05/09/2014 12:43 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

It Is Time for Ban Ki-moon to Be Incensed

It is being said in many international forums that the Secretary- General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon may find himself in the same predicament over Syria, as his predecessor Kofi Annan had found himself over Rwanda, that is, unable to stop the massacres and the humanitarian tragedy there because neither he -- by his own admission -- nor the UN did enough to prevent the catastrophe from aggravating. But Ban Ki-moon is not alone responsible for the abject failure of the international community on Syria, though he is not entirely innocent of that failure either, no matter how much he wishes to deflect the blame and assign it to the UN Security Council instead, particularly the five permanent members, led by the United States and Russia. Ban Ki-moon, in his second term, has two years to forge his legacy as the secretary general who ended impunity during his tenure. Ban Ki-moon could either show courage, boldness, and vision, and forge his historical legacy in Syria before it becomes "his Rwanda," or remain in retreat and be forever remembered as the bureaucratic secretary general who lacked in charismatic and moral leadership.

It is not enough for Ban Ki-moon to be faithful to the Confucian philosophy that values hard work as a way to achieve solutions. Hard work-no offense to that philosophy -- does not lead to solutions by itself. Investing long hours at work is not the way to produce the vision and the courage needed to find solutions. Ban Ki-moon has surrounded himself with a number of people dedicated to his philosophy, making his benchmark for success the long, hard hours spent at the workplace.

For this reason, there are a few senior international diplomats in Ban Ki-moon's team who can think outside the box, freely and creatively. This is not because they have no skills, but because Ban Ki-moon's work environment has put restrictions on creative thinking and on the courage to think outside the box. What is being required of them instead is to invest long hours at work, just to prove their fatigue, misery, and addiction to work, as the way to finding solutions in accordance with the philosophy of Ban Ki-moon's tenure.

There is also another angle to the upbringing and training of the Korean secretary general, based on strict commitment to formalities in all situations. Everything has to take an official and traditional character, no matter how much the situation requires non-formal and non-traditional methods. This trend restricts initiative taking and creativity. A successful diplomacy does not have to be restricted to formalities, but has more to do with creativity and boldness.

The catastrophe in Syria is a disgrace to the Security Council, before being a disgrace to the UN Secretariat. However, nodding to the shameful failure of the Security Council is a sign of weakness and lack of leadership at the Secretariat level. When he was still Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan once said that he "served" the Security Council, while defending his attitudes as secretary general. But this was a mistake, because the UN Charter and the initial assignment of powers with the inception of the UN enshrined the independence of UN posts from one another. Each post and body had powers independent from those of the rest: The Security Council, the General Assembly, the Secretariat, or the International Tribunal.

The Secretary-General is not a servant to any other body, but, in fact, he has the powers of moral leadership based on his own judgment. He is entrusted with reflecting the decisions of the General Assembly in his positions, because they in turn reflect the views of the majority. But he is not a servant of the Security Council and does not have to live in its shadow or be paralyzed because it is paralyzed.

Ban Ki-moon should have sought to refer the Syrian issue to the Security Council before, during, and after Russia and China's deployment of their dual veto. He is entitled to convene the Security Council or the General Assembly under Article 99 of the Charter, which gives the secretary general the instruments for moral leadership; but he never did. Instead, Ban Ki-moon chose to be silent and his silence grew. He remained silent when Russia and China fought to keep the Syrian question outside the Security Council. And he remained silent when the U.S. Secretary of State and his Russian counterpart agreed on a "process" that would supposedly establish a transitional governing body with full powers, to replace the current regime in Syria. Of course, he issued statements but he kept mum when it became clear that the political game behind the "process" ended up doubling the humanitarian cost in Syria with impunity. It is time for Ban Ki-moon to break the wall of silence and to become incensed. It is time for him to quit traditions that suggest he is content with blaming the Security Council because this absolves him from blame.

Less than 7 kilometers from Damascus, starving innocent Syrians are eating cats and dogs, including in UNRWA-run Palestinian refugee camps such as Yarmouk. This bears testimony to the retreat and dithering of the UN Secretariat, when it should firmly and categorically reject the deliberate starvation of Palestinian refugees as a tactic in the war. At a time when UNICEF was distributing $42 million in aid through the Syrian government to affected children, the government itself was bombing schools in Aleppo and killing children. So yes, it is time for Ban Ki-moon to become incensed.

But Ban Ki-moon yields, time after time, to traditions and formalities. For this reason, he has accepted the opinion of his legal advisor, recommending that UN agencies refrain from crossing borders to provide aid to Syrians who are in dire need of assistance in opposition-controlled areas. The argument or justification is that this requires the prior approval of the Syrian government or an explicit resolution by the Security Council

This legal opinion has been challenged from several parties, including Britain. The UN, which distributes up to 90 percent of aid to the areas controlled by the regime, has been criticized for "creating a problem for the UN and donor countries" in this manner. Critics argue that the UN has the legal jurisdiction to cross borders and provide aid, but does not do so not for security reasons, but on the basis of legal interpretations. Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that precious time should not be wasted getting into such an "esoteric debate." But this is first and foremost a debate about the morality of the Secretariat of the United Nations. If Ban Ki-Moon is content with the opinion of his advisor, which places the sovereignty of regimes above the principles of international humanitarian law, history will record that he had permitted collective violation of international humanitarian law in deference to the desires of a regime fighting a civil war, while claiming to have undisputable sovereignty over the country.

