With Paralysis Seizing the UN on Syria -- Is It Time for NATO to Take a View?

10/24/2012 04:33 pm ET | Updated Dec 24, 2012

The paralysis that has often seized the United Nations (UN) Security Council during times of crisis made a resurgence in July when China and Russia used their right of veto for a third time over a resolution that proposed non-military sanctions over Syria. Paradoxically, the UN's inability to act decisively, effectively and with haste, are the very attributes that are required by the world's supreme benchmark for legitimacy during times of unacceptable massacre by unruly dictators and regimes. Kofi Annan, the previous Secretary General, openly admits that the UN failed in its obligations under the UN Charter to protect the vulnerable civilian populations of Rwanda and Darfur.

The escalation of atrocities committed by Assad's regime in fighting a rebel opposition that opposes the president's reign, has so far killed some twenty thousand civilians and sent over three hundred thousand Syrian's fleeing across the border. The Syrian president's continued actions contravene all four pillars of UN legitimacy -- namely the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, the Rome Statute and the Genocide Conventions -- surely the evidence for intervention is compelling? Without supranational consent, however, a successful cessation of mass murder in Syria seems about as likely as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quelling his desire to acquire nuclear weapons.

Progress is frustratingly slow at the UN, but tolerated, as nine out of fifteen countries have to agree on a proposal, including all five nations that hold a permanent seat (US, UK, France, China and Russia) - whilst time is of the essence, a positive outcome is seen to be worth the wait. The outcome with regard to Syria, however, has not been positive. As well as a seizure within the Security Council, the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), an observation body set up to monitor the implementation of Kofi Annan's six point peace plan, has been withdrawn -- closely followed by the former Secretary General's resignation as the UN and Arab League's Special Envoy to Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian statesman, has only just been nominated as the replacement and his efforts to mediate a ceasefire over the Id al-Adha holiday (starting Oct. 25) have been snubbed without hesitation by Iran -- citing that the rebels are a fractioned organization and so a signature would mean nothing. As the international community's elemental voice of reason struggles with its impediment, leaders in the first world sit back and observe -- only too aware of the consequences and accountability that is being played out even now, from the last 'illegitimate' invasion in the region in 2003. Whilst China and Russia besiege the Security Council by placing their own national interests ahead of the Syrian population, the other three fifths who hold permanent status may just have another card to play.

The U.S., UK and France also form the backbone of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -- an alliance formed in 1949, and designed to deter any expansive aspirations by the former USSR post WWII.

In 1999, NATO, navigating a prevaricating an indecisive UN, provided an international military response in the form of a short and sharp air campaign to stifle the 'mass deportation and full-dress ethnic cleansing' of Albanians by Serbian Forces in Kosovo. The intervention did not have the blessing of the UN, but every member of NATO, the EU and Serbia's surrounding neighbours supported military action. The Independent International Commission of Kosovo described the air campaign as "illegal but legitimate," with the NATO Office of Information and Press stating that "the human rights violations committed on a large scale in Kosovo provide[d] incontestable ground with reference to the humanitarian aspect of NATO's intervention."

The legacy of discourse over Kosovo by legal scholars and diplomats alike is important when considering options for Syria. General consensus for using military action in Kosovo concluded that it was not legal, but the deplorable and deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country meant that it was justified. Hesitation by the NATO Council to pursue a similar course of action in Syria, given the international condemnation surrounding an absence of legitimacy and justification for invading Iraq, is understandable. NATO would be walking on thin ice with any interventionist plans that proposed an occupation. Decisive and quick air strikes, majoring on precision munitions and minimization of collateral, with a specific aim of ameliorating the current threat that the Syrian regime is imposing on its own people, should be a credible contingency worthy of consideration.

Libya is a clear-cut example of how a regime can be brought to its knees without a 10-year occupation plan -- there are of course post kinetic security arrangements that require significant anticipation well beyond the last bomb that falls. If justification based on alleged crimes against humanity won't tip the Alliance into action, then the focal argument for NATO's aircraft taking to the skies over Syria could be predicated on its core principle of collective self-defense.

Syria's troubles have in recent weeks spilled over into Turkey, the only member of NATO that resides in Asia. Turkey, if set upon by Syria, would be protected by NATO's Article V, a validation that rules an armed attack against an ally is equivalent to an attack on all members. NATO would also benefit considerably from deploying its air assets out of bases in Turkey, thereby reducing flight times, increasing frequency of strikes and reducing the likelihood of international condemnation through a prolonged period of aggression. The legitimacy provided by such doctrine was hugely effective in the coordinated strikes against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in response to the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York -- the first time since NATO's inception that Article V had been invoked.

Turkey, under the UN Charter's Article 51 that outlines a nation's inherent right to self-defense, does not technically require the endorsement of NATO or the UN Security Council, to take any military measures against Syria deemed necessary to protect itself. Assad's escalation of aggression against Turkey should provide the legal and legitimate means to end the indiscriminate killing of Syria's people.

NATO's conundrum is simple -- protect its most Eastern member whilst simultaneously taking a stance on crimes against humanity, or remain dormant and cater to the insular view of two countries that place the resolution of Syria well and truly second to their own national interests.