The Security Council will almost certainly fail to authorize international intervention in Syria. The USA will almost certainly lead an international coalition in a bombing campaign to punish the Assad regime over last week’s chemical weapon attack. That campaign will be technically illegal under international law, and would further erode the Security Council’s stature as the sole legal entity that can authorize military interventions.
There is no doubt that disagreements between Russia and the West over Syria policy have dealt a blow to the UN system. But if past is precedent, this failure of the Security Council will paradoxically make the UN more, not less relevant on Syria.
To be sure, the UN has not been able to broker a political solution to this conflict — despite the best efforts of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi — because of hopeless divisions in the Security Council. But that has not stopped other parts of the UN from undertaking vital tasks on Syria. The UN is still providing massive amounts of humanitarian assistance to millions of refugees and internally displaced. In Jordan, the UN has constructed the world’s second largest refugee camp in just a few months time. It is clothing, sheltering, educating, inoculating and feeding refugees, and in so doing helping to contain some of the international spillover of this conflict. That basic humanitarian mission has been the UN’s most important task on Syria given, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Also, if past is precedent, we can even expect a deepening political role for the UN in Syria. This may seem counter-intuitive given the fractious debate at the Security Council, but we have seen this movie before. Following the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999, the UN (with the Security Council’s approval) mounted a massive peacekeeping and nation building operation. Similarly, despite a deeply divided Council that vetoed the US and UK lead invasion of Iraq, the Security Council created the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. The USA pulled out of Iraq several years ago, but the UN is still there, picking up the pieces.
The international community may be divided right now, but it will almost certainly call on the United Nations to take on a broader role in Syria in the future. Ultimately, the UN can’t block a country from going to war, but it almost always cleans up the mess after the dust settles.