The Involvement of the UN in the Syrian Civil War: The Fundamental Problem of International Law

The Syrian crisis has become one of the hottest conflicts since 2011 when the protests spread across the near east, transforming revolts into the phenomenon called “Arab Uprising”. The societies of Morocco, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemeni had demanded freedom, social justice, human rights and what is the most important – Democracy. People demanded the overthrow of the long-reigning dictators, such as Mubarak, Ben-Ali and Bashar Al-Assad. The revolt in those countries developed differently from one another. After the mass protests, Monarchs of the Morocco and Jordan opted for minor political changes, while Libya survived a violent, civil war, in which the government of Gaddafi was toppled down with the help of the NATO (North-Atlantic Treaty Organization). Syrian case was absolutely different from that. Bashar Al-Assad did not accept his removal from the government and began to defend his positions. The “Arab Uprising” transformed into “Syrian Winter”, where the struggle for power left ten thousands of people dead. Some 5-6 million people compulsory left their homes and became a refugee abroad. The scale of victims had enormously grown when the superpowers became involved in the war. There were plenty of international actors and they aimed to defend their national interests in Syria. For instance, Russia was trying to protect Assad and his legitimacy as the president of Syria. Furthermore, Iran had a similar interest. Tehran wanted Assad in the government because he represents the Alawis which is the branch of the Shia school in Islam. Alawis are religious minorities in Syria. One of the most fundamental principles of Iran’s foreign policy is to consolidate all the Shia Muslims all over the world. The West aimed to overthrow Assad and establish democracy in Syria. In order to accomplish these ultimate goals, the United States of America and its allies supported Free Syrian Opposition. 

Unfortunately, the involvement of the great powers in Syria brought more blood in the war. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, approximately 500 000 people were killed in the war. The president of Syria – Bashar Al Assad makes everything to keep the power. One of the most discussed parts of the Syrian Civil War are chemical attacks – carried out almost every month. The West blames Assad for the attacks, while acting president and his allies (Russia, Iran) strongly deny the accusations. But it is the fact that the government cannot guarantee the life and safety of their citizens. There is an acute humanitarian crisis in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Consequently, important questions arise when we talk about this subject – How can the international society end the bloody war in Syria? What can we do to eliminate a humanitarian crisis? Should the United Nations (UN) be more actively involved in this crisis? 

First of all, when we talk about the humanitarian crisis, it’s necessary to correctly define the concept. According to the Humanitarian Coalition, Humanitarian emergency occurs when concrete events are threatening the life and security of the people within the state. There are different types of humanitarian crises. The most dangerous one is called “Complex Emergency” which has a combination of natural and man-made elements. Complex emergencies are typically characterized by 1. Extensive violence and loss of life; 2. Massive displacement of the population; 3. Widespread damage to infrastructure and economics; 4. The extreme poverty; 5. Significant risks for humanitarian workers in those areas. As we have seen, all of 5 aspects are characteristics of the Syrian civil war. But, what should the international society do when there is a humanitarian crisis in a country? In the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, R2P (Responsibility to Protect) principle appeared. Paragraph 138 emphasizes the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens from war crimes, genocides, etc. “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability”.   

But, what should be the tools that prevent governments from violating its people or provide the correct political framework for each country? Who must take the responsibility for defending peace in the world? “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.  

As we can see, the United Nations is the responsible agency for protecting people from genocide and war crimes. But, it is not effective because it does not use hard power which is the only mechanism to prevent violence towards the population and protect them from genocide and ethnic cleansing. Definitely, all scholars agree that the United Nations should play a more active role in the Syrian Crisis. UN must take the responsibility to use the hard power against the Assad regime but it is a highly political issue and it appears that the UN avoids the involvement in this kind of crises after Somalian and Rwandan experience. In order to prevent extreme poverty after genocide or ethnic cleansing, the United Nations should provide people with humanitarian aid. If the government does not allow UN workers to enter the country and provide citizens with humanitarian aid, the Security Council of the United Nations has a right to intervene and restore the order. But, in reality, because of several reasons it is not happening often: 

1.​The main accountable agency for defending peace and prosperity in the world is the Security Council, which is consists both: permanent and non-permanent members. There are 5 permanent members: the United States of America, China, Russia, The United Kingdom, and France. One of them is superpower (US) and definitely has interests all around the globe. Two of them (Russia and China) are revisionist powers and their main aim is to weaken the hegemony of the US, to change the international status-quo and strengthen their positions everywhere. Consequently, their goals are absolutely different and mutually opposed. That’s why their positions on important and critical issues differ. So, how should the UN protect peace all over the world when its guarantors have absolutely different ideas about international order? 

2.​Unfortunately, the preferences of the members of UN varies. Everything has a political basis. UN is more eager to be involved in the conflicts where the members of the Security Council have political interests. They do not respect basic principles and fundamental charter of the United Nations. The best illustrations are the events of 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, without the permission of the UN Security Council. The same problem occures in the Syrian case. The US wants Assad to step down and Russia and China are trying to undermine US interests in the Near East. That’s why the UN is useless in this case. 

3.​UN does not possess the military power. It is dependent on the military capacities of the Security Council members. It happens because the UN is an intergovernmental organization, not a supranational structure, like the European Union (EU). Above that, roughly speaking, 80 % the UN budget if financed by great powers, such as US, Russia, China, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, India, etc. That’s why the UN is not independent in its actions. Imagine the UN as a supranational actor with the government, unified leadership and strong executive mechanism which includes hard power against the deviant government. In that case, the UN would be more effective. 

To summarize this topic, we can say that Syria clearly is the relevant case which satisfies all the criteria of humanitarian emergency. However, the UN is inert because of aforementioned reasons. In order to become more powerful and effective, the UN needs to transform itself in several ways.

Giga Jokhadze

Research Fellow

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