from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Syria: The Elephant in the Room

September 27, 2012

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As over 120 leaders meet in New York for the UN General Assembly, the civil war in Syria is generating significant attention but little collective action. After eighteen months, the toll is dire: nearly 30,000 killed, more than a million internally displaced, and at least 25,000 detained. At the same time, the conflict is increasingly taking on international dimensions, as violence spills over into Lebanon and Israel and hundreds of thousands of refugees pour into Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. In his opening remarks to the assembled delegates , UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called Syria “a regional calamity with global ramifications.” He added, “The international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control.”

Yet the appeal for action has largely gone unanswered. After delivering a full-throated defense of freedom of speech in his own UNGA address, President Obama offered only tepid insistence that the international community “remain engaged” in Syria. Ban, for his part, once more  urged member states to “stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible.” More dramatically, the emir of Qatar called for an armed intervention in Syria led by the Arab League,  although it is unlikely that his proposal will gain widespread support, either from fellow League members or the Western powers whose assistance they would need. And despite at least three high-level meetings on Syria in New York, no new initiaivies to substantively deal with the conflict are expected to materialize.

Inaction at the UN General Assembly echoes the stalemate in the UN Security Council since the outbreak of violence in Syria. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions that condemned the Bashar al-Assad regime and threatened sanctions. A compromise resolution led to the establishment of a joint UN-Arab League Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), made up of three hundred unarmed observers, to supervise the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan. However, the Assad regime repeatedly failed to uphold its commitments, Annan resigned in frustration, and the UNSMIS mandate was not renewed due to escalating violence. Annan’s successor, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, gave a downbeat assessment on Monday to the Security Council of prospects for a negotiated settlement.

Syria is but the most recent and high-profile example of the conflict management challenges facing the international community. Each year, nearly three hundred thousand people die in armed conflicts around the world, with an economic toll estimated at upwards of $100 billion. Although conflicts have declined by 40 percent since 1992, thanks in part to the UN’s development and deployment of new multilateral tools and instruments, efforts to prevent and mitigate violence hinge upon political consensus and financial resources, both of which tend to be in short supply. To assess progress, gaps, and areas for improvement of conflict management, the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program at the Council on Foreign Relations has relaunched the Global Governance Monitor: Armed Conflict. The entire package has been updated to reflect recent developments and emerging trends, such as peacekeeping efforts in Haiti and the failed negotiations to regulate the international trade in conventional arms. The update yields several important findings:

  • Despite strides in curbing interstate conflicts, major shortcomings remain when it comes to addressing intrastate conflicts. Thanks to proliferating collective security agreements, the spread of democratic governance, and increased economic interdependence, violent conflicts between states are today few and far between. In 2011, for instance, the Uppsala database reported only one interstate conflict, between Cambodia and Thailand. Armed conflict has also become less deadly, as wars incur fewer battle-related deaths and injuries. However, intrastate conflicts now make up nearly all high-intensity conflicts, and are often complicated by the growing role played by nonstate actors like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and armed militants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nor does the end of war guarantee peace, as 40 percent of all postconflict states descend into violence within ten years—underlining the importance of postwar peace-building as a form of conflict prevention.
  • Peacekeeping operations remain overstretched and underfinanced. Over the past decade, the scale and scope of peacekeeping operations exploded. Today, the United Nations oversees sixteen operations and over ninety-eight thousand deployed peacekeepers. In the past year alone, the UN launched new missions in Libya, South Sudan, and Syria, as well as expanded operations in the DRC, Ivory Coast, Haiti, and Somalia. Unfortunately, this growing global demand for peacekeeping operations vastly exceeds the willingness (and sometimes capacities) of UN member states to provide sufficient financial and/or operational support to fulfill their ambitious mandates, which are often complex, ill-defined, and suffer from mission creep. The UNSMIS mission epitomizes this pattern of an understaffed force tasked with an outsized mandate. Increasingly, regional organizations are partnering with the UN on hybrid peacekeeping operations, such as the current missions in Sudan and Somalia, where the African Union and the UN have adopted a division of labor.
  • The future of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P ) is in grave doubt. In the aftermath of genocides and atrocities in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, and elsewhere, international awareness of the civilian toll of violent conflict is at a zenith. In 2005, UN member states unanimously endorsed the concept of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which designated the prevention of atrocities as a sovereign responsibility of all governments. When a ruling regime fails to prevent such atrocities from occurring—or commits them itself—the responsibility to protect civilians devolves to the international community.  In spring 2011, the UN Security Council’s authorization of “all necessary measures” to stop the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime’s attacks on civilians in Libya seemed to reaffirm R2P as a mainstream international norm.This was a premature assessment, however, as deep-seated tensions remain among UN member states over the criteria that justify violating national sovereignty to protect civilians. Within the Security Council, differences between the Wesetrn permanent members, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, have stymied collective action in Syria.