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The United Nations Security Council and the international community should not place too much hope in the impossible mission Lakhdar Brahimi has assumed, taking over from Kofi Annan as the new joint Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and the Arab League in Syria.
One can only wish him well, especially considering the history of both this position and the uprising in Syria.
Annan, the previous Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States (LAS), had quit his job as mediator and apportioned the greatest part of the blame to the Syrian government for undermining the six-point peace plan, and yet there was no effective response from the UN and the international community. How can Brahimi be expected to achieve his mission as mediator, following the withdrawal of the military monitors of the UN, and in the face of mounting civilian deaths?
To look for answers one should consider the recent history of the Arab Awakening, which started in December 2010 in Tunisia. It gained critical mass as it spread like wildfire to Egypt and Libya in North Africa, and Yemen, Bahrain and Syria in the Middle East. Notwithstanding their regional geographical spread, the Arab Spring conflicts stemmed from similar popular demands for socio-economic opportunities, political space and freedom, and democratic reforms, among others.
As a result of the diversity of the regions and the peculiar dynamics of each of the countries involved, the Arab Spring has led to different outcomes if viewed across the broad spectrum of the core principles and intervention criteria established in the 2005 Outcomes Document of the UN on the practice of the Responsibility to Protect and Protection of Civilians, or R2P/POC.
First, the capitulation of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 effectively reflected the states’ capacities in exercising their primary protection responsibilities, although under different circumstances. Even if this was mere coincidence, it is pertinent that the outcomes in the two countries precluded the need for any external military intervention. On the contrary, both have had successful elections as the first steps towards popular democracy.
The second category of outcome involves Yemen, where the state resorted to a marked degree of military force. Eventually, however, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, given crippling political, military and ethnic disaffections and dire economic realities, succumbed to pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The appeasement strategy in Yemen created conditions for the transfer of political power and elections in February 2012, once again obviating the need for external military intervention. However, the unsettled situation continued, partly owing to the dynamics of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Bahrain represents the third outcome category, at least in the sense of the brutal manner in which its civil resistance, the 14 February Revolution, was put down by the state, which also declared martial law and a state of emergency. When an external military intervention took place in Bahrain by the Saudi-led GCC Peninsular Shield Force, it was not to protect the vulnerable Shiite population, but to support the government in imposing its will. While the situation in Bahrain, like Yemen, remains tenuous, the country has for now escaped vehement calls for any R2P intervention.
On the other hand, both Yemen and Bahrain present an episode of R2P/POC practice in which international assistance helped the states to exercise their responsibilities.
It is in this respect that Syria’s uprising stands in sharp contrast to the other outcomes in North Africa and the Middle East. In Syria’s case, although the state has failed abysmally in its primary protection responsibility, and spurned international assistance in exercising that responsibility, a timely and decisive international response has still not been possible.
Of all the Arab Spring conflicts, therefore, the Syrian revolution that started in January 2011 continues to spiral out of control, claiming over 17 000 deaths and climbing, about 70% of whom were civilians.
The fundamental reason for the failure of the international community, in the form of the UN, to exercise its responsibility for a timely and decisive response in Syria is the nature of the UN Security Council and the lack of consensus between its so-called P3 – France, UK and the US – and its P2 – China and the Russian Federation.
The UN Security Council failed in its first attempt to pass a strong draft resolution in early February 2012, urging President Bashar al-Assad to step down, because of China and Russia choosing to exercise their veto power. That failure was also attributable to non-permanent members like South Africa, which, as president of the Council, first voted with the majority (12:3) for the draft resolution, but then raised concerns about foreign intervention in Syria:
… the Syrian people [should] be allowed to decide their own fate, including their future leadership … fundamentally, no foreign or external parties should interfere in Syria as they engage in the critical decision-making processes on the future of their country. Any solution must preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
Have the Syrian people been able to decide their own fate, and has non-intervention in Syria helped them to engage in the critical decision-making processes regarding the country’s future? While the jury may still be out on non-intervention and South Africa’s policy position, it is worth noting its support for Security Council resolutions 2042, on the work of Annan, and 2043 on the establishment of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS).
In military terms, in spite of the intensity of the military action in Libya, the Human Rights Watch for instance estimated in May 2012 that only 72 civilian deaths occurred as a result of the NATO military action in Libya. In hindsight, therefore, would a UN Security Council mandated military intervention have helped to save Syrian lives, as the NATO intervention in Libya did?
In spite of empirical evidence of the efficacy of military action, some have argued that the lack of a timely and decisive response in Syria arises from the perception that a regime change had been effected in Libya through NATO action. One can rather argue that had the international community acquiesced to Muammar Gaddafi’s bluff, the outcome of the Libyan crisis would in all likelihood have been similar to the situation still unfolding in Syria.
There is a lesson here too for the African Union, which placed so much blind faith in its own roadmap for Libya that is in many ways similar to the six-point peace plan for Syria, to the extent of ignoring its avowed belief in the principle of regional subsidiarity.
The way to deal with dictators is not through dialogue. It is through the use of force and Syria proves this beyond all reasonable doubt. Therefore, in order to save lives in Syria, the UN Security Council should close ranks and do the right thing by intervening militarily to stop the Arab Nightmare in Syria, and prevent a predictable escalation in the civil war into a regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian war of geopolitical proportions. If the Council fails in this onerous task, it will find itself on the wrong side of history, with the potential for a unilateral humanitarian intervention by the international community sooner rather than later.
Written by Festus Aboagye, Senior Research Fellow, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding