THE SYRIA crisis has taught us almost nothing, so far.
We do not know anything new about dictators: sometimes they are evil, sometimes murderous. Not necessarily both, or even either.
We do not know more about religion: sometimes religious groups will vie with one another for political or social control; sometimes they will use extreme violence against people who believe in a different God, or a different aspect or interpretation of the same God, or no God at all. Nonetheless, whatever we see happening in Syria, mostly, they do not.
We do not know more about people: all over the world, they arm themselves if they can, or feel they need to, and will – when forced into unusual, pressured situations – perform acts of which neither they nor anyone else would ever have imagined they were capable.
But at the very least, it has confirmed one thing beyond question: the international system is not fit for purpose.
As long ago as October 2012, on a national news broadcast in the UK, a UN representative was asked ‘has the UN failed Syria?’
On the face of it, the answer is ‘yes’. An uprising by citizens was brutally crushed by the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Religious extremist groups entered Syria to fight the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Russia was alleged to have supplied weapons to Assad, and the UN did not respond. The UK, France and the US began sending supplies to the revolutionaries, and the UN did not respond.
Three years on, there is significant – though not definitively proven – evidence that the Assad regime has tortured and killed some 11,000 Syrians.
There is also evidence, including video footage claiming to show one rebel leader eating the raw heart of one of his victims, that the rebels – at least the extremists who have entered with the backing of other Middle Eastern states – have killed as many as 8,000 Christians and Muslims.
Add to this more than two million Syrian refugees and the answer to ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ is clear: yes.
But the question was unfair. It is still unfair. The question behind the question – the question it is most important to ask – is not ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ but ‘has the international community failed Syria?’
And the fact is that the simple, honest answer was, and remains, ‘yes’.
The Assad regime has killed thousands of ‘its own’ people. We do not know whether it has used chemical weapons on them, nor do we know whether recent photographic evidence suggesting widespread, large-scale torture and killings can be relied upon.
But it does not matter. We know that Assad has used Syria’s army and air force to kill Syrian citizens.
On the other side, we know that what began as an uprising by an oppressed people, fighting for human rights, freedom from terror and the ability to choose how they lived, has now become something very different.
It has become an all-out religious attack, led by people from outside Syria, who themselves are committing acts of terror and slaughter upon innocent – and ‘guilty’ – people across the Syrian republic.
The original freedom-fighters remain, but their cause is all-but gone at the moment, smothered by those who arrived from outside to kill in the name of a Prophet who did not request it, and would not wish it.
Three years in, the Syrian Revolution is the Syrian Civil War. And it shows no sign of ending soon.
And this is why the answer to the question ‘has the international community failed Syria?’ is ‘yes’.
When we ask ourselves ‘why has it failed?’ we can only conclude that it is because the international system – as it exists today – cannot possibly act in the interests of people living within a state.
And in the end, we are pushed back towards the UN.
But before we get there, we should consider that the UN itself only exists to solve the basic problem of the international system: its total, consistent, and spectacular failure to regulate itself.
That is, dangerous leaders with unjustifiable ideas, rise time after time, and states consistently develop new means – or enthusiastically adopt old means – of killing people and/or amassing wealth at the expense of others. And the result is death. Always, without exception, death.
Sometimes people agree to step in, to ‘put a stop to’ the ‘excesses’ of a regime, leader or state.
But even these solutions generally cause as many problems as they solve.
As an example, we can look at the three most recent ‘international co-operations’ on the world stage, the ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
For the purposes of this topic, it matters little that the first intervention won approval from the UN, only to be run as an invasion by the US and UK, or that the second was not approved by the UN, only to take place anyway, as an invasion by the US and UK.
Nor does it really matter that the third won UN approval only as the result of the abstention of a third of the UN Security Council and then saw a French, US and UK-led NATO force act, in effect, and arguably illegally, as the air force of Libya’s anti-government combatants.
What is more important, in terms of the current subject, is what the three engagements share.
First, each centred on a regime regarded by all – or significant parts (the US and UK in every case) – of the developed world as ‘dangerous’.
Second, a stated desire by developed world actors to act ‘in the interests of the people’ living under the regime in question.
Third, the use of the military might of the developed world on civilian as well as military targets (just because NATO designates a school as a ‘military target’ does not make it so).
Fourth, the removal of the regime regarded as dangerous.
Fifth, the teetering, edge-of-collapse, chaos left by the months or years of bombardment and attack, and the absolute weakness of the system and government which emerged from it.
There were differences, too.
Afghanistan, unlike Iraq or Libya, was run by an expressly religious regime. Also unlike the other two, Al Qaeda was an established presence, and unlike in Iraq or Libya, it is very likely that when the US and UK pull troops out, the regime they toppled – and claimed victory for so doing – will regain power.
In Iraq, the situation is quite different. Its murderous dictator was secular, and never allowed Al Qaeda into the state. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the UK and US intervention had no noticeable effect on Al Qaeda’s strength, in Iraq, Al Qaeda was directly affected, entering and becoming powerful within the state as a direct result of the US and UK’s intervention.
It is true that, as in Afghanistan, the new regime is teetering on the brink of collapse, and innocent civilians are killed regularly in car bombings, drone strikes, by IEDs and gun battles between terror organisations which are unlikely ever to face justice for their actions.
But unlike in Afghanistan, where the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of the former government, poised to sweep back to power as soon as US and UK troops leave, in Iraq, the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of a group which has never before held power in the state, and is poised to sweep to power as soon as US and UK troops leave.
In Libya, the situation is completely different to exactly the same degree: although here, too, extremist religious paramilitaries who have never before held power in the state have been allowed to sweep in unopposed in the wake of devastation dealt out by Western states, and look set to seize power, unlike in Iraq, France this time joined the UK and US in hammering the republic, and here, rather than facing little risk of arrest the paramilitaries face no chance whatsoever of being arrested for their murders.
In the light of these completely dissimilar situations, those people calling for unilateral – or even NATO – intervention in Syria, where a murderous government is battling murderous religious extremist paramilitaries, must ask themselves: ‘What, exactly, do we think will be the result?’
In order to prevent exactly this sort of situation – the replacement of a government of murderers with another government of murderers – AND to prevent powerful states from inflicting regime-change on weaker ones for their own benefit, we developed the United Nations and International Criminal Court.
In the case of the latter body, which exists to try people for exactly the crimes there is evidence Assad and the rebels are committing on a shockingly regular basis, we simply cannot expect either the regime or its opponents to be tried, because they remain very much at large.
But we are entitled to ask why the court appears to hold so little fear for Assad, or indeed anyone else.
The answer, sadly, is that so few people have ever faced trial in it. This is not because very few war crimes or acts of genocide have ever occurred – and it is most certainly not because very few allegations of war crimes have ever been made.
And the law cannot be considered preventative if whenever it is broken – or whenever it seems possible that a case should be answered, as in the case of Blair, Bush and the War on Iraq – those people who may have broken it are never required to state their case in front of a judge.
The Court does not work, because the Court is almost never set to work: who fears a guard dog which is famous for never waking up?
And so to the UN.
In the case of Syria, it may at first appear that there are some particular, unique, factors at work preventing the UN from acting to intervene and stop the bloodshed.
Namely, that Russia and China have close trade links with the Assad regime, and that the US, UK and France’s major interests in the region amount to alliances with Syria’s major local rivals Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, and enmity towards its main local ally Iran.
Under such circumstances, with one side having much to lose from Assad’s removal and the other much to gain from it, how could any self-interested states possibly agree on any one proposal?
But scratch the surface and it becomes clear that exactly this problem presents itself in almost every situation, and there is another challenge: what, exactly, would the UN do in Syria?
We know that attacks – even airstrikes agreed by the UN and carried out by NATO – have a poor rate of success, unless one counts as success ‘we replaced a murderous regime with a) a murderous regime and/or b) with no regime, but armed, motivated, murderous bandits throughout the country, filling the rubble-strewn power vacuum we created for them.’
We also know that not only are invasions with regime change as a target illegal, they also have a consistent record of abject, absolute, failure, when it comes to the stated aims of such regime-change: greater regional stability and improved lives for its citizens.
It is pretty clear, then, that in Syria – and perhaps everywhere else – what is required is a new approach.
Fortunately, it is relatively simple. Unfortunately, it is dangerous, potentially messy, and long-term.
But at least it, unlike the tried and tested alternatives, stands some chance of working.
The UN must deliver itself a mandate to enter Syria, place its operatives between the government and rebels, and prevent any further bloodshed.
Of course, the first major problem with this is that it will require states to volunteer to send their own citizens to form a ‘human wall’ between two groups of people already ankle-deep in blood. Who would be first to do so?
The second section of the mandate must be that the UN arrests the leading members of the Assad regime – and the leading members of the religious extremist paramilitary rebel groups – and forces them to stand trial at the ICC.
If any of them are found innocent, they may return to their own home countries, where all other foreign mercenaries, pro- and anti-Assad, will also have been sent home by the UN.
The third part of the four-part mandate must be that at this point – no earlier – a democratic election, free, open to all, and overseen by the UN, must be held.
This is not the call of a Western liberal intellectual (though arguably, that is what I am), convinced that the problems of the world can be solved simply by people scraping an ‘x’ into a box.
But it is the only way the people of Syria can possibly feel they have any control whatsoever over their state and their own destiny.
There are two major problems here. In Tunisia, for example, elections have not yet – after three years – led to the drafting even of a basic constitution to which all have agreed.
