The most surprising thing about the current situation is not having heard a few months back the president of the United States and the European Council announce something like this: “We have decided to send a team with negotiating capabilities to the countries involved and to the Arab League, so that a solution to the Syrian conflict may be found as quickly as possible.” The results of the Geneva meeting of June 30, 2012 could have been the basis for it. But there was neither the determination nor the necessary tenacity in seeking an international and Arab solution. Had there been, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. But unfortunately that’s all water under the bridge now.
Too late in the game, there is a desire to convey a sense of leadership that is simply not there. And it is unclear whether the potential actions under consideration will not turn a dramatic and longstanding problem into one that’s even more difficult to resolve.
1. What’s being prepared has nothing to do with a humanitarian action. Something of that nature could have taken place months ago, but with 100,000 casualties, 1.9 million refugees and over four million displaced persons out of a total population of 22 million, to talk about humanitarian action would be linguistic abuse to say the least. What’s being prepared can only be understood as an answer to the breakdown of the International Convention on Chemical Weapons (which went into effect in 1997). The last time these types of weapons were used in a war between states, it was between Iraq and Iran, towards the end of the Cold War; they were deployed by Saddam Hussein and the United States knew about it, as revealed recently by declassified documents that Foreign Policy magazine reported on. Later, in 1988, Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds. It is hardly surprising that Iran has condemned their use in Syria after having suffered itself from their use. A treaty violation in the 21st century cannot go by unsanctioned, but what’s important here is defining the sanction.
2. It so happens that there are UN experts on the ground investigating earlier accusations and conducting additional research on this particular case. A clear, convincing stance from these observers is essential, especially since there are likely to be major discrepancies of opinion within the Security Council over certain forms of punishment. It would be hard to accept an action that has not been legitimized by the Security Council without first hearing from the people whom this very Council sent out to do the research work.
3. The cases of Kosovo and Libya are often cited as a precedent for an operation in Syria. In the first case —Kosovo — a few collateral similarities may be used as arguments in favor of intervention. There were also observers deployed in the province of Kosovo — sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE — who witnessed massacres by Serbian military and security forces, and raised the alarm about a situation that was already proving to be a very difficult one. But that’s about it as far as the similarities go. Serbia is not Syria, Putin is not Yeltsin, today’s EU is not the same as the EU back then, and the world of the 1990s — under Western hegemony — is not the same as today’s world.
The negotiating effort at Rambouillet was an exhaustive one, although an agreement was unfortunately not possible. During that crucial semester, the EU was presided by Germany under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. There were desperate talks with Slobodan Milosevic, who was informed of the consequences that might derive from his actions. It was all to no avail. The action lacked Russian support but did find backing from NATO and the EU. Towards the end of the intervention — which was negotiated between a European, the Finnish politician Martti Ahtisaari, and a Russian, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin — Kosovo became a UN protectorate and the forces which were deployed to guarantee the agreement included Russian troops, a situation that is hard to imagine in present times.
A lesson I would like to point out from the Kosovo intervention, and which could be useful today, is the following: any momentary action to take an aggressor down a peg is always imagined as being quick, but experience shows that it might not be, and we need to be prepared for that.
4. Libya has been cited as another possible precedent. There is no reason to compare any action in Syria with what took place in Libya, neither in terms of content nor procedure. Gaddafi had returned to his place in the international community after proof was provided that his incipient nuclear program and his chemical weapons arsenal had been destroyed. There was thus no reason to suspect any use of chemical weapons. What authorities appealed to instead was the responsibility to protect, as approved by the United Nations in its last Charter reform of September 2005. The resolution authorizing action in Libya enjoyed some of the greatest consensus of recent times. Not only was it approved by the Security Council, with three abstentions —Russia, China and Germany — but more surprisingly still, it received unanimous support from the Arab League, which is normally not very keen on the concept of responsibility to protect.
Nevertheless, it is possible to come away with a few lessons from the implementation of what the Security Council had approved. Some countries — Russia and China, basically — felt that there was an abuse of authority in the way the mandate was carried out in Libya, leading all the way to “regime change,” Russia and China’s great concern. This perception is partly responsible for those two countries’ veto on intervention in Syria.
No matter what the final decision, if there is to be any likelihood of a subsequent consensus, we should be careful to avoid a similar situation. The goal of any action must therefore be clear, with no risk of arbitrary interpretations that might turn what seemed to be a solution into a huge problem.
Javier Solana was NATO secretary general in 1999, when the Kosovo intervention took place. He is a distinguished senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and president of the Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics at ESADE business school.