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Why the Security Council won’t act on Syria

Why the Security Council won't act on SyriaSomething needs to be done to protect civilians and prevent civil war in Syria. Last week, Avaaz, a human rights organization, reported that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprisings began in March. Meanwhile, a number of sources are suggesting that Syria may be on the brink of a civil war. Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, believes that dissidents in the country are organizing themselves to forcefully dislodge Bashar al-Assad from power.

Even as the death toll in Syria continues to rise, the Security Council does not appear to be coming to the rescue anytime soon. There appears to be little support among Security Council members for sanctioning the Syrian regime, as proposed by President Obama last week. Calls by France for more robust action on Syria have also fallen on deaf ears. Russia seems to be the most significant roadblock to “doing more” on Syria at the Security Council. The Kremlin has moved its position marginally, from initially suggesting the situation in Syria didn’t constitute a threat to peace and security, to reluctantly backing a Security Council statement condemning the Assad regime last month. But, even as U.S. and European diplomats push for more action at the Council, Russia is unlikely to support more coercive measures on Syria for two reasons.

First, Russia believes NATO acted beyond the scope of its authority in Libya. The Kremlin believes NATO used the Security Council resolution authorizing a no fly zone in Libya to pursue regime change, a claim which has some merit. I suspect Russia believes NATO is looking to replicate the Libya model in Syria, and the Kremlin wants to prevent that from happening. Second, the Kremlin was never all that enthused about these popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa anyways. It conjures memories of revolutions not too long ago that brought down the Soviet empire. Russia has been concerned that friendly regimes in the Caucuses may eventually meet the fate of Mubarak or Qaddafi. Syria is a bit too close to home, and the Kremlin has no interest in speeding up Assad’s downfall.

Lebanon is another obstacle to Security Council action. Syria’s security services have had a significant and destabilizing presence in Lebanon for some time. As the current President of the Security Council, Lebanon is unlikely to prod the Council to act more swiftly and robustly on Syria out of the fear that it could trigger explosions in Beirut.

While China has backed away from calling the situation an internal matter, Beijing is no supporter of pressure or coercive measures either. Instead, China has called for an inclusive political process, and time for the regime to implement the reforms. Right…Obviously Beijing doesn’t understand or care that the regime is speaking out of both sides of its’ mouth. Assad is asking for time to implement political reforms, while using lethal force against non-violent protestors. “More time” would enable the regime to finish something, but political reform is not it.

The moral of the story? While the Security Council coordinated an effective and swift response to the crisis in Libya, the Council is unlikely to be the forum for more robust action on Syria. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has done a remarkable job reestablishing the importance of the Council and the U.N. after the Bush years. But, politics will inevitably prevent the Council from taking action every time a crisis arises. Even the best diplomats in the world won’t always be able to find common ground, especially on issues of vital interest. The Obama Administration should continue to push the Council to assume its global responsibilities, especially when predatory regimes attack their own people with impunity. But, the U.S. should also be willing to go around the Council when necessary to respond to gross human rights violations.



Trevor Keck
Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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