U.S. Intervention in Syria Wouldn’t Be an Issue if the UN Security Council Did Its Job

If the UN Security Council didn’t shirk its duty, we wouldn’t be debating U.S. intervention in Syria. (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr Commons )

If the UN Security Council didn’t shirk its duty, we wouldn’t be debating U.S. intervention in Syria. (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr Commons )

The horror that is Syria makes the heart sick. Syrians are stuck between not only a rock and a hard place – the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front (aka al-Qaeda in Syria) – but, deadliest of all, a roof crushing them – the Assad regime.

Seldom has the horror that is Syria been better conveyed than in a New Yorker piece by Ben Taub titled Shadow Doctors. It chronicles the Assad regime’s war on doctors who help the victims of its attacks. Taub writes:

In the past five years, the Syrian government has assassinated, bombed, and tortured to death almost seven hundred medical personnel, according to Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that documents attacks on medical care in war zones. (Non-state actors, including isis, have killed twenty-seven.) Recent headlines announced the death of the last pediatrician in Aleppo, the last cardiologist in Hama. A United Nations commission concluded that “government forces deliberately target medical personnel to gain military advantage,” denying treatment to wounded fighters and civilians “as a matter of policy.”

This barbaric strategy is the mark of a regime that doesn’t fear that it will be brought to justice by the UN or the International Criminal Court. I am in the process of reading a paper from March 2015 titled Failure to Protect: Syria and the UN Security Council by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The center falls under the umbrella of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies of the Graduate Center, City University of New York. From the executive summary (that’s okay – you can read it if you’re not an executive):

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the global commitment adopted at the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit, has been central to the international discourse on how to respond to mass atrocity crimes in Syria. Despite the acrimonious debate surrounding the UN Security Council-mandated intervention in Libya in 2011, individual states, regional organizations and UN agencies have struggled to find ways and means of upholding their responsibility to protect the people of Syria. Public censure of atrocities committed by both government forces and armed opposition groups, as well as bilateral sanctions, investigations by the UN Human Rights Council and a Joint Monitoring Mission deployed during the failed 2012 ceasefire, stand as examples of international efforts to confront atrocities in Syria. But it has not been enough.

The Responsibility to Protect is an international norm, but it does not possess independent agency. The failure to end atrocities and protect civilians in Syria is not a failure of R2P, but of the imperfect actors and institutions charged with its implementation. Beyond the primary responsibility of the Syrian government to stop killing its own people, responsibility rests with the one body entrusted and mandated by the 193 members of the United Nations with the maintenance of international peace and security – the Security Council. [Emphasis, both italic and bold italic, added.]

Despite resolutions that led to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and improved access to the 12.2 million suffering Syrian civilians who remain in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, political divisions and partisan interests within the Security Council have been an insurmountable obstacle. In particular, Russia and China have on four separate occasions employed their vetoes to block action in response to mass atrocity crimes in Syria, including most recently on a May 2014 draft resolution that would have referred the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court. As this paper shows, each veto strengthened impunity and encouraged the expansion of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Dr. Adams maintains that if the members of Security Council continue to “use their veto in future mass atrocity situations, the legitimacy and efficacy of the Council will be increasingly called into question. This is a failure that the Security Council, Syria and the world can ill afford.”

Into the vacuum rushes the United States. At Salon, Patrick Lawrence writes about the State Department memorandum that 51 diplomats wrote and shared with the New York Times calling for “a more muscular military posture” in Syria.

State gave the Times a supposedly in-house, diplomat-to-diplomat letter the administration plainly wanted to disseminate. … the letter is a classic example of military-force-first policies that are rooted in the Cold War decades and are now standard fare among diplomats and in the international-relations programs wherein they are trained.

Lawrence poses the question “What are the intentions—stated and unstated—of this memorandum?”

Clinton’s anticipated victory in November is what this document is all about.

The signees seek “to bolster moderate rebels’ role in defeating Da’esh,” as the Islamic State is also known, not to mention Hillary Clinton’s. Lawrence states that the memorandum “is a straight-out recitation of Clinton’s position on what to do to resolve the Syrian crisis and retrieve America’s pretensions to global leadership.”

To repeat, U.S. intervention in Syria would not be an issue if the UN Security Council weren’t as obstructionist as U.S. Congress. Ideally, Russia would lay aside its concerns with its naval base in Syria and, along with China, join the United States in applying pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate. Then military force could be truly relegated to the last resort that, in a perfect world, it should always be.