Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that the situation in Syria was “rapidly spinning out of control”. What at that point, exactly, he might have imagined was still in control in Syria, or even remotely controllable, is a mystery. The country had endured over sixteen months of violence at that point, with peaceful, “Arab Spring” protesters turned into armed insurgents, and with ever-growing numbers of refugees threatening to destabilize the never quite stable Middle East even further.
The day before Panetta uttered that stupefyingly optimistic assessment of the bloody, tragic violence in Syria, the country’s Defense Minister, Dawoud Rahja, and other regime leaders, including President Bashar al Assad’s brother-in-law, had been killed by a suicide bomber who happened to be one of Rahja’s own bodyguards. “Out of control” would seem to have been an understatement.
What we now confidently call a “civil war” in Syria grew out of protests that started seventeen months ago, at a time when the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents’ hasty and relatively peaceful exits from power made optimists out of a lot of people. For most of that seventeen months, no one in the international diplomatic community seemed to know what to call the slaughter of thousands of Syrians at the hands of their own government. It was only recently dubbed a “civil war”, not by any great political institution of the world, such as the United Nations (UN), but by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the world’s largest humanitarian NGO’s.
What the ICRC does best is react. They pour billions in donations into the kind of preparedness most countries only dream of. Operating internationally, they have to take care not to offend, which explains their own long delay in giving the anti-Assad forces equal status, but they also have the advantage of single purpose. Their mission is to save lives, either while or after the worst is being done. For their few missteps, they’ve had a century and a half of actually getting things right. Perhaps that’s why, when they stepped up and called a vicious, brutal slaughter of unarmed civilians a civil war, the big political institutions of the world took notice, which was about as much as they were prepared to commit to.
ICRC announcement came before the suicide bombing and Panetta’s press conference, before he chose, in the most professionally diplomatic way possible, to hold onto that last shred of control the “situation” in Syria would allow. He claimed, at the time, that a political solution was still possible if, and what an “if”, Assad elected to give up power and walk away.
That Panetta made this suggestion with a straight face is a problem. That he may well have even believed it is an even bigger one.
Panetta belongs to a professional diplomatic class, those educated and trained in a world of negotiation, of treaty language, and of saving face. They spend so much time avoiding even the appearance of conflict that genuine conflict can’t be addressed any way other than abstraction.
Today, after months of shuttling between the Middle East, Geneva, and New York, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the impending end of his peace efforts in Syria. As of August 31st, he will officially give up.
That he lasted as long as he did is a testament to optimism. Annan, who has built a career in diplomacy, sincerely seems to have believed that the bloodshed in Syria could be ended by bringing the aggrieved parties together and talking, as though the Assad regime and the people of Homs had had a disagreement on the interpretation of contract language (Does the Syrian Constitution allow the President to slaughter thousands on a whim or doesn’t it?).
Any fool could see that Assad, or any dictator who had held power for decades through the threat of violence, was going to keep killing and escalating until the bitter end. He would tell Annan what he wanted to hear, kill some more, threaten to use internationally banned weapons he probably didn’t really have, and hope that impossible hope that his people and the rest of the world would just shrug and give up.
Like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein before him, Assad has everything to lose by giving up, and the longer he holds on, the deeper he’s going to dig in. Likewise, having watched thousands of innocent, defenseless Syrians bombed into rubble by Assad’s land, air, and sea forces, the rebels, as they’ve become known, were hardly going to take Assad, or anyone else in his regime, at his word.
And yet Annan couldn’t see it, or couldn’t publicly admit that he did. It’s admirable that he tried, but his naivety, if he really didn’t see this coming, is shocking. He called out the UN for doing nothing, but as a UN veteran, his seeming incredulity at UN inaction is equally shocking.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked. For every highly publicized - and highly publicizable - call for the United Nations to do more, we have to face the awful truth that the UN can’t do anything in Syria, and if we’re being honest, we have to accept that they never could have. It might make us feel good to have somebody to call on, and somebody to blame when things go bad, but solving international crises just isn’t something the UN does.
The UN, as we should try to remember, is a Cold War institution. It was founded in the aftermath of World War II, with the hope of remedying the flaws in its predecessor, the toothless League of Nations, and with a Cold War approach to everything. It was a binary world, with countries aligning themselves on any issue with one of the two superpowers, who were always going to take opposite sides for no other reason than reflex. Cold War loyalty could be bought, and therefore had to be bought. The result on most issues for half a century were well-funded dictators and gridlock, which suited a Cold War climate.
Throughout the first fifty years of its existence, the UN did nothing to stop wars in southeast Asia, southwest Africa, or the “disappearing” of thousands in South America. What the UN did during this time was to perfect aid programs, spreading health and training services to poorer nations and extending life-expectancy in countries not at war with themselves. This, they did well.
What they have never done well - and have never improved upon the record of the League of Nations - is in preventing violence. There is something to be said for the way the UN speaks out for the sovereignty of smaller nations, but protecting them from bloody civil wars, and keeping larger nations - and others - from insinuating themselves in those wars, is something at which the UN has been absolutely terrible.
In no way does that play out more clearly than in the gridlock that is the Security Council. The UN Security Council is notorious for blocking progress, especially when it comes to preventing what we’re seeing in Syria. The difference between what we’re seeing now and what we saw during the era of the Soviet Union is that bloody wars then were, in effect, proxy wars, one side supplied by the Soviets and one by the U.S. of A., with everyone knowing it.
With the end of the Cold War, optimists in the diplomatic corps wanted to believe that Cold War cynicism would end with it. Instead, the Security Council stood by as the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, and as central Africa entered a bloodbath that has lasted almost two decades and has cost millions of lives.
Shamefully, the biggest international debate at the time of the genocide in Rwanda was about whether or not to call it a “genocide”. Simple use of the word would have triggered, from signatories of the UN Charter, a mandate to act to save lives, obligating them to put their troops and treasuries in harm’s way. So they all wriggled their way around it until almost a million were dead and the killers had exhausted themselves. Tutsi factions that had been harbored in southern Uganda finally invaded and pushed hundreds of thousands of Hutus into the Congo, where they still fight to this day.
The United Nations will only ever be as strong and as functional as its members individual interests allow it to be. Do Panetta and Annan really believe that international diplomacy works? Certainly. But wars, like politics, are local, and for too many reasons most diplomats would argue that they are best kept local. What was allowed to happen in the Balkans and in central Africa happened with UN observers and even “peacekeeping” troops on the ground. They could do nothing to prevent what they were forced to witness because the organization backing them and the majority of its member states refused to make those far away atrocities their own.
This is what we have to look forward to in the Middle East. Perhaps, hopefully, it won’t be on the same scale, but Assad seems assured of only two things: that the UN is a toothless bureaucracy and that if he’s going down, he’s willing and able to take everyone else within his reach down with him.
- Daniel Ward