The crisis in Syria is a stark and sobering reminder of how hard it is for the international community to prevent or stop violence and to help countries find a peaceful path to change. The United Nations has stepped in where others have failed – not because the U.N. has a magic wand or can guarantee success, but because it can provide critical services and support in ways the neighbors or great powers cannot.
The U.N., not the United States, or Russia, or the European Union, is working today to negotiate a break in the fighting between the government of Bachar al-Assad and the various opposition groups to allow observance of a Muslim holiday later this week. The U.N.’s special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is working against terrible odds to persuade Damascus to step back from the brink and engage the opposition before the country suffers more devastating losses.
The U.N. is playing other roles in the crisis as well: It is providing basic services for the estimated 300,000 refugees in neighboring countries and internally displaced. Earli er in the year, a peace operation was launched to monitor a ceasefire that regrettably did not hold. As the regime escalated the violence with aerial bombardment of major cities, the U.N. observer force withdrew.
Back in New York, the U.N. Security Council debates, unproductively, next steps in trying to defuse the crisis. Even as the crisis worsens, the Security Council cannot achieve new consensus on using more forceful means to defuse it.
So how does one assess the U.N. role?
The U.N. represents the nation states of the world, but it does not have any transcendent power or authority over them. So when the U.S. and Russia are locked on different sides of a dispute, as was the case during the Cold War, the U.N. Security Council, where decisions about peace and security are made, becomes dysfunctional. It is a flashback to an earlier time to see Russia defending its nondemocratic ally and unable to look beyond its investment in Syria to a broader consideration of regional and global security.
The U.N. political mission, led first by former Secretary General Kofi Annan, and now by Brahimi, a former Algerian diplomat and longtime U.N. troubleshooter, is a fragile but noble effort to persuade Syria’s leadership that they must find a way out of the crisis: Syria’s president still believes that he can prevail, and the fractured opposition cannot agree on the U.N.-proposed negotiated process. For now, the U.N. is ahead of the parties and needs to be patient and persistent.
The U.N.’s specialized agencies continue to work on humanitarian and technical issues, both to address emergency needs and to prepare for an inevitable shift in power in Syria that will require U.N. help in setting up elections and monitoring a political transition.
But Syrian society is so deeply damaged now that it is hard for the U.N. or any outside actors to know with whom to engage. What began as a peaceful movement against a dictatorial regime, inspired by the revolts in other Arab countries, deteriorated to a civil war before the international community was able to determine who could speak for the opposition.
That slow response was partly due to the shadow of the Libya intervention in 2011, when the U.N. Security Council approved a largely western operation to protect civilians under threat of massacre from the regime of Muammar Qadhafi. The intervention became seen as a “regime change” project in disguise, leading to mistrust and unease among some about a similar operation in Syria.
In truth, the countries that acted in Libya are themselves very reluctant to intervene in Syria, a more complex and dangerous situation with no clear way to use military force to stop the violence against civilians.
The U.N. cannot quickly alter the course of a country caught in a long-delayed fight for freedom. That fight has now pushed a once modernizing country into a frenzy of sectarian and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by neighbors with their own agendas. The U.N. works with regional organizations, including the Arab League and Egypt, Turkey and others, to influence the Syrians, but these parties also confront the painful reality that this is a conflict not yet ready to be resolved.
Source: JS Online