Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Syria: The Elephant in the Room

by Stewart M. Patrick
September 27, 2012

Members of the Free Syrian Army holding weapons sit at the back of a truck in Aleppo,Syria on September 23, 2012 (Shaam News Network/Courtesy Reuters).


As over 120 leaders meet in New York for the UN General Assembly, the civil war in Syria is generating significant attention but little collective action. After eighteen months, the toll is dire: nearly 30,000 killed, more than a million internally displaced, and at least 25,000 detained. At the same time, the conflict is increasingly taking on international dimensions, as violence spills over into Lebanon and Israel and hundreds of thousands of refugees pour into Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. In his opening remarks to the assembled delegates , UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called Syria “a regional calamity with global ramifications.” He added, “The international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control.”

Yet the appeal for action has largely gone unanswered. After delivering a full-throated defense of freedom of speech in his own UNGA address, President Obama offered only tepid insistence that the international community “remain engaged” in Syria. Ban, for his part, once more  urged member states to “stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible.” More dramatically, the emir of Qatar called for an armed intervention in Syria led by the Arab League,  although it is unlikely that his proposal will gain widespread support, either from fellow League members or the Western powers whose assistance they would need. And despite at least three high-level meetings on Syria in New York, no new initiaivies to substantively deal with the conflict are expected to materialize.

Inaction at the UN General Assembly echoes the stalemate in the UN Security Council since the outbreak of violence in Syria. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions that condemned the Bashar al-Assad regime and threatened sanctions. A compromise resolution led to the establishment of a joint UN-Arab League Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), made up of three hundred unarmed observers, to supervise the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan. However, the Assad regime repeatedly failed to uphold its commitments, Annan resigned in frustration, and the UNSMIS mandate was not renewed due to escalating violence. Annan’s successor, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, gave a downbeat assessment on Monday to the Security Council of prospects for a negotiated settlement.

Syria is but the most recent and high-profile example of the conflict management challenges facing the international community. Each year, nearly three hundred thousand people die in armed conflicts around the world, with an economic toll estimated at upwards of $100 billion. Although conflicts have declined by 40 percent since 1992, thanks in part to the UN’s development and deployment of new multilateral tools and instruments, efforts to prevent and mitigate violence hinge upon political consensus and financial resources, both of which tend to be in short supply. To assess progress, gaps, and areas for improvement of conflict management, the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program at the Council on Foreign Relations has relaunched the Global Governance Monitor: Armed Conflict. The entire package has been updated to reflect recent developments and emerging trends, such as peacekeeping efforts in Haiti and the failed negotiations to regulate the international trade in conventional arms. The update yields several important findings:

  • Despite strides in curbing interstate conflicts, major shortcomings remain when it comes to addressing intrastate conflicts. Thanks to proliferating collective security agreements, the spread of democratic governance, and increased economic interdependence, violent conflicts between states are today few and far between. In 2011, for instance, the Uppsala database reported only one interstate conflict, between Cambodia and Thailand. Armed conflict has also become less deadly, as wars incur fewer battle-related deaths and injuries. However, intrastate conflicts now make up nearly all high-intensity conflicts, and are often complicated by the growing role played by nonstate actors like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and armed militants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nor does the end of war guarantee peace, as 40 percent of all postconflict states descend into violence within ten years—underlining the importance of postwar peace-building as a form of conflict prevention.
  • Peacekeeping operations remain overstretched and underfinanced. Over the past decade, the scale and scope of peacekeeping operations exploded. Today, the United Nations oversees sixteen operations and over ninety-eight thousand deployed peacekeepers. In the past year alone, the UN launched new missions in Libya, South Sudan, and Syria, as well as expanded operations in the DRC, Ivory Coast, Haiti, and Somalia. Unfortunately, this growing global demand for peacekeeping operations vastly exceeds the willingness (and sometimes capacities) of UN member states to provide sufficient financial and/or operational support to fulfill their ambitious mandates, which are often complex, ill-defined, and suffer from mission creep. The UNSMIS mission epitomizes this pattern of an understaffed force tasked with an outsized mandate. Increasingly, regional organizations are partnering with the UN on hybrid peacekeeping operations, such as the current missions in Sudan and Somalia, where the African Union and the UN have adopted a division of labor.
  • The future of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P ) is in grave doubt. In the aftermath of genocides and atrocities in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, and elsewhere, international awareness of the civilian toll of violent conflict is at a zenith. In 2005, UN member states unanimously endorsed the concept of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which designated the prevention of atrocities as a sovereign responsibility of all governments. When a ruling regime fails to prevent such atrocities from occurring—or commits them itself—the responsibility to protect civilians devolves to the international community.  In spring 2011, the UN Security Council’s authorization of “all necessary measures” to stop the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime’s attacks on civilians in Libya seemed to reaffirm R2P as a mainstream international norm.This was a premature assessment, however, as deep-seated tensions remain among UN member states over the criteria that justify violating national sovereignty to protect civilians. Within the Security Council, differences between the Wesetrn permanent members, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, have stymied collective action in Syria.


Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by EthanP

    Of course the UN is nearly toothless. The real power is in the Security Counsel. As China and Russia are both countries that have slaughtered their own citizens by the tens of millions in the last century, they intend to protect any nations right to do the same. And have the veto to make it stick. Sadams crime was to try do do so outside his own borders.

  • Posted by Matt

    Well the FSA can either be disbanded or call a ceasefire with the regime, similar to the one the Kurds have. Open up negotiations with the regime and change the ROE for what units remain of the FSA. Free up Assad’s forces to fight the councils. Perhaps 80 percent of units have defected to the council, but 45 percent of those are foreign fighters. Maybe the FSA and the regime now share a common objective, both do not want a radical religious regime. So that opens up negotiations between the two and a ceasefire with the regime and change of ROE allows some form of autonomy in the areas the FSA control to enforce law and order and self-defense. Same as the Kurds.

    It is the same as the Stan, Ahmad Shah Masoud never got the majority of weapons and money, Haqqani and other more radicals got the majority of support. What the money and weapons, take on a radical agenda and accept the foreign Jihadists, those are the conditions, if you don’t you are cut off and funding goes to the favorites. Same as the ISI and Afghanistan.

    And to be truthful in 2013 the FSA would have pulled back from the fight, leaving the brigades of radicals and foreign fighters to do the heavy lifting, before negotiations with the regime. To weaken them in the post Assad wrap up, same as the Kurds have done, who have not fired a shot yet and are fresh. But an alliance between the Kurds and the FSA and a ceasefire with the regime cannot be ruled out.

    Because this was going to occur anyway, it just came early, in Libya it happened after the fall, everything in Syria either the SNC, the councils, the external powers fighting for control post Assad. The US talking post Assad is fast forward, not with the reality of the situation.

    Each man is his own man, his own President, own boss so the FSA can be disbanded and the FSA units can decide if they want to have a ceasefire with the regime or join the councils on an independent basis. But you have a better chance with collective bargaining as independent units. That is how you avoid the 300 cap on control of personnel that gets you in Gitmo or RICO.

  • Posted by Matt

    That is why Ahmad Shah Masoud was the biggest heroin dealer in the world, that was how he financed his faction when the Soviets were in country and during the civil war. He even bought the Colombians out to visit his opium operations. And that is how the Kurds have funded their insurgency Iran, Iraq, Turkey , and Syria they are smugglers.

    And now there are crystal meth labs in Afghanistan no doubt ,that also. And when the war for the autonomous Syrian Kurdistan starts you watch narcotics seizures in the EU, spike and just like in Iran due to Afghanistan over supply of heroin and ICE in Iran spread to SEA and beyond. Choice recipe too, purists ICE on the market. The hammer is not as popular as it use to be, everything is synthetic these days.

    And that turned up in the Stan a few years before the Arab Spring. Who knows how it turned up, would not surprise me if Wali knew, but he is no longer with us, 3 can keep a secret if 2 are dead. So what you have is a lawless regional hub, hosting clandestine labs, in which precursor chemicals are cheap and easily available. Like the Colombian strategy with cocaine no amount of border seizures or domestic seizures will affect the revenue flow, production is simply to cheap and levels are too high to make a dent.

    And that what happens like in Afghanistan when funding goes to the radicals and favorites, so you can see how an FSA/Kurdish alliance would come about in the wash up of the civil war.

    I know Qatar and others think it will be a cake walk taking control of Syria, the decline of the US all that, leading from behind. I see an Afghanistan civil war, is what I see. It is up to the FSA, they disband, join the councils, an alliance with the Kurds. A ceasefire with the regime.

    Never go to war without secure supply of logistics, and if you can get some else to do the bleeding for you, that too. How the Kurds got their territory, why the FSA would have pulled back in 2013. Cannon fodder.

    Because of course the Afghan situation was going to play out in relation to supply of logistics and thus defections to other organization, foreign fighters, radical agenda once the FSA had been seen to have served its purpose, be cut out of the picture.

    But as with the 2013 pull back that was planned for the FSA and how the Kurds got their slice of the pie, what some see as an success, other see as shaping the environment. For someone else to do the heavy lifting and get culled before the civil war. That is when the end game really begins.

    School is not even in yet and the lesson has not begun, why because those unnamed people are predictable and opportunists always are. Time spent in reconnaissance is time well spent. See think they have already won, I think I have already lost, so the only way is up for me and the only way for them is lowered expectations.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    It’s not a “civil war” because of the considerable external influences and the “nearly 30,000 killed” is an unverified claim by the opposition.

    The US is deeply involved with funding, organizational aid, and communications assistance as well as by sending Libyan arms and personnel to the “civil war” — that’s what Stevens and the 25 CIA agents were doing in Benghazi. So the “elephant” is being well fed.

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