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.