In the early hours of August 21st, 2013, missiles containing deadly chemicals, (among them the schedule-one nerve agent Sarin) rained down upon Gouta, Syria, where rebels fighting Bashar Al-Assad’s government had established a strong hold. The area was densely populated with civilians, many of whom were injured or killed in the attack. Between 500 and 1800 people were estimated to have been killed, and more than 3,600 patients were treated in 3 nearby hospitals displaying neurotoxic symptoms.
Following the attacks, British Prime Minister David Cameron darkly noted that Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her own people. These remarks were fitting, and surprisingly, they still are today.
On April 3rd, the Syrian government dropped bombs on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, in northwestern Syria. Images of children’s lifeless bodies that once filled our timelines and news channels have been resurrected, and more displaced families have begun to seek refuge in a country that is not their own. The willingness of the countries in the global community to help their neighbors will be tested anew. The fact of the matter that can’t be denied is that the Syrian civil war is the crisis that has come to define our time. However, the implications might be darker than we imagined.
Since the middle of the 20th century, following the end of the Second World War the United Nations has been a sacred institution, offering guidance and the building blocks of the international community. It ushered us away from the politics of imperialism that brought us to the world wars, and cemented the Westphalian order that has been the modus operandi of our time. Its benefit is unmistakable, but there’s one troubling fact we can’t deny. The United Nations has failed to protect the people of Syria from repeated barbaric acts by the hands of the Assad regime.
Following the August 2013 attack, the United Nations Security council convened in order to draft what would become UNSC Resolution 2118, which was a framework concerning the elimination of chemical weapons.
The resolution urged Syria to remove all of its chemical weapons, recalling the agreements made in the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Additionally, it established a timeline to ensure that the Syrian government did indeed allow for the removal and destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles. Resolution 2118 further required that all Syrian chemical weapons be eliminated by November 1, 2013. However, reports show that by January 30th, 2014, an estimated 4% of Syria’s chemical weapons had been destroyed.
According to the Syrian American Medical Society, 77% of the 161 documented chemical attacks have occurred since the passage of UNSC Resolution 2118. The SAMS also found that “ 36% of the total chemical weapons attacks, occurred after UNSC Resolution 2209 which condemns chlorine gas as a weapon in Syria.”
Though the United Nations has not lagged in responding to the issue, its problem lies in effectiveness. The United Nations is tragically limited in its ability to enforce any of the resolutions it creates. Resolutions created in the United Nations serve mainly as guidelines for norms by which the International Community should seek to abide.
However, suggested norms have not proven effective in deterring Assad and his regime. Though the UN has been able to access some facilities in order to monitor the existence of chemical weapons, it doesn’t have the ability to punish Assad or any of his closest advisors for extreme transgressions. Each attack that Assad has propagated against his people that has gone unchecked has allowed for the development of an international order in which he can kill tens of thousands of his people, and not have to answer for. The United Nations lacks the tools and resolve to make Assad answer for his crimes.
In this respect, the United Nations has failed the people of Syria. Though it has urged and called for and endorsed possible solutions and resolutions to the problems of Syria, it has not taken any actions that have effectively inconvenienced the Assad regime. This is possibly due in part to the fact that the United Nations has been limited since its inception. Member states did not want to build an institution, which inconveniently and indefinitely bound them to murky, and possibly inopportune laws decided by 192 other members. Since its existence, the United Nations has served well as an ultra think tank for the development and implementation of international norms, but it has repeatedly shown an incapacity to handle extreme crisis.
The devastating paralysis of the United Nations becomes further evident when you consider the fact that the Russian Federation has blocked the majority of resolutions brought forward in the Security Council that might help to advance a solution. Recall that on Tuesday, February 28th, Russia cast its seventh veto, protecting Syria from UN imposed sanctions. This is a clear cut case of covert Russian maneuvers to advance their foreign policy interests. It’s no coincidence that one of the only Russian naval facilities in the Middle East exists in the port city of Tartus, Syria.
The tragedy of this is that when the global community fails to develop a coherent strategy to face issues such as these, unpredictable actors such as the United States and Russia begin to capitalize off of the crisis. Recall that not long after the attack, President Trump launched his own 50-missile retaliation, which lacked clear reason and an exit plan. Later when asked about the strike on Fox, he couldn’t seem to recall which Middle Eastern country he fired missiles into.
The United Nation’s failures in Syria elicit a larger question. In this day and age, what is the plausibility of an organization such as the ICC or UN solving a crisis such as this. Historical examples of failures in similar situations are abundant. But, this time, its different. The consequences of a flawed strategy in Syria could be catastrophic. Neither Trump nor the UN or any country for that matter has proposed an exit strategy for Syria, or even a strategy to effectively topple the regime. The end of the Assad regime might give way to a governing entity just as corrupt and wicked, and the slow simmer in the Middle East will eventually be brought to an uncontainable boil.
The last few years have witnessed the tragic escalation of the crisis in Syria. In no case can it be said that the elements of Assad’s Syria are simple. Years from now, it will take several volumes to even begin to unravel that history. Scholars will dissect that history, and hopefully a lesson can be drawn from it. However, one thing that is inarguable is that Syria’s history can no longer be written in the blood of her own people.
The international community has shown its ability to mourn over the tragic and untimely deaths of citizens, and over people forced thousands over miles to distant shores. But, right now the Syrian people don’t just need sympathy. They need an international community with the ability to build a lasting solution.