Breaking News

Syrian conundrum and the UN

ON August 5, 2012, thirty three miners got trapped in the bowels of the earth, some 700 meters (2,300ft) from the surface.

This was the Copiapo mining incident at theSan Jose copper-gold mine inChile. Sixty –nine days and $20 million later, all 33 miners were brought back to the surface alive and in relatively good health, in an epic and unprecedented demonstration of national will and international cooperation.

That operation confirmed in a most explicit and eloquent way the importance and sanctity of human life. It confirmed the well-known aphorism which says that when there is the will there will be a way and that no price is too high to save a human life.

Move over toSyria. In the past 19 months the people ofSyria, some 22.5million of them, presumably in perfect health and living on the surface of the earth, breathing God’s own free oxygen like everyone else, are doing their best to slaughter one another in a land closely associated with the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia,BabylonandPhoenicia.

The civil war in Syria has so far claimed over 30,000  lives, to which on the average another hundred is added each day that passes, displaced about 400,000 into neighbouring countries and 2.5 million internally, not to talk of the large scale, mindless distruction that is going on there also.

For the 22.5 million Syrians, the country is a trap in hell and so far there is no national will to save the country, rather there seems to be a will to do the exact opposite. Internationally, there has so far been no effective will to rescue Syria.

The mine rescue inChilein 2010 and the current situation inSyriarepresent the contemporary world’s best example of the difference between two words: sanity and madness. The restraint, courage and fortitude that produced the startling mine rescue inChilein 2010 has deserted humanity inSyria.

Although this article was inspired by a humanitarian concern, another main motivation was a need to comment on the gaping hole between what the world expects of the United Nations and the organisation’s actual performance, as far as international peace and security is concerned.

This deficit in effectiveness and responsibility, on the part of the United Nations, has implications, not only for Syria but also for everyone else,particularly for those of us in the Third World such as Nigeria, who are not permanent, veto wielding members of the UN Security Council, and who because of erratic leadership are the more likely to be victims in a conflict that may require effective supranational intervention.

At the 67th (2012) UN General Assembly last September a gallery of world leaders, including Barak Obama(USA),David Cameron(UK),Mohammed Morsi(Egypt), the leaders or representatives of the leaders of Germany, France, Turkey, etc, all vociferously condemned the carnage now going on in Syria.


They were all long on words but short on action, before and after the speechfest. Only theUSA, speaking through Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State, committed her country to the tune of $42 million for what she called non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. She later expatiated that the aid would include training and communications.

The conflict in Syria has brought to the fore the fact that the United Nations Organisation, itself designed for and defined by the Second World War and the Cold war, has become anachronistic and will remain so until redesigned and redefined for the post-cold war era and the 21st century.

In all of human history before the Second World War, it seemed that the first or preferred choice of action in the pursuit of public policy or national interest was the use of force.

But the scale of destruction in the Second World War was cathartic and the leaders of the so-called free world for the first time began to plan deliberately for some form of a world government that will at the very minimum offer a forum through which such destructive conflicts can be pre-empted or prevented.

Of course, before the Second World War, there was theLeague of Nations, but the seriousness with which the matter of international peace and security was addressed was unprecedented following the Second World War.

After that war, it was globally accepted, formerly and otherwise, that the use of force will no longer be such a ready option in the advancement of the national interest but rather a last resort, when and if all else fails. The United Nations Organisation was the tangible expression of this new mindset.

Looking back now, however, the UN as designed by its founding fathers has apparently outlived its usefulness. To start with, the UN was not designed, ab initio, as a democratic institution or rather the democracy in the UN started and ended with the permanent members of the Security Council.

At inception in 1945 much of the world outside Europe andAmericawere colonies or territories controlled by the great victorious powers, namely theUK,Francethe Soviet Union and theUSA.

It is these same powers plusChinathat constituted themselves into the permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council.

It is these five powers that made the initial draft charter of the UN, which was then ratified by 46 other founding members.

Today, 193 flags are hoisted at the UN headquarters, representing independent sovereign nations, a long way from the 51 of 1945. The charter of the UNO was a document which catered for international peace and security as seen through the eyes of the victorious powers of World War II.