In other words, Ban Ki-moon and Valerie Amos have caved down to the bid to politicize humanitarian principles, when they should instead be incensed and insist on delivering aid to more than 3.5 million people. The recent Security Council resolution 2139, which was adopted unanimously, authorizes Ban Ki-moon to send aid convoys across the Syrian border through crossings that are not controlled by the regime, that is, if he decides to think in a manner consistent with the challenges of the humanitarian catastrophe, instead of confining himself to the boundaries set by a General Assembly resolution that is 25 years old.

In the recent past, nearly a year and a half ago, Ban Ki-moon, in an interview with Al-Hayat, said that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had "lost its legitimacy." Yet here he is today, restoring legitimacy and authority to Assad, as he agrees to dispatch aid only to those areas he controls, practically giving him a political boost.

Things will get worse in Syria. If Ban Ki-moon remains hesitant, negative, or passive, then the reputation that awaits the UN and Ban Ki-moon himself in the eyes of those under UN protection will be one of betrayal in Syria, just like it was for the UN and Kofi Annan in Rwanda. Annan later admitted to the mistakes made in 1994, when he directed UN peacekeeping operations. He blamed the Security Council and himself and said he should have and could have done more to stop the massacre, adding that the international community was guilty of oversight and neglect. Annan also said, "I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support."

If Ban Ki-moon does not sound the alarm and mobilize support for a new qualitative approach to the Syrian crisis, remorse and self-blame will not do him any good later. Today, some believe that military victory has been secured by the regime, and that Russia and Iran have triumphed and have won Syria with the help of Hezbollah, and that all is left is managing a crisis. But in reality, this is too premature, and there are indications about a new chapter to come in the military balance of power. But what has been sidelined at present is the political solution.

The representative of the Secretary General for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is preparing to end his mission next months, without seeking to renew his term, which ends after the presidential election that will be held in Syria in spite of the UN's objections, and the investments made by Brahimi and Ban Ki-moon in Geneva 2. From the outset, it was clear that Iran and Russia were being coy over the issue of a political settlement through a transitional governing body that would replace Assad's rule. Tehran was more honest by refusing to acknowledge the Geneva 1 communiqué as the reference frame for Geneva 2, which calls for the establishment of the transitional body. But Moscow engaged in deliberate deception, intending from the beginning to cling to Assad, whom it supports with military aid, not just political aid and protection from accountability.

Some Western diplomats have started talking about an Iranian role in the Syrian political process, given that Iran's influence, as they say, is now bigger than Russian influence in Syria, with increased Iranian arms shipments and in light of the role Iran played in ending the siege on Homs and allowing opposition fighters to leave. Britain wants to include Iran in any new political process, and some support this bid, though others oppose it too.

Saudi Arabia insists on not legitimizing the Iranian role in Syria's future. Egypt's ambassador to the United Nations Moataz Khalil Egypt wants to activate Egypt's proposal for a regional solution to the issue that would bring together Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. This would be in response to attempts by Western countries to bypass the Arab states by emphasizing the centrality of the Iranian role in the future of Syria, to say: Iran is not alone; we also matter.

What can Ban Ki-moon do? He can become incensed and change his traditional philosophy based on the premise that hard work and long hours lead to solutions. Solutions should be developed and decided, and creative decisions are made by men and women, not long hours.

Second, Ban Ki-moon should choose a strong figure to replace Brahimi. Language considerations are not important, and the replacement does not have to be an Arab. In truth, it would be better for him or her not to be an Arab in order to be free of the shackles of Arab-Arab relations. Kamel Morjane, whose name has been mentioned in this regard, is burdened by his past as minister under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Algerian Said Djinnit, is burdened by being an international diplomat succeeding another with a huge international reputation, regardless of whether he is an Arab or not. The task requires someone who served in many capacities, but also someone who has the courage and vision for a new necessary approach to stop the descent to the abyss in Syria. Among the names being proposes is former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and former Spanish Minister Javier Solana. Solana has aged considerably, but Rudd seems like a logical candidate, especially if he surrounds himself with veteran negotiators who understand the Syrian political and historical environment, including at least one Arab.

Third, the first envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, had relied on consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council as the basis for the success of his initiatives. Similarly, Brahimi relied on American- Russian accord. But perhaps the third envoy should rely on Resolution 2139 as the gateway for a new approach, based on Geneva 1 and Geneva 2. This decision opens the door to a cross-border humanitarian/security intervention, and also to holding to account all those who commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria, either before the International Criminal Court, or through a number of countries that have courts that can look into these crimes. Ban Ki-moon is able to activate Resolution 2139 in an exceptional way that can catch off guard those who assumed that he was unable to do so.

Fourth, it is worthwhile for Ban Ki-moon to task someone senior at the Secretariat to prepare for a direct role by the Secretary-General to achieve rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, not just over the Syrian issue, but also other regional and international issues. This requires a creative strategy not burdened with anyone's past. It requires self-confidence and an end to hiding in the shadow of the Security Council and its members, especially the five permanent ones.

Fifth, some among the five permanent members are changing their positions, albeit gradually. China in particular, at least at present, appears willing to stop being fully and automatically aligned to the Russian position on Syria. Were it not for China, Resolution 2139 would not have passed. Accordingly there is a rare opportunity for a coolheaded engagement with China for a new approach, especially since China appears embarrassed by the worsening humanitarian disaster to which its name has been linked, at least in the Arab public opinion.

There are more than a proposal and idea, but the first step would be for Ban Ki-moon to realize that he has two years left to craft his legacy. The moral burden falls on him. As for the burden of shaping his reputation, this is his sole responsibility, because he has many options no matter how much he avoids them. In the end, the specter of Rwanda is lurking for Ban Ki-moon in Syria.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi