Could the United States have chosen a worse piece of “evidence” than an intercepted phone call as its main justification for blaming the Assad government for last week’s chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs? In case you don’t recall, then Secretary of State Colin Powell trotted out the same type of information in his infamous UN speech to attempt to win Security Council approval for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“I cannot tell you everything that we know,” Powell confidently declared. “But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.”
The repercussions of the United States’ mendacity in its Iraq invasion are still blowing forward today and will continue to harm the chances of international solidarity well into the future. But, most important, they single-handedly ruined the chances that the British parliament would hand Prime Minister David Cameron anything approaching a free hand to join an attack on the Syrian government.
Regardless of the debates in the US and British legislatures, it is unlikely that definitive proof will be found demonstrating whether it was the Assad regime or the rebels who were responsible for last week’s attack. I still believe that the scale of the attack and the use of aerosol mechanisms on the missiles points to the Assad regime, as rebel forces have never shown the capacity to launch that many missiles, to possess that much sarin, or to have the capability to make aerosolisers to disperse the highly volatile nerve agent from missiles. More broadly, Sciences Po professor and Syria expert Jean-Pierre Filiu has published perhaps the best summary of arguments pointing to the government’s responsibility for the attack.
On the other hand, reports (summarised here) of discoveries of rebel-aligned groups making, possessing and even using sarin in the past year in and outside Syria, as well as a never-followed-up-on accusation by former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte to that effect, will continue to create doubt in the absence of the proverbial smoking gun.
Precedents for a UN-imposed ceasefire
Even if we accept Assad as the guilty party, the unfolding of the US-led response – and now the opposition to such from even Washington’s most reliable allies – demonstrates how few options are open to the United States. Whether engaged with allied support, or executed alone, a minimal strike on a few targets will achieve nothing, while an attack robust enough to challenge the integrity of the regime will unleash a firestorm of response from the Syrian government – as well as its allies in Iran and Lebanon, and bring Russia more fully behind Assad.
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The US can blame Russia for this state of affairs, but the Russians are merely protecting their major regional client with the same care the US has always shown to its major client, Israel.
But does the broad global opposition to a US-led strike, and the as-yet-unproven allegations against the Syrian government, mean there is nothing to be done at the United Nations about the carnage in Syria? The answer is most definitely no.
If there is no chance that Russia will acquiesce to any Security Council resolutions directly against the Assad regime, a ceasefire on the basis of the UN Charter’s Article 39 stands a far greater possibility of gaining Russian support.
Despite its support for Assad, Russia has not been completely opposed to a negotiated solution. In May, Russia and the US announced a joint plan to convene a UN-backed conference accompanied by a ceasefire. Neither party to the conflict showed much interest in the plan, and it quickly faded from view, as did the plans and recommendations put forward by UN and Arab League mediators.
But with the large-scale use of chemical weapons now a reality and the humanitarian crisis reaching catastrophic proportions, outside parties to this conflict now have a much greater interest in trying to rein it in before it threatens their core strategic interests.
The Security Council generally does not impose solutions such as ceasefires unless both sides in the conflict agree to their basic terms. Indeed, outside negotiators cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. Agreements signed by parties with little interest in keeping them, or that lack a robust mandate to protect peacekeepers and civilians, will likely achieve little more than placing peacekeepers in the position of being witnesses to or abettors of large-scale violence and even genocide.
Nevertheless, there are mechanisms by which the Security Council can impose a halt to a conflict when it threatens the functioning or stability of the international system. It can broadly invoke Chapter VII of the Charter, which deals with “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression”. Chapter VII is most often brought up with reference to Article 51, the right to collective self-defence by member states when one is attacked, as exemplified by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
However, for our purposes, Articles 39-43 are most relevant. Article 39 states that “the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations”, in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to restore peace.
Article 40 allows the Council to “call upon” the parties in a conflict to comply with such measures. If non-forceful measures authorised by Article 41 do not secure compliance, Article 42 authorises the Council to take military action to restore peace. These decisions can be made binding on member states (and by extension, non-state parties to a conflict) according to Articles 24 and 25.
