Why the Security Council Must Stop the Insult Diplomacy Over Syria

World Politics Review, 16.04.2018
Richard Gowan, académico del European Council on Foreign Relations y profesor (U. de Columbia)
  • The United Nations Security Council needs some quiet time

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, left, watches as the ambassadors of Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States vote on a resolution at a Security Council meeting on Syria. (AP/Mary Altaffer).

The past week was the most fraught in the council’s recent history, as the U.S. and its friends went all-out to shame Russia over its Syrian ally’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. The Russians responded with a furious barrage of denials, accusing the Westerners of whipping up the controversy to justify a military response. The two sides met almost daily to berate each other in baroque terms, with U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley claiming the Russians’ hands were “covered in the blood of Syrian children.”

By the end of the week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was warning the council that the Cold War was back. After the U.S., Britain and France launched missile strikes at military targets in Damascus and Homs on Saturday, Russia tabled a council resolution declaring the action illegal. While this failed, with only China and Bolivia supporting Moscow’s position, it is unlikely to mark the end of this diplomatic clash.

The Western powers have reportedly prepared a new resolution demanding an independent investigation of the Douma incident—a proposal Russia vetoed last week— and insisting the Syrian government enter peace talks “in good faith.” This may be a reassuring signal that the U.S. wants to handle the crisis diplomatically after its brief military excursion. But it will surely spark more disputes in the council.

What is the point of this political theater? Counterintuitively, it may help defuse the crisis while seemingly heightening it. It is preferable for the big powers to manage their differences through displays of anger at the U.N. than with tit-for-tat military exchanges. The Western strikes were quite modest, and Russia refrained from an immediate military response. The council offers both sides a sort of echo chamber in which they can make their decisions appear more consequential than they are.

Nonetheless, this rhetorical escalation cannot go on indefinitely without doing the council long-term harm. This goes to the heart of the purpose the U.N. serves in crisis diplomacy: The council is a useful stage for the big powers to vent their differences, but it is also a venue for them to make quiet compromises. The Russians and the West risk expressing their anger so loudly that they will struggle to make deals later.

While the council was ineffectual for long stretches of the Cold War, it has often been an effective mechanism for defusing big power tensions in the past three decades. The U.S. was unable to secure U.N. support for its interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, for instance, but it returned to the council to secure agreement on postwar arrangements in both cases. This allowed those powers that had opposed U.S. actions, including Russia, to save face and at least regain a little diplomatic leverage.

There has long been speculation that Moscow wants to impose a “Kosovo in reverse” bargain on the U.S. and Europeans over Syria. In this scenario, the Western powers would have to swallow some sort of political settlement at the U.N. that keeps President Bashar al-Assad in power, in return for a residual voice in postwar reconstruction. Some Western analysts argue that such an ugly compromise would be worthwhile, as the U.S. and its partners could use reconstruction funds to influence the Syrian government’s behavior, possibly nudging the Assad regime to show clemency to its former foes.

Whatever the arguments for or against this bargain, the current level of animosity in the council means that it will be hard for Russian or Western officials to talk seriously about any set of peace terms in the immediate future. Diplomats are flexible creatures, and can switch between high-volume rhetoric and low-key deal-making at short notice. Tempers flared in the Security Council over the siege of Aleppo in Syria in late 2016, for example, but France still managed to strike a deal with Russia to allow civilians and rebels in the city to leave in the final phase of the battle.

Nonetheless, both sides have now raised fundamental questions about the other’s credibility that could make future attempts at de-escalation politically difficult. The council cannot function if its members paint each other as incorrigible liars.

Some diplomats fear that this will not only prevent compromises on Syria but also poison discussions of other urgent items on the U.N. agenda. Sweden’s deputy representative to the council warned on Twitter that “current divisions must be contained to avoid hampering our ability to manage other crises,” including those in Libya, Yemen, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While council diplomats pride themselves on their ability to “compartmentalize” these crises, Russia has opposed Western positions on a growing number of files as the Syrian war has dragged on.

Diplomats on both sides of the Syrian rift need to calculate how much further they can push their rhetorical sparring before it does irreversible harm to their relations. Even if Western diplomats believe, as I do, that some Russian claims—that Britain orchestrated the Douma atrocity, for instance—make a mockery of diplomacy, it is necessary to consider how to reframe future talks on the basis of all parties’ interests.

Moscow is unlikely to make any serious concessions to the West over Syria in light of last week’s missile strikes. But Russia has an interest in avoiding regular military face-offs with the U.S. as it aims to consolidate Assad’s position. The U.S. and its allies have nothing to gain from being drawn haphazardly into the conflict.

Further mud-slinging matches in the Security Council will ultimately not help either Russia or its opponents fulfill their basic interests. There are times in diplomacy when icy silence is the best option.

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