The U.N. hits another wall in Syria, but a resolution remains possible

The U.N. hits another wall in Syria, but a resolution remains possible

The U.N. has continually failed to influence a political resolution in Syria. This does not mean that a political resolution is not possible, but shows that states in the ‘East’ are confident enough to challenge the Security Council’s authority and work together to bring stability.

The latest attempt to bring peace to Syria was a major test of the U.N. Security Council’s (UNSC) relevance in a rapidly changing world, and predictably it failed from the onset. The UNSC has repeatedly failed to impose any positive change in Syria, and Resolution 2401 was no different. Unanimously adopted on February 24, the resolution called for an immediate 30-day ceasefire to allow for humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

In keeping with usual procedure following a U.N.-backed ceasefire, violence on February 25 showed little sign of abating. Although Eastern Ghouta saw its quietest night after a week of terror that killed over 500 civilians, the following morning it was bombing-as-usual for the Syrian government as it launched a new ground and air offensive in the rebel enclave near Damascus. Russian and Syrian forces have continue to strike what they claim are terrorist elements, and thus not party to the ceasefire.        

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said its military operations in Afrin, a Kurdish controlled area in northern Syria, would not be affected by the UNSC resolution. “Terrorists are all the same, you cannot divide them into bad and good ones,” he said. Iran also said that its pro-Damascus forces would continue targeting “terrorist” elements in eastern Ghouta. The ambiguous classification – “terrorist” – is once again being used to justify and legitimise violence, but there is an overwhelming lack of consensus of who this includes.

It’s not new to argue that it is highly unlikely that the U.N. will shape an effective political resolution in Syria, but recent events have clarified that Russia Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government will play the deciding role. The defeat of Syrian opposition and jihadist groups on the ground has become a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ while the future of the Kurds is an open question.

Why are the attacks in defiance of U.N. resolution 2401 important?

The problem now is that foreign powers directly dominate the violence. When conflict initially broke out, the likes of the U.S. and Turkey believed that their targets could be met through the mobilisation of allied militia groups on the ground. Fast-forward to 2018, and foreign powers dominate in Syria like never before, even engaging in direct conflict with one another. As such, appeasing the plethora of contrasting motives and concerns is a major challenge for the U.N., especially when the majority of veto-bearing UNSC members are relatively inactive in the conflict.

Continued fighting in spite of the U.N.-backed ceasefire shows that the balance of power has shifted, and that the U.S. and the UNSC no longer possess the influence they once did. Highlighting the U.N.’s damaged influence, two days after resolution 2401 Russia said it would establish a humanitarian corridor during a daily five-hour ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, indicating that it will continue to target what it deems terrorist elements and will operate independently of the United Nations. The same can be said for Turkey and Iran’s statements, which show a clear lack of respect for the UNSC.

The Syrian government will also not heed to the UNSC’s demands, which it sees as illegitimate and incapable of shaping Syria’s political future. It is likely that Russia is manipulating Syria’s dismissal of the UNSC-backed agreement to draw attention to its ineffectiveness and show that there is a growing space between the UNSC’s ambitions, and its ability to act.

The U.N. is not positioned to shape a political resolution, but is anyone?

Those involved in the conflict can be differentiated through two factors: firstly, by who is classified as the ‘enemy’; and secondly, by the level of force they are willing to use. As the conflict developed, it became apparent that for the ‘West,’ the main adversary was ISIS, and all means were used to support groups fighting ISIS on the ground. ISIS has now been largely defeated militarily, and without an opponent it is willing to use substantial military force to overcome, the U.S.-led coalition has stepped back.

Step forward Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government, who have a number of conflicting opponents and are willing to use measures deemed necessary to defeat them. This is significant because veto-bearing UNSC members – disregarding Russia – have largely disengaged from the conflict, meaning that Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government see the UNSC as powerless when its resolutions challenge their goals. Even when the UNSC does act with Russia’s backing, such as resolution 2401, its lack of enforcement only serves Russia’s desire to unilaterally pull the strings in Syria.

It is likely that the Astana trio – Russia, Turkey and Iran – will remain in place and the discussion will move beyond “de-escalation zones” and focus on resolving respective concerns.  

However there are two important issues that can’t be ignored. Firstly, while Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government stand against the U.N. and will likely formulate a political resolution with the blessing of one another, this alliance is not stable. Iran and Turkey clashed recently in Idlib, and an emboldened Syrian Arab Army is determined to recapture the whole country.

Secondly, the U.S. and Israel will not remain quiet. The U.S. will keep its foot in the door to maintain influence in the region and challenge Russia’s growing confidence as mediator of the Middle East, while Israel will not allow Iranian-backed forces on its border. Israel has recently clashed with Iranian elements in Syria, and there is a possibility that conflict between Israel and Iran will increase. Israel views Iran as the biggest threat to its survival, and it will intervene if a political settlement entrenches Iranian influence in Syria. It is likely Russia will pay attention to Israel’s concerns and keep Washington in the loop, but the opportunity for the U.N. to shape a political resolution has gone.

The conflict is far from over in Syria, and there are many fault lines in between that have the potential to erupt, causing a serious military escalation. Political stability will only come if those with the commitment to act, principally Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government, shape the resolution; it is highly unlikely the U.N. will play a significant role.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Joseph Colonna

Joseph Colonna is a Cairo-based political analyst and journalist. He writes mostly in the Egyptian media providing commentary and analysis on political affairs in the Middle East. He is also a research fellow with Freedom Forward. Joseph holds a BA in International Studies, with a focus on Middle Eastern politics, from Leiden University.