No peace to keep in Syria

Press conference Navanethem Pillay. UN Photo

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

In her short but outspoken briefing to the UN General Assembly this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (pictured) said the Security Council’s failure to ‘agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force’. She described the suffering and potential humanitarian crisis resulting from escalating regime attacks on Homs. Since the conflict began a year ago, she said, ‘crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed’.

The Arab League has now withdrawn its observer mission to Syria, and at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday passed a resolution asking the Security Council to authorise a joint UN–Arab peacekeeping mission. However, the resolution did not make clear whether that would involve armed troops; it could well be an unarmed observer mission.

In 60 years, UN missions have encompassed both. With more than 60,000 ‘blue helmets’ serving in 16 different missions today, the UN’s doctrine for UN Peacekeeping Operations, Principles and Guidelines recognises a spectrum of peace and security activities:

  • Conflict prevention
  • Peacemaking (including ‘measures to address conflicts in progress, including diplomatic action to bring hostile parties to a negotiated agreement’);
  • Peacekeeping (an intervention ‘to preserve the peace, however fragile, where fighting has been halted, and to assist in implementing agreements achieved by the peacemakers’);
  • Peace enforcement (the application ‘of a range of coercive measures, including the use of military force. Such actions are authorized to restore international peace and security in situations where the Security Council has determined the existence of a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression’); and
  • Peacebuilding (‘creating the necessary conditions for sustainable peace’).

Conflict prevention has clearly failed in Syria, and various parties including the UN and Arab League have been attempting to develop peacemaking options. Experience has shown that peacemaking missions require a legal mandate and consent to the mission from the warring parties. These factors did apply to the previous Arab League observer mission, but it is unlikely that in current circumstances the Assad regime would consent to a repeat of the previous mission.

For peacekeeping missions to succeed there also needs to be a peace to keep – at the minimum some sort of agreed cessation of hostilities. In Syria, this doesn’t exist and all efforts to negotiate a solution have so far resulted in the Assad regime’s refusal to make any meaningful compromises or reduce the level of repressive violence.

Attempts to achieve a Security Council mandate for any external intervention in Syria beyond the initial Arab League mission have all been vetoed by Russia and China, making the chances of peace enforcement remote. In the short term it is difficult to see how any Security Council resolution that went against the Assad regime’s vital interests would be supported by Russia.

The UN General Assembly can, in theory, override the Security Council by passing a ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution at an emergency special session. This requires a two-thirds majority and cannot be vetoed by the permanent members of the Security Council. This power has been used rarely; only ten emergency special sessions have been called and the current prospects for such action also seem unlikely.

There are also important practical considerations. The Arab League lacks any standing military coordination mechanisms and its complete inexperience in conducting peace missions was exposed in its first, recently concluded mission to Syria. The UN has years of experience, but depends on contributing nations to provide troops, which means mounting UN operations is relatively slow. NATO could easily manage an operation in Syria but there is little appetite in NATO nations for such a commitment, which would also be unlikely to gain Russian support.

Over the last year, Assad’s apparent strategy has been to secure regime loyalists and repress opposition, whilst keeping the level of conflict below that which would trigger international intervention, all underpinned by a narrative that the unrest results from a conspiracy by a collection of dark forces including al-Qaeda, the West and Gulf nations.

Without a significant change – positive or negative – of the security situation, or a change of heart by Russia and China, the most likely course of events was identified by Navi Pillay in her concluding remarks to the UN General Assembly: ‘The continued ruthless repression and deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions might soon plunge Syria into civil war. The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer.’


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