The last month’s chessboard politics about Syria and the use of chemical weapons have done nothing to stop the large-scale suffering of the mass of Syrian people, but they have underscored the inadequacy of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Throughout the last two years of the civil war in Syria the veto-privileged members of the UNSC continue to show that they each place higher priority on their own narrowly-defined national interests than on the welfare of people in affected countries.
The Syrian statistics speak for themselves: over 2 million people have fled from the country and many of them are refugees in bordering states; over 6 million people have been displaced from their homes; and over 100,000 people have been killed, including children. These figures are not disputed but in their cold statistics – huge though they are – they fail to portray the full scale of suffering being endured by the Syrian people.
A UNSC, concerned with global peace and the welfare of people, would have joined together at the outset of the Syrian conflict to avoid its escalation and to promote and enforce a solution. Instead, the 5 veto powers on the UNSC – in particular the Russian government – did everything possible to advance their own interests. In the result, the civil war escalated, fuelled in part by two regional neighbours, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are fighting a proxy war in Syria of Sunni against Shia Muslims.
There have been many instances in the past that starkly revealed the absolute necessity to reform the UNSC, especially to remove the wholly undemocratic veto powers of each of the five permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States of America – that have consistently paralysed the body. Once again, the utter failure of the UNSC to act together in Syria has emphasised how poorly it serves the people of the world in its present form.
It is unlikely that the veto-nations on the UNSC will act with any greater sense of global responsibility as events over Syria unfold in the coming weeks. The potential proposal to avoid a military strike by the US is extremely difficult to implement. It should be recalled that it is Russia that responded to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestion that a US military strike could be avoided, if Syrian President Bashar Assad gave up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Assad has seemingly agreed to do so after years of denying that his government had any chemical weapons at all.
It is also important to remember that both the Russian government and he jumped on this potential solution only in light of US President Barack Obama’s threat of a military strike.
The process of identifying the location of stockpiled chemical weapons requires the fullest co-operation of the Syrian authorities, including those elements of the military that would be strongly opposed to it. Additionally, quarantining the stockpiles and guarding them necessitates the use of external forces authorised by the UNSC – this calls for close and meaningful collaboration by the veto-5 nations.
In the best of circumstances, this would be a feat difficult to accomplish; in a country beset by a civil war where movement is a major challenge, it is almost impossible. Add to this already poisonous brew the mistrust that exists on all sides and the difficulty of the situation assumes enormous proportions.
And while these manoeuvres take place, the war in Syria and its terrible consequences for the Syrian people continue. The only good thing that might have come from them is that they should deter the further use of chemical weapons. The cruelty and prolonged agony chemicals inflict on victims cannot be hidden. Any further use might arouse enough anger in a world community – that has so far been content to be spectators to the conflict in Syria – to demand action by their governments. But, of course, ending slaughter by chemical weapons does not end carnage by other means.
Public opinion on whether their countries should intervene in Syria has been influenced by two things. The first is the deceit by governments – in particular the US and British governments under George W. Bush and Tony Blair – about weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein to justify the invasion of Iraq; and the second is the widespread view held in many parts of the world that Muslims are terrorists.
Therefore, even though no government or political party dares to say it publicly, they are keenly aware that the overwhelming sentiment in their constituencies is that the Muslims in Syria should be left to get on with their war against each other.
Many governments around the world have concluded that military intervention in Syria by any country or group of countries would be illegal in the absence of authorisation by the UNSC. This position is, of course, legally correct. In stating their position, these governments have also rightly condemned the use of chemical weapons. They have called for a diplomatic and political solution to the civil war in Syria.
But, while a diplomatic and political solution might have been possible at a very early stage of the internal Syrian conflict, history of other civil wars instruct that in the midst of current intense conflict, such a solution cannot be achieved especially as governments of major countries within and outside the Middle East have a stake in who wins.
Therefore, the death count that is already over 100,000, the displacement of millions of people from their homes and the millions of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and even across the globe will continue relentlessly until one of the many groups in Syria bludgeons the others into submission.
Much Syrian blood will be spilled and many innocent Syrians including children will die while the world watches on. This would be a terrible stain on the conscience of all mankind. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon recently observed: “Our collective failure to prevent atrocious crimes in Syria over the past two and a half years will remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations and its Member States”.
As the UN General Assembly is set to convene, at the very least the governments of the world should call on the 5-veto nations of the UNSC to act responsibly and together in Syria, and that should not exclude a credible joint UN military intervention to end further slaughter.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean Diplomat)