Syria: Beyond the UN veto

The inability to reach international consensus may lead Western nations to form their own ‘coalition of the willing’.

Some 200 people were killed across Syria on July 18, as fighting broke out on the streets of Damascus [AFP/YouTube]
Some 200 people were killed across Syria on July 18, as fighting broke out on the streets of Damascus [AFP/YouTube]

The Russian and Chinese veto of the UN Security Council draft resolution that would have declared the situation in Syria a threat to international peace and security, extended the UN diplomatic mission headed by Kofi Annan, and set the stage for new sanctions and possibly UN-authorised military action was hardly surprising. More important, it is not all that significant.

What explains the veto is not just the opposition of Russia and China to the use of military force to unseat the Assad regime – something which would have required another Security Council resolution in any event – but that they also are uneasy with anything that legitimises international involvement in what they see as the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. Both the Russian and Chinese governments fear precedents that could be turned against them. 

In contrast, the United States and many others believe outsiders have a responsibility to act if governments mistreat their citizens. If nothing else, it is time for a moratorium on the use of the phrase “international community” in situations such as this one where no such consensus exists.

The vote in New York will not materially affect the situation on the ground. The Syrian government has lost control over important parts of the country, and the opposition has demonstrated an ability to strike successfully in Damascus. Fighting is likely to intensify; the opposition will want to build on the momentum of this week’s deadly bombing; the Assad regime will want to demonstrate it is still able to defeat any and all challenges.

The failure to renew the diplomatic mission being led by Kofi Annan (with its associated group of observers) is no great loss. The peace plan under which Annan was operating had, and has, no chance of being accepted. It would be far better to terminate this effort and establish a new mission with the goal of bringing about the exit of the current Syrian regime.

Last, the United States and other like-minded governments should not equate the United Nations with multilateralism, nor should they see the UN as having a monopoly on legitimacy. To the contrary, they should form “a coalition of the willing and able”, composed of NATO countries, selected Arab governments, and others that are committed to increasing sanctions against not just Syria but those countries supporting it, building up the strength and political appeal of the Syrian opposition, pressing for war crimes indictments against Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle, planning for strikes against Syrian chemical munitions, and preparing for a post-Assad Syria.

As hard as it is proving to bring about the regime’s downfall, it will likely prove far harder to manage a transition to something stable and democratic.

A version of this article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations website. 

Richard N Haass, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, is President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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