Duncan Hamilton: Innocent Syrians dying as UN fights internal battle for its own survival

Syrians are still battling Assad's regime. Picture: Getty
Syrians are still battling Assad's regime. Picture: Getty
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FOR those at the epicentre of the Syrian crisis, the struggle simply to survive the murderous intent of Assad will matter more than the subtleties of political manoeuvring at the United Nations.

Water, food, sanitation – these are immediate challenges for those under siege. It is, therefore, for the rest of us to wrestle with the bigger question: how is it that in 2012 the global community has failed to evolve a model of international governance capable of preventing the deaths of innocent civilians?

The decision of the Russian and Chinese governments to veto the Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime and charting a peaceful transition to a new government was utterly shameful. Before we get lost in the intricacies of this debate, let’s be clear: the effect of that veto was to encourage Bashir al-Assad’s assault on his own people. The outrage of the international community is entirely justified.

The Russians and Chinese appear to have been stung by the criticism. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proclaimed on Tuesday that he had secured a promise of “cessation of violence from Assad”. Instead, we have seen a dramatic escalation of killing, including the heavy and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. Either Assad misled the Russians, or they misled the rest of us.

The Syrian National Council described Lavrov’s visit as “a truly aggressive act”. They know that Russia has chosen the side of Assad against the Syrian people. Russia being accepted as a neutral peace-broker? I think not. The Chinese, too, have hosted a Syrian delegation, insisting that “China is the friend of all Syrian people.” Try telling that to the people of Homs.

But the bigger question remains: what cohesion or unity of purpose can the UN realistically build in the face of aggressively promoted national interests? The problem is not new – think of the League of Nations – but it is once again urgent.

Let’s be clear, for the Russians, their naval base at Tartus matters and there is a desperation to maintain a strategic pre- eminence in Syria, which gives Russia influence in the wider region. There’s also the issue of protecting Russian arms sales to Syria. But this dispute is about much more – it seems to represent a fundamental disagreement over the extent to which the international community has a legitimate interest in the citizens of another state. There is growing evidence that two irreconcilable perspectives have developed.

First, remember that this is the second “double veto” by Russia and China on the issue of Syria in two months. It is viewed in diplomatic circles as a “counter offensive” against a Security Council which twice in the past year has agreed to sanction military intervention – in Libya and also the Ivory Coast.

Both of those interventions took the Russians and Chinese into uncomfortable territory – embracing the concept of an international responsibility to protect civilians threatened by their domestic governments.

Given the regional strife within Russia, the danger of that concept is obvious. The Russian defence of Syrian “sovereignty” is, therefore, really a challenge to the legitimacy of international intervention in the internal affairs of a regime, however brutal.

Russia was further angered by the UN support for Libyan rebels, which it claims mutated into active support for regime change. China, meanwhile, has a long-standing mission to stop the UN intervening in strategically important places such as North Korea, Sudan and Myanmar. Don’t die of shock, therefore, if you see Chinese support for the Russian position on Syria being reciprocated when the Chinese need Russian support on North Korea.

Add to that the obvious incentive for Vladimir Putin (who is seeking re-election as Russian president on an openly anti-western ticket) to give the UN a bloody nose and there you have it – two of the five permanent members of the Security Council apparently hellbent on advocating a different world view from the other three.

Second, consider the reaction of the US and others to the veto. Hillary Clinton responded by announcing the desire to act, regardless of the UN veto. She targeted tightening sanctions and stopping the flow of money and arms into Syria by other means. She hinted at support for French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion of a “Friends of Syria” group of like-minded nations committed to advancing the Arab League initiative blocked in the Security Council. Clinton put it thus: “Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.” For a UN determined to assert its legitimacy and primacy as a forum for international dispute resolution, the alarm bells must be ringing.

The UN may still have a role to play here – for example the General Assembly will pass a resolution almost identical to that rejected by the Security Council – albeit the resolution would have no legal force.

Even so, it seems that the Syrian conflict runs the real risk of becoming a proxy for diplomatic arm-wrestling and the assertion of one world view over another. Plainly, we need to have that argument out – a UN which cannot even agree on its fundamental objectives is cruelly weakened. But all the time, more Syrians die.