What could the UNSC actually do in Syria?

Russia and China are catching a lot of heat for preventing UN Security Council action on the Syrian Civil War, and sure, the other members of the P5 seem marginally more likely to want to see something done to bring the killing, the displacement, and the threat of contagion to a halt. Quite apart from whether it *will* act, though, I think it’s worth asking what the UNSC could actually do to bring an end to the fighting. To do that, we need to know something about the war’s likely course in the absence of any intervention and, second, what the UN could conceivably do in terms of changing that trajectory.

I’m going to argue, below the jump, that the UN’s “best” hope is to alter the course of the fighting, ensuring one side’s victory, rather than attempt to put together an unworkable settlement short of military victory.

Let’s start with the war. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s probably useful to think of it in terms of commitment problems: the rebels don’t trust any power-sharing agreement that leaves Assad in power, nor does Assad likely think he’d be well-treated if he yields any political power. The result? A long war where nothing short of military victory is acceptable for either side. So while diplomats like to talk about “diplomatic rather than military solutions,” there’s little reason to believe that any solution that would leave both sides standing would be mutually acceptable. This is why the Annan Plan failed, and why any agreement that would in principle allow Assad’s folks to continue to wield some kind of power (which they can use for retribution, further repression, etc.) is unlikely to work. The most likely outcome of this conflict in isolation, then, is a protracted war in which neither side will settle for less than, as much as possible, eliminating the other.

Given that, what would a non-“paralyzed” Security Council be able to do? First, at a maximum, it could authorize some kind of intervention designed to tip the balance in favor of one side or the other, as happened in Libya. This could, indeed, shorten the war, but it’s not obvious that there’s a lot of support for it amongst the countries that would likely intervene (i.e. the Western democracies), and even if they decided to support *some* kind of SC action, Russia and China are very unlikely to go for *that*. Second, it could try some kind of robust peacemaking mission to be followed by peacekeeping, but whatever peacekeepers might do is limited to *after* the fighting stops. And that, as mentioned above, will be no mean task. So let’s set peacemaking and -keeping aside for the moment. There’s also the possibility that through some kind of threats or subsidies—again, unlikely to be approved by the UNSC—or that oft-invoked about “pressure,” a temporary agreement would be put in place, but its success would depend solely on the continued commitment of the P5 to supporting it, and not on having solved the problems that got the fighting started in the first place.

Finally, the UN could impose tighter economic sanctions on the Syrian regime, but given the logic of the war—that fighting on in hopes of victory is better than compromise and near certain punishment or death for the leadership, or “gambling for survival“—the only way sanctions might bring things to a quicker end is to facilitate the military collapse of the government. It will *not*, I suspect, push the sides to the table for any meaningful negotiations, because altering the government’s military prospects doesn’t solve the commitment problem at the heart of the war—that is, sharing power or demobilizing will open one side up to victimization that the other side can’t promise not to engage in.

And that commitment problem is the real reason negotiations aren’t likely to happen, much less produce a workable settlement, in the near term, and why Mr. Brahimi is right in calling his task “nearly impossible.” That said, a solution *will* be possible when one side collapses or abdicates in the light of certain defeat, and if we’re to see the UN make strides on bringing about a peaceful solution, it may be because it (a) recognizes why the war has taken on this particular form and (b) alters the military fortunes of the side it prefers to see win out. Otherwise, all the talk about “diplomatic solutions” will remain just that: talk.

7 thoughts on “What could the UNSC actually do in Syria?

  1. Scott,

    I’m sympathetic to the argument of course, but, in your framework, are agreements ever possible before collapse or perceived collapse of one side? Are there ever agreements that solve an issue of contention (perhaps autonomy) or implement power sharing with confidence building?


  2. Sure, they’re possible. You can derive this fight-it-out result from a simple theory where certain agreements shift power in favor of one side or the other, making the terms obsolete. When that won’t be too painful, you’ll accept that agreements get renegotiated every now and then and reach an agreement. However, if you know that laying down your arms and signing an agreement will just lead to the other side regaining strength and taking back what you just won, you may choose to fight on. So whether agreements are possible arises endogenously.

    I do think the Syrian case is certainly a good candidate for this kind of fight-it-out equilibrium, as long as nothing else major changes. The key, it seems to be (from an admittedly cursory understanding of an ongoing war) is that there’s no confidence to build; if the rebels believe that power-sharing or some kind of autonomy deal will let the government recover and then take it all back, then they may just be better off fighting on, despite the costs.

    Now, the next question, which I didn’t address so much in the main post, is whether fighting itself can resolve this problem short of one side collapsing/surrendering. If we look at the conflict in isolation, we’d have to ask whether something about the course of the fighting might make an agreement possible. There are a few answers out there that don’t involve third parties. One is that the sources of shifting power (say, the country’s economic base and its military installations) get captured or destroyed, but that’s awfully close to military victory, so maybe it’s not what you’re thinking of. Another is that enough stuff in general has been destroyed that the obsolescence of an agreement doesn’t matter as much anymore, but, again, that’s a far cry from confidence building. There’s another possibility, which is that we’ve seen a period of fighting whereby the rebels are trying to prove they can’t be beaten easily (because of the fear of a ratchet effect), once the government learns this, it settles. But this depends on power not shifting when the fighting stops…and that’s something that I think would be a big issue in Syria.

    So, in answer to your question, yes, the framework allows for agreements but tries to explain why they aren’t struck. It’s my current impression, though, given that neither side probably thinks a power-sharing or autonomy agreement would stick, they’re better off fighting. Now, I *could* see Assad taking a golden parachute if he knows that the game is up and his personal safety is threatened—which could reach a critical point for him well before the loyalists lose their capacity to resist—but that requires an outside party guaranteeing his safety, so that’s kind of outside the argument here of just isolating the government and rebels.

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