The Security Council’s mandate in Syria has come to an end and while a UN liaison office will remain in the country, all the peace observers have vacated their mission. Coupled with Kofi Annan’s decision to end his role as envoy of the UN and Arab League, this pull out suggests that the international institutional and legal machinery has failed to either bring the violence to an end or to restrain both sides of the conflict from descending into ever-more vicious attacks, leaving the Syrian population to their own ends. The various blog posts on Syria chronicle the most violent iteration of the Arab Spring and presents a litany of failures both by the parties within Syria but also the various institutions and states who have been aiming to end the conflict or, at the very least, ameliorate the suffering of the Syrians.
Several rationales can be given for why international action in Syria failed while in Libya, it comparatively succeeded, and these explanations are not simply based upon Russian and Chinese intransigence at the Security Council. First, there was the relatively slow reaction of those outside Syria to the growing protests. These protests were initially variously described as small, in regional cities, of a different character, or simply, unlikely to succeed in comparison to Egypt, Libya or Tunisia. The Guardian’s Arab Spring time-line helpfully shows just how early Syrian protests actually entered the fray. Mohamed Bouazizi protest in December 2010 set in motion the relatively rapid fall of the Tunisian Government. With protests starting in Egypt early in the following January and protests in Libya by February, the momentum of the Arab Spring spread rapidly. While protests began in Daraa in March, the Syrian protests appear to have played second fiddle to events elsewhere. The strength of the Assad regime and the initial regional character of protests seems to have led those governments who were actively engaged in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to relegate the Syrian protests to hopeless and short-lived. A pattern replicated in Bahrain. While there were statements from the US and the UN Secretary General in the first instance, these were wrapped in an already bad relationship or in the second case, muted. Arguably, this short-sighted attitude missed an opportunity to start pressure on the Assad regime before the violence descended in the cycle of destruction which has since unfolded. While it is not clear that such early intervention would have prevented what has occurred, such a missed opportunity apparently based upon an assumption that protesters will not succeed, arguably suggests that assertive early declarations that such violence is not acceptable and concerted attention by both international institutions are warranted.
The manner in which events unfolded in Libya certainly impacted on the reactions to Syria. The almost immediate discussions of the remit of the Security Council mandate to use force in Libya once air strikes began as well as the commitment of forces and resources meant that its relative success did not lead to a flowering of positive international attempts to end violence or support populations attempting to end tyranny. Instead, the actions in Libya seem to have set in a cautionary tone, where states are now unwilling to commit forces with such haste and those states who were just about persuaded to allow for the use of force, China and Russia, to step away from allowing Libya to set a precedent. Obviously, the political calculations regarding the use of force or commitment of peacekeepers varies greatly between Syria and Libya, the Assad and Gaddaffi regimes are different in their character and repression, Syria still has strong support from states such as Russia which maintains a naval base in Syria and these factors coupled with Syria’s position and location in the Middle East, meant that any attempts to end the violence was going to be comparatively more difficult than in Libya. Nonetheless, for many governments and institutions it appears that it was decided early that it was impossible and thus the lack of haste in attempts to bring about a transition or settlement.
In May 2011 the EU, followed by the US began to expand their serious of sanctions against Syria, and while these were initially rather limited it did show some willingness to engage in the crisis. In August, 2011 this was followed by regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia both putting pressure and negotiating a solution with the Assad regime, however the political character of some statements appeared to suggest political point scoring rather than a real attempt to aid Syrians. The appointment of Kofi Annan as a joint envoy of the Arab League and UN Secretaries General and his ‘six point plan’ for ending the violence was a major positive step. Nonetheless, the cycle of aborted and muted Security Council resolutions which accompanied and followed the acceptance of the six point plan meant that its establishment aided in the process in which the peace observers, finally sent by the Security Council, observed no peace and in its stead stood as witnesses to the crimes unfolding throughout Syria. Kofi Annan’s decision to resign from the post, the explanations for which vary between blaming one half of the Security Council, or the other mirroring Annan’s own comments regarding the Security Council in-fighting coupled with the end of the peace-observers mission brings the Syrian crisis to a new level of abandonment. The frustration of Kofi Annan in his resignation is evident. It is rare for international diplomats to explicitly refer to name-calling and finger pointing in the Security Council as a reason for failure and it is to Annan’s credit that he was willing to openly declare this as central to his problems in settling the crisis and implementing the peace plan. Although Annan also makes clear that both sides escalation of violence and the Assad regime’s intransigence was also a huge part of the problem, it is evident that he regards the international action as unhelpful and perhaps also, as reason for the continued violent escalation. Indeed, the supplying of arms or financial support to both sides in the conflict by international actors, including the UK and Russia,which has serious international legal issues in itself, has not aided any resolution of the conflict.
The appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi, a UN veteran of difficult negotiations and conflict, as the new Special Envoy and the UN’s institutional continued presence and aid suggests that the organisations structure is responding in the absence of the political will power to take action. Such independent action by the UN should be welcomed, nonetheless until the political actors, both globally, locally to the region and within Syria, actually take positive action with a sense of purpose rather than either to maintain the status quo or to score points, it will be left to the institutional arm of the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and a variety of human rights and aid agencies to help and bare witness to the Syrian population continued dire circumstances.