And in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, national and international terrorists have responded to election results with which they disagree with terror and death.
Which is where the fourth – and potentially most controversial – mandate must be delivered and enacted: the UN to remain in Syria, offering every possible constitutional assistance, AND with the power to treat any act of violence against a Syrian citizen as an act of violence against the wider international community, and therefore subject to arrest, trial and punishment by the ICC.
This requires a seriously long-term commitment and mandates one and four open significant risk of loss of life.
But we must ask ourselves: are we serious about Syria, where the two sides are not only killing one another, but are massacring innocent civilians on a daily basis?
Are we actually committed to assisting Syria to succeed as a state in its own right, capable of forming and maintaining stability within its own borders and good relations outside of them?
Do we have the stomach not for a short series of airstrikes, indiscriminately killing people, and likely replacing one murderous, criminal regime with another murderous, criminal regime, or for a long war, ending with the return or rise to power of an old or new murderous, criminal regime, but for a long peace – where a state once at war with itself and belligerent to its neighbours, emerges ready to take its rightful place in an international system no longer geared to casting death from above, but building peace and comfort from the ground up?
And, just as vitally, do we want to be able to repeat this feat wherever and whenever necessary?
There is a final problem. And it is major: the make-up of the UN Security Council.
At present, the Council’s permanent members are the US, France, the UK, China and Russia.
That is, the world’s only global superpower, one which shared that title as its major enemy until 25 years ago, the one which is shaping up to become one of two global superpowers, or the only one, within the next 15 years, and two states which until 60 years ago retained Empires which had contained far more of the world’s area than that which fell out of them.
It is, of course, obvious immediately that these states cannot be trusted to act in a disinterested fashion when it comes to international affairs: it would be unreasonable to demand they did act that way – they simply cannot.
They have interests – old and new – in every part of the world, and we cannot expect them to step outside of those interests for something as nebular as ‘world peace’ or ‘global stability’: they have reputations to maintain, and resources and money to amass!
Second, those five states between them control almost the entirety of the planet’s military might. India and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons, and India’s army is one of the largest in the world, but neither could hope to challenge any of the five permanent members in the event of real likelihood of war.
It is possible to argue that this single fact is the reason why those five states are the only ones with permanent seats on the Security Council, but this is not even as advanced as playground thinking: it is, in fact, to misunderstand the rules of the playground.
If the strongest is made the distributor of justice, that may discourage some from ‘stepping out of line’, but it also legitimises and excuses the acts of the strongest, regardless of whether those acts are unnecessarily violent, or even legal.
Just as importantly, it means that when the deterrent fails – as it has very often done – the first response the strongest reach for is extreme violence, as we know it is.
Thirdly, the five are all in the top ten global cash- or resource-rich states.
It means no-one else stands a chance, even in negotiations. If guest members of the Council – Tonga or Trinidad, Peru or even Poland – are offered a lucrative trade deal, or threatened with the removal of such a deal, as an ‘incentive’ to vote in favour of, or against, an intervention by one of the states, how many times could they withstand such an offer?
That is not international diplomacy. It is not really international relations in any true meaning of the term. It is cold, hard, money-driven self-interest.
So how can we trust the UN?
Again, it’s relatively simple.
First, we remove the current five permanent member states from the Security Council altogether.
None of the five should be able to vote, or play any part in ‘pre-vote negotiations’.
Instead, the world’s smallest and poorest nations should take the permanent posts.
When a larger state – India, for example – is chosen as a non-permanent member, their local and global interests must be balanced by the presence of another state: Pakistan, in this instance.
The United Nations Security Team will be granted powers including some or all of peacekeeping, arrest, constitutional and political advice (though only in a system-building capacity), and policing, each of which can only be granted on a case-by-case basis, by democratic process and with negotiations and discussions taking place in public.
The team will be funded by an agreed percentage of every single state’s annual GDP, paid by every state whose GDP achieves a certain threshold – for example 15 per cent at least of the richest state’s annual GDP, which could also encourage richer states to help redress the astonishing levels of global inequality – and therefore poverty – which have been allowed by some, and deliberately forced by others, to exist.
This funding model will exist for one sole purpose: to ensure the team IS funded, and that no state will ‘volunteer’ troops to serve it – the UN Security Team will exist as its own, independent, autonomous unit, staffed by full-time, professional members, paid for by the UN itself.
Finally, whenever an intervention is completed, the state which is formed/transformed by it will take a place as a guest on the Security Council, and will provide expertise – and people – to the UN Security Team for a period of no less than 10 years.
The Syrian state, all but destroyed by the failings of an international system which has failed it – and failed us all – could be the first state to benefit from a genuine effort to make the international system more stable, and the world a more peaceful, less bloody place to be.
It’s a more welcoming prospect than the only alternatives yet attempted.