United Nations Flag

The Atrocity of Syria: What to do?

Syria is the world’s current agony.  The civil war is five years old. That is too long for a civil war.  Ideally they would not occur at all.  Once they occur, they should not be allowed to continue.

What goes wrong?

The global structures for handling conflict are undeveloped. The structures, principles and methods we have for handling conflict date from last century – born in 1920, revised in ‘45. Those were the days of the primacy of the nation-state, with the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in domestic affairs.

In the 21st century, the world is a global village, where we tear each other apart.  The UN, reflecting last century’s ideas, was designed to prevent inter-state war, not civil wars.  It was unable to handle Cambodia, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or Sudan.  In a sense, the agony of Palestine is a civil war situation, where the dominant regime (Israel) faces down insurgent forces (Fatah, Hamas).

In each case, an insurgent force seeks to overthrow an established government that is recognised at the UN.  The major powers on the Security Council, they who are charged with primary responsibility for peace, adopt proxies within the country, provide arms, and intervene with aerial bombardment and special forces.  What is a national tragedy becomes a global strategic power play, widening the tragedy to global dimensions.

The UN strives to provide ‘preventive diplomacy’ through mediation, and it has competent negotiators. But if two warring sides are determined to continue fighting for whatever reason – deep-seated grievance, expectation of victory – there is no chance of reaching a peaceful settlement.  The UN is left to stretch the words in the Charter to authorise the use of armed force, which is about to occur in any event.

In Syria, the sympathetic states, Russia and Iran, have ensured that the government will prevail over the insurgents.  The civilian toll and humanitarian plight, especially in Aleppo, has been immense.  War crimes will have been committed, by all sides – there are few conflicts where such crimes are not committed by all. The International Criminal Court has a preliminary investigation underway into suspected war crimes by British forces in Iraq a decade ago.  But at least the UK and France displayed the level of honour required to become parties to the Rome Statute and members of the Court.  Neither Russia nor the US have.  So Russia will not be in the ICC for any war crimes in Syria, nor the US for any war crimes in Iraq.

Russian and Chinese vetoes over Syria are as unacceptable as American vetoes over Israel/Palestine.  The insertion of the veto in the UN Charter for the P-5 was designed to protect vital national interests, not promote strategic goals.  In the real world, the veto is not about to be relinquished, but it can be circumscribed; France has an insightful proposal that it not be used in cases of ‘atrocity crimes’.  Surely Syria is a case in point.

Russia is vilified for annexing Crimea, a blatant transgression of international law. A decade ago, the US, UK and Australia were criticised, in terms more politically muted, for aggression against Iraq and regime change through armed force, an equally blatant transgression.

What should New Zealand do and say about Syria? We are very small and distant from the centre of power and, largely, of conflict. We cannot influence any military outcome, nor should we ever seek to try.  We should confine our official engagement to humanitarian assistance, and to deliberation in the Security Council and the General Assembly, in support of peaceful resolutions to these kinds of tragic situations.  And the NZ people can make their views known about the humanitarian iniquity that is unfolding in Aleppo now, loudly and clearly.

Until we redesign our structures and principles through a reformed United Nations, we shall not be able to prevent the nightmares of the kind we witness, decade after decade, and currently in Syria.