Can the United Nations Do Anything to Stop the Slaughter in Syria?

A resolution to condemn Assad has once again fallen to a Russian veto. But there is something the institution could do to help end the war.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds photographs of victims during a meeting at the United Nations Security Council on Syria at the United Nations headquarters on April 5, 2017.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds photographs of victims during a meeting at the United Nations Security Council on Syria at the United Nations headquarters on April 5, 2017. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

If there’s one institution that President Donald Trump has invigorated with his airstrikes in Syria, it is the United Nations. This might seem like a paradox: How could the UN, guardian of territorial sovereignty and custodian of international law, benefit from an impulsive president’s attack on the Assad regime? It is true that military action taken without the blessings of the UN Security Council is often seen as illegitimate. But it is also true that the UN has been reduced to the status of a helpless spectator by Russia, which has systemically debilitated the UN in order to achieve a narrow political gain. On Wednesday, Russia vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution that would have called for an investigation into last week’s chemical weapons attack, even though Vladimir Putin previously suggested that he wanted such an inquiry.

For six years, the major beneficiary of the Russian poison pill in the Security Council has been the Assad regime. Trump’s airstrikes, while falling within the first 100 days of his presidency, occurred on day 2,215 of Assad’s war on civilians. Through that time, the Syrian dictator shrugged off the UN. Things got so dismal that the UN could not even move humanitarian aid trucks into besieged areas without Assad deliberately attacking them with barrel bombs and machine guns. The regime’s hypocrisy was evident to me the summer I spent in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria. While sending his cronies to Geneva to make empty promises on future negotiations, he was bombing hospitals, leveling villages, and targeting civilians.

The 59 missiles fired at the Shayrat airbase last week marked the first time in six years that external pressure forced Assad to rethink his calculus. So far, the Trump administration has stuck to its newfound anti-Russia line, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling its government “incompetent” for enabling Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and declaring that America will “hold to account” governments that commit atrocities. Still, there is clearly a divergence within the White House on how far to go. On Sunday, Tillerson and Ambassador Nikki Haley offered differing views on U.S. objectives: Tillerson prioritized fighting ISIS while Haley focused on removing Assad. Trump explicitly called out Assad in his statement after the airstrikes, but the Twitter-ready commander-in-chief has yet to clarify U.S. objectives in Syria going forward. At a press conference on Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis declared: “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.”

Here is where the UN has a role to play. This may come as a surprise, but an internationally approved framework for peace in Syria already exists. Drafted in 2012 under the auspices of then-UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, and agreed to by the United States, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iraq, and other parties (not Iran), it is called the Geneva Communique. The UN Security Council, which includes Russia, has unanimously endorsed the communique at least twice, giving it the force of international law. It envisions a resolution to the conflict through negotiations between the regime and the opposition, a national reconciliation process, the establishment of a transitional governing body, a new Syrian constitution, multi-party elections, and the full representation of women in the transition. These guidelines have served as the meta-framework for all subsequent UN attempts to mediate talks between Assad and the opposition and end this brutal civil war.

Notably, the Geneva Communique is silent on Assad’s future. The United States rightly interpreted the word “transition” to mean that he would have to leave. Even the Russians have signaled from time to time that they are not wedded indefinitely to their man in Damascus. But Assad instructed his negotiators not to allow for even a discussion of transitions, effectively killing peace talks before they began.

The UN and Assad know the same truth: He has no incentive to negotiate Syria’s political future, not while he’s making gains on the ground, courtesy of Russian cover both on the battlefield and at the Security Council. Sure, human-rights organizations may accuse him of mass extermination, and the UN can hector him over his use of “prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponized chlorine canisters” on civilians, but absent any outside pressure, he is free act with impunity, even if that means gassing his own people and their children. Until last week, this has been the reality at the UN—a maximalist Russia, a feeble America, and in between, an Assad regime given free rein.

