Syria and the Security Council: what do the Europeans think they are doing?

by | Jan 30, 2012

Tuesday should be a dramatic day in the UN Security Council.  Hillary Clinton, William Hague and Alan Juppé are all jetting in for a debate on Syria and the Europeans are set to table a resolution calling for a political transition in Damascus that Russia is determined to veto.  China will probably do so too.  Smash, bang, wallop.

What are the Europeans up to here?  Last week, I published a commentary for the EU Institute for Security Studies summarizing the European strategy towards Syria:

European policymakers have recognised that they are not best-placed to mediate a final political settlement to the crisis. Instead, they have ceded political responsibility to the Arab League, which has gradually hardened its stance against Assad and has even called for him to stand aside (although the League has not been firm enough for some of members, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia). Meanwhile the EU’s policies have included (i) backing UN and League attempts to monitor the situation in Syria in an effort to restrain the Assad government; (ii) putting pressure on Damascus through sanctions; and (iii) using debates at the Security Council and the wider UN system to reinforce the case for pressure. 

Even though the Security Council debates have rendered almost nothing concrete (except for a mildly worded presidential statement cooked up by the IBSA countries last August) the Europeans have arguably utilized the UN route quite cleverly:

Although frustrated by Sino-Russian obstructionism, European diplomats have chosen to use the Security Council as a platform to publicise the case against Assad. In October, having tried to find compromise language on sanctions, they tabled a mildly-worded resolution in the knowledge that China and Russia would veto it. This ostensibly self-defeating strategy (which the U.S. had doubts about) has at least pushed Moscow and Beijing to try and legitimise their defense of Damascus. Russia has served up a series of resolutions of its own, calling for an end to violence but making no reference to sanctions. 

In the meantime, resolutions condemning Syria’s actions have been passed by large majorities in both the Human Right Council and UN General Assembly – forums that are usually hostile to Western positions. In the final quarter of 2011, the Arab League used the threat of pushing for Security Council action (as it did very effectively over Libya) to persuade Assad to accept its observer mission. 

So even if Russia and China use their veto again this week, the Europeans will keep coming back to the Council for public relations reasons.  I think this is a cunning strategy, although it will fuel talk about the decline of the Council as a serious decision-making body.  It’s remarkable to think that it’s only ten months since the Council was being praised for OK-ing the Libyan campaign.


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    <strong><a href="">Richard Gowan</a></strong> coordinates the International Security Institutions program at the <a href="">Center on International Cooperation</a>, New York University. He is also the UN Policy Fellow at the <a href="">European Council on Foreign Relations</a> and an associate of the <a href="">Foreign Policy Center</a> (London).