[Reposted with edits from January]
The Security Council finally met as a result of the Arab League’s decision to pull out of Syria and suspend its observation mission. It referred the matter to the Council for the first time, and so Western states worked to get a Resolution passed condemning the Assad regime in the most aggressive language yet. Russia vowed to veto it.
Clinton justified the move in a way that invokes very little moral rhetoric, and stays strictly concerned with the question of stability:
The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region.
This is interesting because on the issue of the Security Council using force, the UN Charter only has provisions for issues involving international ‘peace and security’. In the past, humanitarian concerns have thus been cashed out with reference to this phrase. Here, there is little attempt to talk first of the moral issues at stake.
Contrast that with Hague’s interview on Sky News, where he does explain the reason for the Council’s meeting by referencing the ‘appalling’ acts of violence perpetrated by the Assad regime on a daily basis.
Hague also stresses the fact that it is the Arab League that have called on the UN to act. Clinton mentioned this multiple times. She noted:
The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable.
There are several reasons for emphasising this, but no doubt the main thought is that it helps to keep at bay suspicions that this is a Western, imperialist, hegemonic project. Since we sat back as the relevant regional organisation observed, and only now become more active upon that organisation’s request, an aura of increased legitimacy is inevitable. This fits Jennifer Welsh’s suggestion that a norm seems to be implicit at the moment: without authorisation by a regional authority, UN action on a regional security issue cannot be legitimate.
The Resolution proposed is available here. A few things to note:
- This is a Chapter VI motion, which means no coercive enforcement powers are being invoked and we’re staying strictly in the realm of calls for peaceful dispute settlement. This should help to calm Russia down, but also note the Resolution does not explicitly rule out military intervention in the future, if the Council so wished.
- Paragraph 3 refers very generically to condemning all ‘armed groups’. Again, a pander to Russia that gives the brief appearance of neutrality between the violence caused by Assad and the opposition. But given the feel of the rest of the Resolution, this rings rather hollow.
- Paragraph 7 speaks very boldly of calls for regime change, and a democratic transition at that. So much for calming Russia down.
On the question of Russia’s role here, note the awkwardness of Hague’s interview. He’s asked what the point of the Resolution is given they will veto it, and, true to form, he tells us what is probably the truth: we’ll be forcing them to play their hand and shout out to the world that they’re the only ones standing between the status quo and a unanimous UN Resolution denouncing a tyrannical regime. And this is awkward precisely because this is what Russia itself is! It can hardly get all moralising and humanitarian on Syria’s ass because it knows, if necessary, it would take such action itself.
The potential for logical hypocrisy isn’t the only thing holding Russia back though. I imagine that factor is accompanied by several other considerations making the veto a ‘wise’ choice:
- America-bashing is cheap but great political point scoring. There’s nothing better than reinforcing the image to one’s population that you’re standing alone with your own will and hindering the imperialist bastards.
- Arms deals, worth billions.
- And – see the same article – a naval base resting on a warm water port.
- Perhaps a touch less cynically, Russia might also have genuine concerns about a slippery slope in which the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention – upon which so much peace since World War 2 has surely rested – is being slowly eroded by such humanitarian concerns. If the precedent becomes too robust, what’s left to prevent a downward spiral back into full-scale global conflict?
Which brings us finally to the question – why is the West not pushing for military intervention as it did in Libya?
As already noted, it is only now that the Arab League has referred the regional case to the Council, and current norms suggest they would not consider such action until this decision was made. But it admittedly seems to be the case that even now there is little drive for the type of action we saw against Gaddaffi. So again, why is this so?
The evidence suggests that media coverage is crucial to triggering the domestic will necessary in a democracy to make leaders want to take action. And in the Syrian scenario, we don’t have the same nightly footage of bloodbaths, and Assad is hardly the belligerent and memorably imposing figure that Gaddaffi was. As long as the media struggles to show us what is happening and how upsetting it is, it’s unlikely that our leaders will want to act.
This is especially true given that America will surely refuse to make the first move. As with Libya, Obama will want to preserve the image of a refined America, no longer wanting to play the boisterous global bully it did during the Bush years. The will would have to begin, once more, in Europe, and for now Merkozy seem to have what they deem bigger fish to fry.
But what certainly seems to be the case is that if the will arose, the inability to get Council approval because of a sole veto from Russia would not stop action. As demonstrated by Kosovo, NATO allies are more than happy to pursue what they deem to be moral interventions if a near unanimous global consensus backs them. And in the post-Soviet age, there would be nobody with the military might to stop them.