THE BLOG

Syria, the UN, and Peacemaking in the Middle East

The Syrian civil war is now, for all intents and purposes, a regional and international conflict. It was exactly that for quite some time, but this week it has become too obvious even for all those who somehow hoped, against all odds, that the carnage is just an internal Syrian affair.

Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah intervention, particularly the premature claims of victory following their local success in Al-Qusayr was the last straw. It sent ripples throughout the Sunni world, with the Saudis and Qataris being particularly nervous and vulnerable in view of their major investment in the cause of the Syrian rebels, and the fear that Iran may capitalize on what seems to be a success in Syria, in order to use it to further destabilize the Gulf region. The Sh'iite-Sunni element of the conflict cannot be ignored anymore. Fatwas issued by some notable Sunni scholars, the very militant statements of Sheikh Al-Qardawi, considered the most prominent Sunni clergy and a long-time protégé of the Qataris, gruesome videos documenting the beheading of a Sh'iite in Syria and calls on Egypt to send volunteers to help the Sunni rebels all show that the situation in Syria got out of hand -- surely out the of boundaries of the state.

Add up to this the mounting troubles in Lebanon, and we can see the creation of a regional time-bomb waiting to explode. Then there is the international setting. No more cold war, but Russia is back and with a lot of energy and renewed self-confidence. The Russians have long made it clear that they do not want to be a pushover when dealing with Syria, and unlike the Libyan situation, this crisis around, they should be part of the solution or else... which means being part of the problem by supplying Assad with much-needed arms, as well as political/diplomatic support.

The U.S. has not shown any desire to incorporate Russia in any solution, and at the same time, blew hot and cold regarding their own intervention in the crisis. Supplying anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to the rebels could and should have come months ago, and without it, the bloodshed was prolonged; moreover, the Russians, Iranians and their regional stooges realized that maybe the Assad regime was not doomed after all, and they could still claim a success by intensifying their own intervention, so they did. The inevitable outcome is that the crisis now is potentially more dangerous, as the stakes are getting much higher for all parties involved.

What also highly dramatized the already volatile situation was the intensification of the battles on the Syrian side of the border with Israel, leading to the beginning of the disintegration of the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force). UNDOF was established by UN Security Council resolution no.350, on May 31, 1974, the day Israel and Syria formally ended the 1973 war by signing the Disengagement Agreement. The force was composed of troops from various nationalities, and the border, once a constant zone of tension and hostilities, became the quietest and most peaceful of all of Israel's borders with its Arab neighbors.

Clearly, the UN deserves credit, something that Israelis usually find hard to acknowledge, but the truth is that the absolute truce along the border all these years reflected the combined best interest of the protagonists themselves, Israel and Syria. The UN provided the umbrella and framework of legitimacy, but it was a Syrian and Israeli decision which made it work. In the case of the former, the quiet along the border demonstrated the complete control of the Assad regime over its entire territory. But no more, as the civil war spread to the Syrian Golan, and with it, the inevitable threat to stability in such a potentially-volatile area, bordering with Jordan and Israel.

As the battles escalated, the Austrian government decided unilaterally to withdraw the 380-strong contingent of UNDOF. This may represent a natural Austrian desire to spare themselves of possible casualties, but altogether this is NOT a good signal for the future of peacemaking under UN tutelage, and consequently may have an adverse effect on future peace/ceasefire agreements. International agreements should not be so easily violated, and the Israelis are particularly sensitive about the UN and the credibility of its peacemaking. Remember the ill-fated decision of UN General Secretary U Thant to withdraw the UN force along the Israeli-Egyptian border in May 1967, one of the stupidest decisions ever taken by the UN.

There still is an option offered by no other than Vladimir Putin, as to how to make up for the Austrian decision. The Russians are willing to send their own contingent to the UNDOF force, and the Israelis were quick to show a positive interest.

The UN charter may forbid a member state of the Security Council from participating in such a force, but hopefully a solution can be found. Positive Russian involvement of this nature can be a harbinger of more to come. The Syrian powder keg is too dangerous to be allowed to simmer. Creative thinking is in place here. Maybe this time, we should give Russia and peace a chance...

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