When my colleagues at the UN presented Assad’s representatives with the evidence of his war crimes, his henchmen—chief among them his ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari—simply denied it all. Damascus’s mouthpieces offered the audacious claim that everyone they killed was a terrorist. It takes a certain level of shamelessness to lie so baldly. The UN special envoy’s mission was always frustrated by such denials, but even more so by the Obama administration’s apathy. Negotiations were impossible because they were so lopsided. Moscow (and Damascus) perceived correctly that Washington was willing to offer any concession in the name of de-escalation in return for Assad just showing up at the table. It was a recipe for failure.

Now, inadvertently, Trump may have breathed new life into the beleaguered Syrian peace process.

If the savvy, well-regarded new UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres, could convince Trump to invest even a little political capital in the Syrian peace process, they could hammer out a deal along with the Russians. Playing to the president’s vanity might actually work. On the night of the attacks, Trump himself call on “all civilized nations to join [the United States] in seeking to end the slaughter,” suggesting a more muscular American role. His unpredictability would be an asset here. Middle Eastern strongmen like Assad respond only to threats and coercion, and Trump is a man who could decide to launch missiles at Damascus tomorrow. This gives Assad every reason to finally come to the table and stop his war on civilians.

The most practical proposal for ending war is creating a bridge between the regime and the opposition and establishing a unity government. The executive of this power-sharing government would be made up of both regime officers and opposition members. There are literally hundreds of UN experts who have worked on post-conflict transitions their entire lives, and the body would be wise to staff its Syria mission with them now. Assad’s fate would be addressed up front, with Western powers demanding a maximum six-month holder period where he would remain in office. (Any changes to the length of time should come with concessions from the other side; just showing up at the table is not a concession.)

The new, UN-backed Syrian government could then broker local ceasefires with rebel groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda or ISIS. Humanitarian convoys that Assad has previously blocked would immediately be allowed to reach desperate populations. Finally, the unity government in Damascus could focus all its energies on ISIS and al Qaeda, and postpone for one year the drafting of a democratic constitution.

One key area where the UN would be guaranteed to face steep challenges: reforming the Assad regime’s intelligence agencies. Unlike other authoritarian regimes, the Syrian deep state, installed by the late Hafiz al-Assad, is not a uniform shadow government but a labyrinthine mass of overlapping institutions, led largely by Alawite loyalists. The division of responsibilities between the agencies has never been clear, and each intelligence chief reports directly to the president. One can imagine the atmosphere of extreme paranoia this has created, with all the intelligence heads constantly spying on each other, and with the man at the top—first Hafiz, followed by Bashar—keeping his deputies guessing.

The UN will have to place security-sector reform at the core of its peace plan in Syria—disarming the intelligence units that have committed the worst atrocities, and bringing the entire apparatus under civilian oversight. This will be hard to accomplish, because the transitional administration will have to distinguish between Assad loyalists who could threaten the new Syrian government from within and other agents who are Ba’athists but committed to a post-Assad future.

Finally, there is the question of Assad’s fate. The best option would be for a new Syrian government to try him under a new Syrian constitution, or to hand him over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. It would be a great moral reckoning for the mass-murdering Assad to be tried and convicted for war crimes in televised hearings that the world could watch. Yet the thirst for international justice may be an obstacle to peace in Syria. Whether Assad is shipped to a permanent vacation home in Russia, or thrown into the docket at The Hague, the primary objective now must be to end the war and begin political negotiations. The mere act of transitioning away from Assad’s fanatical regime will be both a verdict on his criminal enterprise and a testament to the bravery of the Syrian people.

It would be easy to blame the UN for failing to stop the carnage in Syria. After all, the body was created “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as the august body’s august preamble says. But the UN has been powerless to act because the governments that constitute it have been unwilling to budge. Trump’s airstrikes have already sent the message they were designed to send, and when the UN makes its next attempt at peace talks, Assad’s negotiators will think twice before bluffing their way back to war.