Iraq, Syria and the ‘multilateral moment’

If there were ever a moment for the UN to step up to the plate in the Middle East, this is it.

The concern of those advocating a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi plight is understandable, writes Oskanian [Getty Image]

If there ever was a multilateral moment for the Middle East, it is now. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that every single sovereign state that has had any interest in the region and has attempted to affect its affairs has failed miserably. The second is that the scale of the problems and the issues that need to be addressed are beyond the capacity, political will and mettle of a single country.

The United Nations must be called in, and soon. Yes, the very toothless and inert UN; there is no other alternative. Two sovereign states are invaded and occupied by an al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Thus it is both an intra and inter state problem. It poses a serious threat to several individual countries, to the region and to global peace. It would be both legal and legitimate for the United Nations Security Council to authorise the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. There is a chaotic multinational effort against ISIL anyway. The US and Iran have their military advisers on the ground; the latter has deployed drones in the Iraqi skies and the Syrian air force is reportedly dropping bombs.

The concern of those advocating a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi plight is understandable. The memories and the suffering from the US invasion are still overpowering. But given the public display of ISIL’s methods and ambitions, can ISIL be negotiated into oblivion?

UN involvement

The United Nations’ involvement in Libya may have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Russia and China over the West’s interpretation of the provisions of the UN Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly-zone in Libyan skies. This should certainly make Security Council members more circumspect, and should deter them from taking up new challenges.

Listening Post – ISIS in Iraq: The image of an insurgency

Ironically, the United Nations’ most promising moment, right after the end of the Cold War, was in the Middle East, and more specifically, Iraq. A series of UN Security Council resolutions were passed regarding Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The most important was Resolution 678, which gave Iraq a withdrawal deadline until January 15, 1991, and authorised the use of force if Iraq failed to comply. As a result, a coalition force of 34 nations, led by the US, liberated Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and occupation.

When former US President George Bush Sr concluded the mission in Kuwait, the US forces could have easily marched to Baghdad and removed former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. But Bush chose not to do that for three reasons: He did not have a UN mandate; he calculated that it would create a power vacuum that could be filled with unpredictable and undesirable players; and it was not for the US to engage in regime change.

A decade later, his son, former US president George W Bush contradicted those three principles in one fell swoop, unilaterally invading Iraq, removing Saddam from power and meddling in Iraqi affairs by picking and choosing its leaders.

Regardless of what has transpired since the US invasion of Iraq, and the mistakes made by the Iraqis themselves and the Obama administration, almost everyone (barring the neo-conservatives and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair) agree that George W Bush committed the original sin.

The policy discrepancies of Bush father and son are very telling and should serve as lessons to all, and guide the major global players in their efforts to find a solution to this calamity.

US policy failures

US President Barack Obama is right to shrug off the criticism about his foreign policy failures and resist the calls to go back to Iraq in a big military way. But until now, his real failure has been an inability or unwillingness to provide global leadership to address some of the most pressing security threats in different regions, particularly the Middle East. If Bush Jr was a unilateralist, Obama is not. But he is not a multilateralist either.

But it is time that he takes a fresh look at the situation, senses and captures the multilateral zeitgeist for the Middle East and provides that global leadership that is so critical for the United States’ reputation of indispensability.

To succeed in this effort, the US first must engage Russia. A difficult feat that will require reconciliation on many other issues on which their policies collide, Ukraine in particular. But on the Middle East, the US and Russia have more in common than one might think, and can meet each other half way. But the US has to travel the longer distance by denouncing two things: unilateral use of force and regime change.

Syria and Iraq need to be addressed together. The essence of their problems is different, but the current state of affairs and the solutions they require are very similar. Both Syria and Iraq have their political and institutional traditions anchored on the ideology and the modus operandi of the Baath Party. Despite de-Baathification efforts in Iraq, the traditions and the inertia linger, and more recently, have assumed a new impetus. Both populations have problems with their leaderships and both countries are susceptible to sectarian divisions. ISIL, whose presence is contiguous and expands over vast territories on either side of the border, threatens both.

There are two major obstacles preventing the UN today from a repeat engagement in the Middle East: The man at its helm, and the body he chairs – the Security Council.

A charismatic multilateralist?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is the invisible man of the United Nations. His timidity stands in contrast to the presence and charisma of several of his predecessors. Critics describe Ban as a good man who means well, but is not cut out for the job.

But that’s precisely the reason why Ban was chosen for the job. No leader of a major power would like to see a man with great leadership skills in such a position, capable of overshadowing or defying them. The major powers have always locked horns with those in that position, who have shown leadership and initiative beyond the prescribed dose. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was denied a second term in 1996 after criticising the Clinton Administration for caring more about bloodshed in the Balkans than in Africa.

Indeed, the secretary-general is, by design, a creature of the UN’s member states, especially of the five permanent members of the Security Council, at whose pleasure he serves. And when you have a standoff between the major veto-wielding players, the role of the secretary-general is highly constrained. And this was the standoff of all standoffs in the Security Council over Syria, these past three years.

But all this now has come to haunt us all and there is little time to waste as the entire Middle East is unraveling before our eyes and the contours of its evolving shape are simply frightening and not in anyone’s interest.

Syria’s and Iraq’s problems are not only security related. There are millions of refugees and displaced persons that need to be resettled and total destruction of properties that need to be rehabilitated. The UN is uniquely qualified to do all three.

The Security Council need not look too far. Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jan Eliasson is an experienced diplomat with great skills in negotiations and consensus building. He could be tasked to reach a consensus among members of the Security Council and then build a coalition of like-minded countries to take on the task of first rolling back and neutralising ISIL, proposing a plan for both Syria and Iraq to put an end to their civil war, maintain peace and stability, helping them to form new coalition governments and engaging in post-conflict rehabilitation. 

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.