In other words, out of the 193 member nations, the security of 188,more than 97 per cent, are subject to the whims and caprices of the remaining five, less than three per cent, the so-called Permanent Members of the Security Council.

This inherent injustice and lack of equity has been loudly illustrated inSyria. The status quo to me is clearly untenable.

In recent decades, particularly since the end of the Cold War in 1989, a majority of international conflicts have been resolved either without UN intervention or without a decisive UN intervention. In the Balkans, in the nineties, the UN was weak and ineffective.

It was NATO, the European Union and American muscle that eventually turned the tables and ensured a decisive outcome in favour of international peace and security. The International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, inAfghanistanis a NATO apparatus that is currently managing to destroy the Taliban and build a post –conflict environment in that country.

Although nominally the United Nations was present inIraqin 2003, it was the preponderance of the American contingent that brought about a decisive outcome. InIvory CoastandSierra Leone, it was the French and the British who brought in the decisive element. The UN failed woefully to prevent or mitigate the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Regional blocks, apparently aware of the UN’s increasing irrelevance, have begun to appreciate the situation and have therefore begun to take more responsibility for security within their territories. ECOWAS, for instance, was effective in seeing Charles Taylor off inLiberiain the nineties and early 2000s. Today ECOWAS is not waiting for the UN inMali.

In Mali, the ECOWAS, perhaps out of experience, is showing more sophistication and elan there and is headed in a direction that gives confidence in the regional body’s ability to resolve conflicts within its own bloc.

InSyriatoday, where the so-called Arab Spring came to a screeching halt in April 2011,after more or less successfully passing throughTunisia,LibyaandEgypt, the UN has proved itself once more, unreliable .

The vacuum thus created has, however, been taken up bySyria’s neighbours, notablyTurkey, Jordan and members of the Arab League.

They have run to the vanguard of efforts to not only mitigate the collateral damage, but also to bring about an equitable and sustainable outcome. For tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more suffering directly from the war however, these efforts are coming too late.

The first attempt by the UN to intervene in the Syrian conflict fell flat on its face. No less a person than the former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was appointed by the organisation to lead the effort for the resolution of the conflict. After six months in the job, Mr. Annan resigned.

His resignation says much, not only of his frustration with his failure to make headway, but also of his loss of faith in the organisation of which he recently was its chief protagonist.

Today, we now have a renowned, retired Algerian diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is curiously described as a UN-Arab league envoy, as Mr. Kofi Annan’s replacement on the Syrian beat.

Mr. Brahimi is now in his third month on the job. He apparently believes that in the circumstances he would consider his job done if he is able only to keep diplomatic channels open. Were he able to produce any tangible results, that would be a bonus.

Mr. Brahimi’s constant motion reminds one of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy during the Yum Kippur War between the State ofIsrealand Arab armies in 1973.

Mr. Brahimi’s first attempt to move from constant motion to actual accomplishment, his attempt to broker a cease fire using the opportunity of the ID-el-Kabir last week was a spectacular failure.

But Mr. Brahimi did not miss a beat. He simply gassed up and cruised to Beijing, from where he will be reportedly moving to Moscow, etc.

It is important to be fair to Mr, Brahimi. The situation inSyriais a complex one. It sure needs Mr. Brahimi’s broadmindedness. The conflict is currently raging in an intensive military phase.

My take on the warring parties, Assad’s forces and the so- called opposition forces, is that neither side had any idea what they were getting into when they allowed each other to be drawn into a vicious military dueling ,although much of the responsibility for that belongs to Bashar Assad, who ,up till this day,remains the de jure head of the state of the Syrian Arab Republic and commander in chief of its armed forces, with a tested standing army of about 400,000 men. Mr Assad probably presumed that destroying the opposition would be a walkover.

Experienced, well trained, disciplined and professional military officers are always very reluctant to initiate and careful about initiating military hostilities of any kind for one simple reason.

They are aware, more than most people about the consequences, not just for their troops, but more importantly for the innocent, vulnerable people who will get caught up in the fighting: noncombatants and civilians, including women, the young, the old, who will be killed ,maimed, displaced or otherwise made to suffer for years or generations.

Lt. Col. PETER ULU, rtd., wrote from Lagos.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.