Russia in Syria: Counterattacking at the UN

European leaders need to find a way to put President Putin back on the diplomatic defensive and the UN may be the best place for them to act.

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Is there a useful role for the United Nations in the next phase of the Syrian war? It is hard to be optimistic about the UN’s prospects. Last month, it seemed possible that President Putin would use his highly anticipated appearance before the General Assembly to present new peace proposals. He decisively dashed these hopes with a speech that concentrated on America’s negative role in the world. Two days later Russian aircraft began bombing Syrian targets. Putin thus demonstrated both his power to shape political discussions at the UN and his disregard for the institution.

European leaders need to find a way to put President Putin back on the diplomatic defensive…the UN may be the best place for them to act

All sides now assume that events on the battlefield will shape UN diplomacy, not the reverse. US and European officials may hope that Russians want to avoid getting bogged down in a quagmire, Moscow may have to return to the UN for help. But as long as the Russian campaign is a success, Putin will have the upper hand in the Security Council to set the terms for any peace deal. UN officials helped frame the terms of Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Perhaps they will eventually play a similar role in Syria.

For now, however, the UN is back on the sidelines. Its envoy for the conflict Stefan di Mistura, has set up a series of working groups to discuss separate dimensions of a peace settlement, such as military issues and reconstruction. While the Security Council backed this process in August, the Syrian National Coalition has declared that it will boycott the talks in response to “Russian aggression”. Indeed, the strategy of Assad and, now, of Putin seems to aim at suppressing any third party between the Syrian regime and IS. But the existence of such a third party is key to a political solution. De Mistura has struggled to find a way through the crisis, and his latest plan now appears crippled.

The best that the envoy and his boss, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, may do now is to sit back and wait for a new strategic opening. Ban also has the thankless task of finding the cash to fund the UN’s floundering humanitarian efforts in the Middle East. But European governments –especially Britain, France and Germany – cannot let UN diplomacy flag. Doing so would confirm that, following his September surprise, Putin has secured control of the political narrative over Syria.

Despite his recent successes, Putin is diplomatically vulnerable in New York

Russia largely views the Europeans as irrelevant in Syria anyway.  It has prioritised dealing with the US directly, both inside and outside the UN. The main EU members remain divided over precisely how to handle the crisis. Germany is increasingly willing to support a bargain with President Bashar al-Assad on Russia’s terms, if this is what it takes to stem the refugee crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed this point in the run-up to the UN General Assembly, playing into Putin’s narrative about Moscow’s indispensability until Putin’s strikes called for more caution. Britain and especially France stuck to a harder line. The net result is that, as all too often, there is no real European position on the crisis at all. The EU’s internal divisions over refugees only exacerbate this.

European leaders need to find a way to put President Putin back on the diplomatic defensive, and show that they still have a place in the Syrian game. Given their limited political and military options, the UN may be the best place for them to act.

Despite his recent successes, Putin is diplomatically vulnerable in New York. His contemptuous address to the General Assembly, in which he emphasised Russia’s right and readiness to use its Security Council veto rights to control the UN, was not calculated to gain him many friends among other leaders. By contrast China’s Xi Jinping showed exactly how to win hearts and minds by offering large amounts of money and troops for UN peace operations. Over the last two years, France has exploited widespread discontent with Russia’s behavior over Syria by leading a campaign to limit the use of the veto in the face of mass atrocities. A similar humanitarian initiative, with a more explicit focus on Syria, could prove useful now.

Britain and France could, for example, introduce a resolution outlining the responsibilities of all outside actors militarily engaged in Syria to minimise civilian casualties, and prevail on the Syrian parties to do likewise, bearing in mind Assad’s appalling use of barrel bombs. This is, of course, pretty much a restatement of international humanitarian law. But the resolution could also call on states engaged in Syria to report on their military actions there at regular intervals, and request that Ban Ki-moon appoint a military envoy (probably a general from an impeccable neutral like Switzerland) to monitor civilian protection.

Such a step would put Russia on the spot, although previous experience shows that it would most likely veto such a text if it had to. At least it would have to explain its stance and China, which has previously joined Russia in Syrian-related vetoes, might baulk at doing so on such a humanitarian issue. London and Paris would face accusations of hypocrisy, of course: President Putin would doubtless point out that they did not place similar constraints on their own actions in Libya. And if, by some miracle, the resolution passed it would also apply to French, American and other forces involved in the air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. Nonetheless, it is now very important that the American-led coalition clearly distinguishes between its tactics and principles and those of the Russians, so this is a risk worth considering.

The British and French could strengthen their case by inviting all EU members and concerned non-European states to co-sponsor the resolution (non-Security Council members are allowed to give symbolic support to texts in this way). It would be politically useful to give Germany a leading role in the enterprise, as its decision to abstain on the Libyan intervention in 2011 could offset the charges of hypocrisy against the French and British. It would be helpful to get support from other critics of the Libyan campaign, such as Brazil, although they might try to avoid taking sides.

If Russia vetoed a resolution of this type, it would be possible to get a majority for similar proposals from the UN General Assembly – although Moscow is likely to disregard any Assembly resolution that does not secure the backing of at least 150 of the UN’s 193 members.

In reality, Russian officials are likely to treat any initiative of this type (whether in the Security Council or General Assembly) as just another petty-fogging European attempt to place abstract principles over hard power. But the real goal would not be to change minds in Moscow, but rather to impose enhanced diplomatic and political costs onto Russia for its strategy, in the Sunni world and beyond, to force a choice to get back to a political track. It would be for the West to show that it will not allow Vladimir Putin into bullying them into accepting a political narrative over the future of Syria that is nasty, brutish and short-sighted.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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