UN Security Council: Don't Let the Syrian Failure Become an Arab Failure

Since spring, a wind of change has been blowing through the Arab world. Last week it again reached the shores of Turtle Bay. But this time it turned into a sudden chill.

A (Failed) Vote on Syria in the Security Council...

What happened? On Tuesday, October 4, Russia and China chose to double veto a European draft resolution on Syria. The draft condemned human rights violations, demanded an end to the violence and called for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process. If adopted the resolution would have contained nothing more than a symbolic threat of sanctions -- explicitly restricted to Art. 41 of the UN Charter, thus explicitly non-military in nature.

Throughout the negotiations ahead of the vote, the European Countries in the Security Council intentionally scaled down their draft to win over all 15 members of the highest UN body. The Europeans hoped for a united message by the Council, both to the Syrian leadership and to the Syrian people: the international community must respond to months of repression and thousands of deaths!

Unfortunately, things turned out differently: although the draft received the necessary majority of nine votes, it failed to be adopted due to the double veto cast by Russia and China. Surprisingly, the large democracies of the South that are currently members of the Council -- Brazil, India and South Africa -- did not support the European draft, but preferred to abstain in a move closely coordinated with Moscow and Beijing.

Only a Symbolic Gesture?

To be fair, nobody expected the Security Council to set up a fully-fledged sanctions regime against Assad and the Syrian leadership. It was (and is) clear that the patrons of Syria in the Security Council would veto any such endeavor.

So why did the Europeans nevertheless push for a largely symbolic resolution? And why does its failure matter?

First, the European Union and various governments have already decided on targeted sanctions of their own. Not only did European governments intend to send credible messages with a tangible impact to the Syrian leadership. But they also responded to their concerned public opinion that is increasingly unwilling to simply tolerate the reports of brutal repression coming out of Syria. If it wasn't for the obstruction of the Council by governments with different political priorities, the Europeans would certainly have proposed a resolution with biting targeted sanctions.

Second, the Europeans are deeply concerned about the regional dimension of the unrest in Syria. All major contentious issues of Middle East policy are somehow susceptible to influence from Damascus: whether it be Lebanon's struggle for full independence and Hezbollah's dangerous influence, the contested border with Israel, the Palestinian cause and the rule of Hamas, the Kurdish question in the region, Iraq's quest for stability or Iran's nuclear programme. And while for a certain period of time we would have hoped for some positive contribution from Damascus, it is now the concern about the negative repercussions now prevails. A further deterioration in Syria -- a slide into civil war -- would pose a serious threat to regional stability.

Thirdly and most importantly, the events in Syria have to be seen in the context of the Arab Spring: Throughout the Arab world peaceful demonstrators are trying to express their desire for freedom, dignity and self-determination. We have seen some people -- notably in Tunisia and Egypt -- embarking on a mostly peaceful path of transformation. But we have also seen others who were less fortunate: the Libyan people's legitimate aspirations triggered ferocious repression by Qaddafi militias. But thanks to its courage, steadfastness and international support, the Libyan people were able to shake off the deathly yoke of Ghaddafi's militias. The Libyans as well as the people in Tunisia and Egypt, now have genuine reason to hope for a better and more prosperous future -- although they will face serious challenges as they move ahead.

Why Respect for Basic Rights Is Not About Regime-Change...

Some have argued that the Arab Spring was incited -- or at least exploited -- by Western governments as another means to implement regime change. The silent (and sometimes not so silent) reproach is that the West is trying to project its influence in the region through the support of selected rebel movements. The mandate for the protection of civilians in Libya as stipulated in the Security Council resolution 1973 and the respective operations conducted by NATO in Libya are cited as evidence of a Western hegemonial agenda in the Arab world. However, what happened to last weeks draft resolution on Syria made clear that these arguments are advanced by governments with a keen interest to preserve the status quo and their regional footprint.

But this line of thought is wrong and harmful. It is wrong because it ignores the fact that it is the people of Syria that is yearning for freedom and dignity -- just as it was the people of Libya that strove to be free of oppression -- and that it is peaceful civilians who are being violently and brutally repressed. And it is harmful because it seriously undermines the international community's ability to deal with serious threats to international peace and security.

The fact that Western countries -- governments and their people -- are appalled by murder and torture and therefore move to curb the violence can hardly be described as an attempt to bring about regime change. Europeans have consistently called for an inclusive and Syrian-led political process. Yet, even if we doubt whether -- after all the atrocities committed -- the Syrian regime has any remaining legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people, it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide on their country's future.

Last week's egregious message of the veto-hampered Security Council's to Syria was basically twofold: Assad can still bank on the support of his patrons. And the Syrian people cannot hope for the international community's united support but instead has to rely only on selected partners and their own capacity to resist repression. That seems to be a recipe for further violent escalation.

... And Why It Matters to the Security Council

And this is the most important aspect, transcending Syria: the Council did not live up to its responsibility to maintain international peace and security. Instead this was a serious setback for all those in the Arab world who -- with their legitimate hopes and aspirations -- are fanning the wind of change.

This wind of change will not die down, not in Syria and not elsewhere. For the Security Council the guiding question is not (and should not be) whether outside governments want to change unappealing regimes. The question is: How are regional peace and security best achieved?

What Needs to Be Done?

Thus, the challenge before the Security Council is to deal with an unprecedented yearning for freedom and self-determination in a fashion that provides for progress and stability at the same time. The members of the Council need to be aware of this responsibility -- and of the impact their individual decisions have on the wider region.

After more than six months of dramatic unrest in the Arab region, the Security Council -- and the United Nations as a whole -- need to understand that their single most important tool is a political one: whenever the international community speaks with one voice it will be heard. Whenever we allow frictions to dominate the headlines, our efforts for moderation will falter.
It requires political will and audacity of the members of the Security Council to accompany and to encourage peaceful change. And it requires the long-term commitment of Governments to engage in a "partnership for transformation" of a region that is strategically crucial for all of us.