On 20 July, with only 13 hours left before the expiration of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) mandate, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2059 drafted by the United Kingdom and cosponsored by France and Germany. The Resolution restructured the mandate to facilitate dialogue between the opposition and the Syrian regime in accordance with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s July 2012 report on UNSMIS, and extended the mandate for a “final” 30 days with a possible renewal if there is a cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a decrease in violence by all parties.
Despite the renewal of the UNSMIS mandate, divisions amongst Council Members remain a barrier to implementation of further diplomatic, political, economic and, as a last resort, military measures by the UNSC aimed at halting the violence in Syria. While much of the debate within the international community has remained focused on what steps the UNSC, specifically, should take to halt the violence, the Council’s lack of decisive action has led commentators to make recommendations for measures to be taken by national- and regional-level actors.
Exploring Options for Syria
Reflecting on the deteriorating crisis, civil society organizations, regional actors, commentators and specialists in fields related to conflict and mass atrocity prevention have provided a wide range of “next steps” for Syria.
As the expiration of the UNSMIS mandate rapidly approached, several international actors provided suggestions for a restructured mandate. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in a letter to UNSC Ambassadors stressed the importance of strengthening the UNSMIS mandate and urged Council members to include within the mission an intensified human rights component with specialists to act as “impartial ‘eyes and ears’ of the international community.” FIDH noted, “Upholding human rights and working to protect civilians in Syria is an imperative that goes beyond the political differences of members of the Security Council. We call on the Security Council to fulfill this shared responsibility to Syrian civilians.” FIDH also urged the UNSC to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Similar suggestions were put forth by Amnesty International (AI) following the 19 July double-veto. AI also called for the inclusion of an adequately staffed human rights component as well as providing expertise in related fields and resources to document and report findings and progress. AI wrote, “The failure today of the UN Security Council to deliver better human rights protection for Syrians will embolden those responsible for the crimes and violence wracking the country.”
While FIDH and AI have discussed measures to improve UNSMIS, other international actors and commentators have focused specifically on how a political transition would be orchestrated.
Steven Heydemann, senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace‘s Middle East Initiatives, in his article “The end game in Syria,” brings light to a transformation of perspectives by international actors due to recent developments, saying, “These trends all point to one conclusion: the end of the Assad regime is drawing nearer. The relevant question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when and, even more importantly, how.”
Similarly, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, in his article “The Solution in Syria Must Be Political” stressed that a “Yemen-style” solution is the most plausible as it would stop the bloodshed- the main goal of all actions being taken in Syria. This process would involve a temporary transfer of power, followed by a UN-Arab League-mediated dialogue on the political future of Syria. This, however, has its drawbacks as a transition of this style would likely grant amnesty to Assad, as seen with the political process in Yemen.
Also arguing in favor of a political solution, and reflecting on the discord between UNSC members in “No room for foreign military intervention in Syria” John Hubbel Weiss, associate professor of History at Cornell University,argues that any attempt to act under Chapter VII of the Charter would only be vetoed by Russia, as was seen on 19 July. Instead, he believes that the only way to convince Assad to take a less-violent course of action is if the Syrian population and civil society from within the country call for and/or take action themselves.
While some still believe that there are feasible options for bringing an end to the crisis in Syria, either through the facilitation of a political transition or implementation of more robust measures, others do not believe it is possible for the international community to successfully and effectively operationalize stronger measures than what has been implemented thus far.
“How Russia Divided the World”, an article written by Michael Ignatieff, an original member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) which initially articulated the Responsibility to Protect in 2001, presents a grim outlook for the future of Syria and RtoP more broadly. Ignatieff states that the divisions within the opposition leave no opportunities for successful military intervention, such as air strikes, safe havens or buffer zones and, that because there is not an established power to take authority once the Assad regime falls, there is no sense in toppling the regime via military measures.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, was no more optimistic in his article “A Syrian intervention must be weighed against the costs.” He claimed that it was unlikely for diplomatic and political measures to be successful, and instead, military measures, such as air strikes or no fly zones, were increasingly “the only way to fulfill our responsibility.” Yet he delved deeper to state that, although military intervention may be the only tool left untested in Syria, military tactics may not be feasible or halt violence. White sees another barrier to implementing further measures if the RtoP entails a responsibility to assist post-crisis, and states that “If so, we have a problem, because the West has no capacity to shape Syria’s trajectory after Assad.”
In response to White’s argument, Tim Dunne and Sarah Teitt from the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P, an ICRtoP Steering Committee Member, published “Firing blanks at R2P.” Dunne and Teitt reiterated the idea that coercive military measures are not the solution to ending the crisis, and went further to suggest that a resolution was slowly becoming viable, “not through the overt threat or use of force but through tireless diplomacy on the part of the UN and through unrelenting scrutiny by humanitarian NGOs.”
Advocates for military intervention –in various forms- have voiced their ideas as well. One commentator on military measures is Ausama Monajed, Executive Director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC), who puts forth a set of steps in his article “The Price of Apathy: Why the World Must Intervene in Syria” that the international community should take to immediately halt the bloodshed, including arming the rebels, establishing safe zones inside bordering countries, and creating buffer zones along the Syrian border. These steps are what Monajed refers to as a “viable alternative” and what he believes will lead to and trigger an increase in mass defections, which could serve to facilitate the fall of the Assad regime and an end to the conflict. He believes that those who still advocate for the imposition of sanctions to “bankrupt Assad” should take heed that Russia and Iran remain “staunch, wealthy allies.”
Despite the enduring deadlock within the UNSC regarding further implementation of preventive measures, an array of tools to halt the violence in Syria remains at the disposal of regional, national and civil society actors. In this sense, the Responsibility to Protect remains a crucial framework through which to view the crisis and assess achievable and effective tools to protect populations.
With the establishment of UNSMIS, the international community took action in a timely and decisive manner, to ensure an observer presence on the ground. However, divisions within the Council continue to pose a great barrier to UNSC authorization of further non-military and if necessary, military measures, to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes. With a 30 day renewal of UNSMIS, the Council must work creatively to overcome their differences, and be prepared to respond collectively to the situation in a flexible, timely manner.