Friday, October 31, 2014
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Failing the Syria Test

MADRID – On October 2nd in Istanbul, Syria’s disparate opposition movements gave the go-ahead for the formation of a “Syrian National Council.” This is the most important step yet taken by the fragmented forces that have been trying since May to lead a peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Council’s formation boosted the morale of those who have been demanding stronger and more unified representation.

But a mere two days after its creation, the embryonic Council suffered its first big setback. France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Portugal, in collaboration with the United States, presented a draft resolution before the United Nations Security Council seeking to condemn repression in Syria and put an end to the use of force against civilians.

The draft was a sugarcoated version of a previous text, proposed last June. This one contained nebulous terms such as “specific measures” or “other options.” It stressed the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria, and emphasized the need to resolve the current crisis peacefully, by means of an inclusive political process – and called for a national dialogue led from within the country. The draft called for a 30-day period to study the options, up from 15 days in the earlier draft.

The object was plain: to gain a Russian, and consequently, a Chinese abstention. But Russia and China vetoed the proposal anyway, and only nine members of the Security Council voted in favor, with Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon abstaining.

There are three key implications of the Security Council’s vote. First, violence will increase. Since the protests erupted last March, there have been an estimated 2,700 deaths, more than 10,000 people displaced to Turkey, and thousands more arrested. The Assad government does not hesitate to fire on civilians, lay siege to cities, or shut off their electricity and water. And a few days ago, it was reported that some 10,000 Syrian soldiers had defected, with several hundred joining rival movements such as the Free Syrian Army and the Free Officers Movement. Unless some international protection arrives, a movement that began peacefully risks entering a new and dangerous phase.

Second, there will be grave consequences for regional security. Syria is a strategic hinge in the Middle East. It has been one of the countries most hostile toward Israel, mainly through its support of Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah. Chaos in Syria would threaten Lebanon’s stability and alter Iran’s geopolitical influence in the region. Iraq, governed by Shia political forces, also keeps close tabs on Syria’s evolution, as does Turkey, which, until fairly recently, considered Syria a keystone of its regional policy.

Finally, the Security Council vote exposed a clear division within the international community. Among the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, all of which happen to be on the Security Council currently – two vetoed and the rest abstained (along with Lebanon, for obvious reasons). In the case of the resolution on military intervention in Libya, the BRICS decided "to let" Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi be overthrown. Not so with Syria, where none aligned itself with the positions supported by the European Union and the US.

The Security Council’s composition wouldn’t be substantially different if an “ideal” distribution of seats were to be achieved. So the fact that no agreement has been reached on Syria forces us to reflect on the future difficulties that we will face in managing global security.

Of course, there is no “one size fits all” model for intervention, but that does not justify evading our “responsibility to protect” – a fine concept promoted by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and adopted by all UN member states in 2005. Support for the resolution would have weakened Assad’s position, as it would have revealed him as isolated from his traditional allies, Russia and China. It would also have shown the international community to be unanimous in its rejection of repression and committed to protecting the Syrian people (though the draft made no mention of military intervention).

The sanctions adopted by the EU and the US against Assad’s regime are not enough. But, unless further measures are channeled through – and thus legitimized by – the Security Council, other alternatives are limited.

In recent years, with countries such as China, India, and Brazil taking their rightful place on the international scene, the G-7 has given way to the G-20. Likewise, an ambitious reform of the International Monetary Fund was adopted in 2010 to reflect changes in the global distribution of power.

But this change in global governance must not be limited to economic policymaking. After all, globalization has brought many overall benefits, but also less friendly aspects, such as the ones dealing with global security. Despite our growing interconnectedness, the UN Security Council has not yet been unable to achieve sufficient consensus to resolve pressing matters such as Syria.

Nobody ever said that the road to stronger global governance would be straight or simple to navigate. But there are no detours: without effective structures of power and a genuine commitment from all players, the future does not look promising for global stability and prosperity.

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