social catastrophe, and have been outright heroic in the sacrifices they have made to try and alleviate the lives of the poor civilians caught up in the middle of the fighting, even as they themselves came under targeted fire. 

But the efforts of the UN humanitarian agencies and the other nongovernmental organizations of the international community have been futile in the face of the big power politics being played out in the Syrian theater. Despite their best efforts, from a pre-war population of 21 million, some half a million people have been killed, more than 7.5 million have been displaced internally in Syria, and more than 5 million have fled abroad. So a quarter of the population has fled the country, and another third of the original total has been displaced internally. Such displacements are on the level of the world wars. 

And the political part of the UN has been fully complicit in the ongoing disaster. Above all, the UN political process has been held hostage by Russia, even as Moscow continues to be an active belligerent and a consistent aggressor against civilian populations, against health care facilities and staff, and against international relief efforts. 

But the West also shares some responsibility for allowing Russia to continue these humanitarian outrages in Syria. The turning point in the West’s relationship with the conflict — and the moment when the humanitarian argument was forfeit at the political level of the UN and in the UN Security Council — was when the Obama administration infamously failed to enforce its red lines over the use of chemical weapons in the aftermath of the 2013 Ghouta attack.

The political side of the UN, especially the so-called “Security Council,” is a naked sham. Our Western leaders cannot continue to hide their inaction behind deference to UN processes.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Having laid down the law, and proclaimed that the US would enforce international law unilaterally if necessary, the Obama administration backed down from enforcing its proclamation and yielded to Moscow’s sham “diplomatic plan,” signaling that the US would let Bashar Assad run roughshod over international law and humanitarian norms, while Moscow would provide him cover. Consequently, we saw chemical attacks as late as 2018.

But it gets worse. Moscow continues to sponsor the “UN process,” even as it cripples its ability to achieve anything, specifically to gain cover internationally. Even as Russia and Assad continue to siege and bombard the remaining rebel enclaves in Idlib, they can pre-empt calls for action from Western leaders by pointing to this process. 

If ever there was any doubt about UN processes, especially political ones in the Security Council, they should now be entirely dispelled. The UN continues to have value in the form of the international civil society agencies that observe international developments and promote human rights, global health and education, and so on. But the political side of the UN, especially the so-called “Security Council,” is a naked sham. Our Western leaders cannot continue to hide their inaction behind deference to UN processes. We have not intervened to save the people of Syria because we did not care to do so. Consequently, we do not get to complain about the people of Syria coming to the West seeking refuge — even as we are also failing to deliver on this responsibility. 

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and Director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C. Twitter:@AzeemIbrahim
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