In 1948, the third year of its existence, the Security Council used Article 39 to declare the Palestine conflict a “threat to international peace and security”, ordering a cessation of hostilities. In 1950, similar action was taken at the start of the Korean War to authorise the defence of the southern part of the peninsula. Article 39 was deployed again during the Namibia conflict in 1970.
In assessing these cases, the broad opinion of international legal scholars has been that invoking Article 39 makes any decision by the Security Council binding on the parties, whether or not they consent. The International Court of Justice in its 1971 Advisory Opinion on Namibia affirms this interpretation.
A generation later, the Security Council demanded an end to hostilities in the Angolan civil war in 1992, declaring it would “hold responsible” any party that refused to join in a reconciliation dialogue, and consider “all appropriate measures” under the UN Charter to secure implementation of the peace accords.
There are two problems with the use of Article 39, however. The first is that it is only as powerful as the text of the resolutions to which it is applied. When the text of resolutions are ambiguous, such as in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 concerning the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict, their obligatory nature and enforceability become much weaker.
The second problem occurs when the conflicting parties realise that major powers will not sanction the use of force against them if they do not abide by resolutions concerning them. The Yugoslavian civil war is a seminal example of how seemingly forceful UN resolutions can become hollow if they are not backed by a strong degree of clarity and consensus among Security Council members.
Moreover, the aftermath of the Libyan civil war shows how even an ostensibly well-intentioned and broadly supported authorisation to use force against recalcitrant parties does not prevent the situation from deteriorating in the absence of successful state-(re)building efforts. Relative success stories, such as Cambodia, El Salvador, East Timor, or Sierra Leone, all worked because the various sides saw it as being in their interests to abide by the terms of long-term peace agreements.
Difficult, but not impossible
Imposing a cessation of hostilities on parties that do not wish to stop fighting is one of the most difficult actions the Security Council can take. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible – if the major external backers of the various sides determine that it is in their interest to bring the conflict to a halt. A Syrian death spiral into the abyss would be in no-one’s interest, aside from al-Qaeda and other Salafi groups that thrive on such chaos and that ultimately are the common foe of almost every external actor in the civil war.
An imposed ceasefire would not merely stop the fighting. By freezing the conflict without prejudicing a final outcome, it could allow for the creation of humanitarian corridors, damage assessment across the country, discussions on how to stem the tide of refugees, return people to habitable areas not under immediate contention, and install peacekeeping forces.
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Intensive satellite monitoring and drones could be deployed to monitor violations, and could even be used as an enforcement tool if any side is caught in the act of launching an attack.
Investigators could also be given unfettered access in Syria to compile any evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by the parties involved in the conflict, with such legal determinations affecting which groups and individuals could participate in a future reconciliation process. None of these actions would predetermine the outcome of any negotiations, although the overwhelming evidence of war crimes committed by Assad and senior regime officials, and by many of the jihadi groups, may lay the groundwork for their removal from any future political equation.
This is far short of a guarantee that the Syrian people will realise in the near future their desires for freedom, dignity, justice and democracy, which motivated the Syrian activists who spearheaded the uprising more than two years ago.
But with the daily carnage continuing apace and the normalisation of chemical weapons a distinct possibility, an imposed cessation of hostilities that could give the international community time to stabilise the situation is preferable to doing nothing, launching cosmetic attacks, or hitting Assad forcefully enough to bring other major powers into the fray.
More positively, such a development could open space for the grassroots activists who have continued to wage a largely unknown and unheralded civil resistance against Assad and his regime – building networks of enormous complexity, subtlety and courage – to operate a little more openly, and, in doing so, perhaps begin to sew Syria’s tattered social fabric into something resembling a coherent tapestry once more.
In such an imperfect world, the least bad option is the best that the UN, and the international community more broadly, can hope to achieve.
The fact none of the major powers are even thinking about it suggests none yet have any real interest in putting an end to the violence, and are willing to allow Syria to continue bleeding – as long as they may squeeze a little more geostrategic advantage from this dismal situation.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming