US PRESIDENT Obama’s threat to launch punitive air strikes against Syria unilaterally, without even a token recourse to the UN Security Council, stood out in sharp contrast to his 2008 electoral pledge that he would eschew the unilateralism of the Bush administration and pursue multilateral solutions to international problems.
Such unilateral strikes would be illegal without the approval of the UN Security Council.
Obama’s posture was all the more surprising since it was clear that the domestic and international consequences of such aerial strikes would have been negative for the US and himself. The strikes were opposed by the vast majority of Americans and the international community. They would damage Obama’s broader agenda. The US Congress was unlikely to endorse the strikes. The US president seemed to have boxed himself in by drawing a false ‘red line’.
The US president’s credibility, and the interests of almost all actors in the Syrian drama, may well have been rescued by an unexpected saviour: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapon (CW) stocks to international control and have them eventually destroyed, provides a viable and credible alternative to the use of force. The US has agreed to consider it. The Syrians have signalled their concurrence. Most other states have welcomed the proposal with palpable relief.
Implementation of the plan is feasible. The UN system has the expertise in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), set up in the Hague under the Chemical Weapons Treaty, to verify the CW stockpiles of its member states and oversee their destruction.
Syria has rapidly notified its ratification of the CW Treaty. Under the Treaty, Syria will have to declare the size and location of its CW stocks within 30 days. Thereafter, the OPCW would initiate its procedures for verification and control of the stocks. Detailed provisions exist to establish that undeclared weapons do not remain in the possession of the party.
It has been argued that the plan cannot be implemented during a civil war. But WMD disarmament has been achieved previously in ‘hostile’ environments, such as Saddam’s Iraq. The Syrian government, as a CW Party, will be obliged to cooperate with the OPCW’s stringent process. The Syrian opposition could, of course, impede the inspections by continuing hostilities and refusing to cooperate.
The technical aspects of Syria’s CW disarmament may be the easier part of the negotiations in the Lavrov-Kerry talks and within the Security Council. It will be more difficult to reconcile the opposing approaches of the US and Russia.
The US and its allies perceive the Syrian ‘surrender’ of its CW stocks as a punitive consequence of its use of chemical weapons. They would want the Security Council to authorise the future use of force in case of Syria’s non-compliance.
Russia sees the CW elimination as a diplomatic alternative to a disastrous recourse to force. It would want the CW disarmament to be implemented in accordance with the provisions of the CW Treaty, and as a sovereign decision of the Syrian government. It does not accept the US ‘evidence’ that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.
Given the Libyan experience, Moscow will resist insertion of language in the Council resolution which could be interpreted as threatening or authorising the future use of force. It may want provisions that also impose ‘equal’ obligations on the Syrian opposition.
If the Security Council is able to reach agreement on the CW issue, it may open the door to a political solution to the Syrian civil war. The elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons will require at least a partial cessation of hostilities.
This could be transformed, with Security Council authority, into a more comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. Thereafter, a dialogue could be initiated, perhaps under a Geneva II Conference, among the Syrian parties with the participation of the major powers and other members of the Security Council.
This would not be the first time that unilateralism has had to give way to a multilateral process under the Security Council.
Soon after its unilateral invasion of Iraq, the US returned to secure the Security Council’s cooperation for Iraq’s reconstruction. Similarly, in the case of Kosovo, the Nato powers, after their successful bombing campaign, felt obliged to seek legitimacy for the new entity through a Security Council process.
Indeed, all major current crises, in one way or another, involve the UN Security Council — the Arab-Israeli dispute, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear programme — even if the substantive negotiations take place in separate and more restricted forums (the quartet on the Middle East, the six-party talks on Korea, the P5+1 mechanism for talks with Iran).
The current era is one of transition from well-defined inter-state interaction to a complex web of relationships, involving state and non-state entities, competing and cooperating across borders. This transition is marked by the asymmetry of power, yet also by intense interdependence. The new paradigm required to manage international relations in these modern circumstances has yet to emerge. It is small wonder that the UN Security Council, with its unique ability to quickly create international rules and obligations, has become the default option in world affairs.
The UN Security Council has considerable and underutilised capacity to contribute to building a new global equilibrium. The Council’s scope of action, under Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter, extends, sequentially, from pre-conflict peace-making, through conflict management, peace enforcement to post-conflict pacification and rehabilitation. To play a much more active and effective role, the Security Council must become more democratic and representative of the emerging powers as well as small and medium states.
As the centre of gravity of global power shifts inexorably from Europe and America towards the East, the need for the multilateral mechanism of the Security Council will become even greater. Agreement on measures, such as the one now envisaged for Syria, can serve as building blocks for the construction of a new and cooperative paradigm for the management of international relations in the 21st century.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.