Few observers would take issue with New Zealand’s latest criticisms of the international community’s failure to stem Syria’s civil conflict. Chairing a special meeting of the Security Council in New York, John Key has just been laying into that august assembly:
‘After more than five years of violence, Syria has become a byword for failure. Failure of the parties and their supporters to put peace, and the lives of innocent people ahead of self-interest and zero-sum politics. Failure to respond to the crisis early to prevent this tragedy. And a collective political failure, including by this Council, to do what must be done to end the conflict.’
This argument should come as no surprise. In the first instance, the Council’s membership has hardly been united in an urgent determination to quell the humanitarian suffering in Syria or to help resolve the conflict that is causing it. Secondly, Mr Key’s words are reminiscent of one of the arguments that New Zealand used in its quest to get onto the Council in the first place. Speaking at the UN in September 2014, Foreign Minister McCully argued that:
'In Syria and Iraq we see the truly frightening consequences when leadership, both internally and in the Security Council, has failed.'
From Wellington’s view, not much has changed in the lasy two years, a period that has coincided with New Zealand’s membership. It has been there, of course, with the limited time frame and limited leverage that all temporary members have to work with. And it is fair to say that Wellington attributes much of the blame to the permanent five whose veto power Mr McCully referred to last year as ‘the single largest cause of the UN Security Council being rendered impotent in the face of too many serious international conflicts’.
But even if none of the parties believe they can win, this does not stop them from thinking that some advantage awaits for them if they resort to violence. This is a cardinal reason why neither Syria’s peace nor the alleviation of suffering, are principal objectives in this struggle for many participants. Certainly not for Assad, for whom regime survival comes well before peace. Certainly not for Mr Putin’s Russia, whose air-strikes in support of his Syrian ally signal Moscow’s ability to seize the international initiative from Washington. Certainly not for ISIS, for whom the continuation of violence is part of its political identity and its strategy. And even for the Obama Administration, violence has a place. After all while Washington was urging other parties to maintain the fragile ceasefire to allow humanitarian relief, especially in Aleppo, US airstrikes against ISIS targets continued, in one instance with unintended consequences.
That ceasefire, supported by New Zealand, was meant to allow the United States and Russia to coordinate airstrikes against extremists. This is about the management of violence, not its abolition. And in the same region, New Zealand’s training of Iraqi armed forces is designed to increase their fighting power, not reduce it. As its fight against ISIS continues, Iraq’s government is asking for more of this from New Zealand and over a longer period. This formula suggests that if peace is eventually to come to Iraq, more violence will be involved in the meantime.
These paradoxes are on acute display in today’s Middle East more than anywhere else on the planet. They mean that cooperation is going to be partial, that diplomacy will be intermixed with violence, and that the Security Council, will remain a necessary but often hamstrung feature of an imperfect and unequal international system. Statements from political leaders which imply that the Council can transcend these challenges may be well intended. But when these complaints are repeated in the face of obvious political realities they may become little more than grandstanding.
Photo credit: Prime Minister John Key's Facebook page