Richard Gowan teaches conflict resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on the UN. He has also recently worked as a consulting analyst with the International Crisis Group, focusing on preventive diplomacy, and writes a column for World Politics Review. He was previously research director at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, where is still a fellow.
SyriaUntold interviewed him on the UN responsibility to protect civilians, its failure to do so in the aftermath of the blatant war crimes committed by the Asad regime over the past six years, and the benefits of prompting a reform of the United Nations’ decision-making mechanisms. Richard Gowan speaks here in a personal capacity.
SyriaUntold: It is widely believed that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has failed to protect civilians in Syria, mainly because of the recurrent Russian vetoes. The same has been said before for Palestinian civilians, when US vetoes have blocked any significant resolution against Israel. Do you agree on this?
Richard Gowan: The Security Council has performed abysmally over Syria. But I think it is a mistake to focus too much on the procedural issues and Russia’s vetoes. The reality is that if the US and its allies had really wanted to intervene in Syria early in the conflict – or after the 2013 chemical weapons attack -- they would have done so without UN approval, just as they did in Kosovo and Iraq. Wisely or not, the Obama administration did not want to go down that road. So the US kept on bringing the issue back to the UN for more talks.
I have argued that Russia has exploited this US caution very successfully, and has found many ways to obstruct and slow down diplomacy over Syria. The vetoes are only part of the story. Moscow has also exploited the UN mediation process as a means of protecting Asad, and has also got the West tangled up in endless Security Council talks over humanitarian access in Syria. Russian diplomacy is profoundly cynical. But once again, we have to emphasize that the US and its friends have sometimes played along with the Russians, engaging in complex diplomatic maneuvers as an alibi for more direct action in Syria.
President’s Trump airstrikes this month represent a change of approach: The US has shown that it is willing to ignore the UN and use force unilaterally. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the fact that Trump moved quickly while the Council was still wrangling over a resolution on chemical weapons investigations has “punctured the tired but persistent myth that the United Nations Security Council can manage the Syrian civil war.” But we have to keep in mind that the action was fairly limited, and Trump does not seem to want more strikes. Diplomatic games at the UN may still continue, although I doubt they’ll deliver much.
Some have proposed to circumvent the UNSC with a General Assembly vote (as happened in the 50s in the Korean War). Would that be a feasible solution for Syria?
The idea of the General Assembly authorizing some sort of intervention in Syria did come up in 2012, but the US, Britain and France (the “P3”) were against it. The US does not want to create a precedent for the Assembly to endorse interventions and marginalize the Security Council. The Assembly set up a new mechanism to gather evidence on war crimes in Syria at the end of President Obama’s term, in the hope of deterring Syrian and Russian officers from new barbarities, but I doubt it will take more extreme action.
Again, I would emphasize that the question of how to circumvent the Security Council is not really an issue of UN rules and procedures. It is about political will. If the U.S. wanted to intervene in Syria it could follow the patterns of Kosovo and Iraq. In both cases it used force without UN backing, but then went back to the Security Council to knit together a series of resolutions to de-escalate international tensions.
Something similar might be possible over Syria, although Russia could be much more disruptive than it was in the Kosovo and Iraq cases. Still, the real obstacle to a full-scale intervention to oust Asad is the fact that Russian forces are on the ground in Syria, not its ability to mess up Security Council diplomacy.
The reiterated calls on the “international community” to act on Syria have been sometimes interpreted as an appeal for a “humanitarian” military intervention under Chapter 7. Is this the only course of action for the UNSC to protect civilians from the Syrian regime’s war crimes?
The UN is not just the Security Council, and protection does not just mean military intervention. Protection can take many forms, including basic humanitarian assistance to the suffering. The Syrian government has made it very difficult for the UN to provide even that minimal form of assistance though.
UN officials and diplomats have tried very hard to find other ways to protect civilians, including the various UN efforts to forge local ceasefires. The UN Commission of Inquiry has relentlessly built up evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities, despite major obstacles to its information gathering efforts. Although its reputation is now tarnished, the UN also saw its joint mission with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to dismantle Asad’s chemical arsenal as a real chance to reduce the level of suffering in this war. I know that the UN is regularly criticized for the compromises it has made with the Syrian government to try to help minimize the costs of war, and it deserves much of this criticism. But many UN staff have worked constantly to help Syria.
The fact is, however, that all these efforts at conflict mitigation can only make a marginal difference while the big powers refuse to look seriously at a political settlement to end the war. Mitigation is not enough.
Do you agree with those who believe that the UNSC has lost its credibility by hurriedly backing a NATO-sponsored military intervention in Libya, and this has contributed to creating an impasse on Syria? To what extent do you think these two situations were different and they required a different approach? Were there other reasons why the UNSC failed to act on Syria?
I agree that NATO pushed the UN mandate to intervene in Libya too far, and this definitely overshadowed early diplomacy over Syria. Russia never ceases to draw comparisons between the two cases, and it has a point. The irony is that, from early in the Syrian war, the US was keen to avoid an intervention -- and that is why it was willing to try to invest so much in extended UN diplomacy. As I say, the Russians have really exploited America’s caution. Historians will ultimately have to decide whether the Security Council’s hasty action over Libya or prolonged inaction over Syria has done greater damage to the UN’s reputation.
Another question for the historians will be whether the Ukrainian conflict has made it harder to get consensus over Syria through the UN. Debates over Ukraine at the UN have generally been completely confrontational, and have arguably made it harder for the US and Russia to make real progress on Syria.
It has been a while that non-permanent UNSC members, especially non-Western ones, call for an enlargement of the Council to be more representative and overcome its post-WWII legacy. Do you reckon this would democratize the decision-making process and, consequently, the debate on “humanitarian” military interventions? If so, is this feasible at the moment? Which are the main obstacles?
If anyone tells you that the answer to an urgent geopolitical problem like Syria or Ukraine is “UN Security Council reform”, you should not take them very seriously. Diplomatic discussions of Council reform grind on endlessly in New York, but the chances of immediate success are infinitesimally low. The main obstacle is actually China, which is very suspicious of any reforms that would result in Japan getting a permanent seat on the Council. Even if there was some big reform deal, it would take years to ratify and implement.
We should add that some of the countries that really want to get new permanent seats on the Council, such as Brazil and India, are actually profoundly skeptical of humanitarian intervention -- those two both held temporary seats on the Council in 2011, for example, but abstained on the resolution authorizing force in Libya. Brasilia and Delhi did initiate a diplomatic approach to Asad in 2011, but there was never much serious follow-up to that. I am not sure a reformed Council would be automatically more effective.
Nonetheless, the Syrian crisis has caused UN member states to look at shorter-term ways to make the Council perform better. There has been a lot of talk about the permanent members agreeing not to use their vetoes on resolutions in mass atrocity situations. There is a huge amount of support for this around the UN, and it is noticeable that China has tried to avoid getting into situations where it has to use its veto over Syria if at all possible, to avoid controversy. But Russia has made a point of ignoring the pressure and cast its veto willy-nilly (the U.S. is actually pretty skeptical of any steps to limit its veto powers too).
Overall we have to be very blunt here: The UN system has failed Syria. But you cannot fix that by tweaks or even major alterations to the UN. The reason the organization has been so dysfunctional is that the biggest powers in the Security Council have set it up to fail. We have seen similar situations in the past over previous wars like that in Bosnia. We should never be surprised by the cynicism of UN diplomacy.[Main photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign leaders cast a vote during UN Security Council meeting on Syria, on December 18, 2015, at the United Nations in New York City, NY. [State Department photo/Public Domain].