This blog was first published by e-IR on 30 May and is available at: http://www.e-ir.info/

This might appear to be a naive question. The cold-blooded execution on 25 May in the town of Houla of over 100 civilians, including women and children, followed by the discovery on 30 May in Deir Ezzor of 13 bodies with their hands tied, some shot in the head, are but the latest examples of the atrocities committed against civilians in the Syrian crisis. Leaving aside the inevitable claim and counterclaim as to who was responsible for these outrages (although the UN’s 27 May Press Statement condemning the killings in Houla points the finger squarely at the Assad regime) it is clear that the relevant provisions of the “Annan Plan” (ceasefire, withdrawal of forces, guaranteed humanitarian access, and protection of civilians) have not come about. Even Kofi Annan himself, while striving to retain his neutrality as an impartial mediator, has warned that Syria is at a “tipping point”, while the increased incidence of explosions in and around Damascus and other violence across the country seems to presage Syria’s slide into civil war.

So one can see why some would argue that the Annan plan has failed. However it is important to retain a realistic perspective about how much a third-party mediator can hope to achieve, particularly when he or she is appointed in circumstances such as those faced by Annan. From the start of the Syrian crisis in March 2011 the UN Security Council has been divided over how to deal with it. This came to a head in February of this year when Russia and China vetoed a Resolution calling for the Syrian President to step down and this was described as “disgusting and shameful” by the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. The subsequent face-saving compromise was a joint appointment by the UN and the Arab League of Kofi Annan as the Special Envoy to the Syrian crisis. Annan’s first task, therefore, was to mediate, not between the Syrian regime and its opponents, but between the P5 members in the Security Council. He made it clear that if he were to succeed there could only be one effective mediation process and that all members of the UN needed to put their weight behind it. Only subsequently was he able to turn his attention to trying to establish common ground between the warring parties in Syria.

Again, it is important to understand that this is all a mediator can do: to help people who are unable or unwilling to talk to each other to see the advantages of doing so. The true extent of the mediator’s power is very dependent on the specific context. For example, when in early 2008 Annan was asked to intervene to help stop the violence threatening to drag Kenya into civil war following the contested presidential elections he was able to play a forceful role knowing that he had the full weight of the African Union, UN, and key donor governments behind him. In Syria four years later this unreserved international support has been denied him, despite his tireless diplomacy taking in visits to Moscow and Beijing as well as Arab capitals. The continuing role of the US-led and anti-regime “Friends of Syria” group, alongside unwavering Russian support for Assad, has undoubtedly complicated his task. In addition he has had to deal with a fragmented and much weaker opposition within Syria, compared to Kenya where he was mediating between two well matched opponents, neither of whom could reasonably hope to win if the violence continued unabated.

When the Annan mission started many poured scorn on it, asking how anyone could trust the Syrian Government to keep any promises it might make. It was claimed that a mediation process merely gave the regime a legitimacy it had long since ceased to merit. Again, subsequent events might suggest this scepticism was justified, but the harsh reality is that there was no other obvious strategy available. Encouraged by Russian and Chinese acquiescence over Libya, from the start of the crisis the US, UK, and France took an uncompromising stance with the Syrian government, from which they were eventually obliged to make a humiliating retreat. When the history of the Syrian crisis is written historians may suggest that had mediation being attempted much earlier – before the disaccord in the Security Council became so pernicious – it might have succeeded. When it did eventually come about it still offered a remote prospect of securing a halt to the fighting and the beginnings of an inclusive political process. Better to support that, surely, than to continue to shout ineffectually from the sidelines. In the absence of US willingness to mount a coercive military intervention – or of Russian willingness to persuade Assad that enough is enough and that he should step down – mediation may still be the only game in town.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

by John Turner

Three concerns confront policy makers and the international community in general when engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran: Nuclear proliferation, the exportation of terrorism and the stability of Iraq. It may be reasonable, as many have done, to simply label Iran as a rogue state that defies the will of the international community, supports terror organisations and attempts to subvert the security of its neighbours. In fact Iran does indeed act in such a way. However, as much as contentious statements by Ahmadinejad and the fire brand speeches of the Ayatollahs may concern policy makers in the West and Arab world, these are not so much the boastings of a powerful regime. They are more reflective of the insecure actions of school yard bullies who are well aware that those around them may be catching on to the bluff. It is imperative to understand why Iran acts as it does. In doing so it may give clues as to how the international community should respond to the security questions that are posed when encountering Iran.

Continue reading »

Posted in Rogue States, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

by John Turner

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iranmarked the beginning of the second Middle East Cold War. Saudi Arabia and Iran along with their allies have been engaged in cold confrontation since that time. However, in large part this began to thaw in the years following the election of Muhammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency in 1997. Recent events, most notably the Arab Spring along with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, have renewed old tensions.  Some have argued that the uprising in Syria has now set the country up to be a proxy conflict in a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West, dividing the world along the lines of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab states on the other. Indeed Syria is in danger of becoming a proxy conflict in a cold war, but this conflict is not reflective of the Cold War that consumed the world in the 20th century. It is rather a Middle East Cold War. It is driven not by external actors seeking to exploit regional uncertainty for advantage, but by internal rivalries that position the world’s great powers, the US, EU, Russia and China, in an awkward position, actors who for the most part prefer regional stability.

Continue reading »

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When the term “intervention” is used in the context of international crisis management people usually think of military intervention. That is a reflection of how narrow our view of intervention has become, in the context of the willingness of a generation of Western political leaders to launch military expeditions in far-off countries in response to threats of different kinds. Other, less coercive, forms of intervention such as diplomacy or mediation have been relatively neglected by politicians and academics alike. However the emphasis on coercive intervention, backed up by Chapter VII Resolutions in the Security Council, reflects a very Western-centric world view. While the Libyan case might appear to vindicate such an approach, that of Syria certainly does not.

Continue reading »

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

There has been much debate about the merits or otherwise of forcible intervention to stop the killings in the Syrian crisis. This has never looked likely, partly because of the Russian and Chinese veto in the UN Security Council but also because of the inherent difficulty of the task, not least given the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition. Given the impotence of the international community to prevent mass atrocities against segments of the civilian population is there any hope that the threat of being held to account will encourage the regime to show restraint, or are they free to continue to act with impunity?

Continue reading »

Posted in Mike Aaronson, Syria, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

People sometimes find it hard to grasp the difference between the concepts of impartiality and neutrality, as used in a humanitarian context. The current crisis in Syria shows the importance of distinguishing between the two.

Continue reading »

Posted in Mike Aaronson, Syria, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

With the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2016 of 27 October and the statement on 28 October from the NATO Secretary-General announcing the end of NATO’s air campaign, the UN-mandated intervention in Libya is now officially at an end (although the UN Security Council, using the customary language, remains “actively seized of the matter”). Was it a success?

Continue reading »

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

October 21, 2011

Professor Jason Ralph (University of Leeds)
interviewed by
Dr Jack Holland (University of Surrey)

Continue reading »

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

21 Oct 2011

Yesterday, Colonel Gaddafi was killed in his final stronghold of Sirte.  Details of his death have been confused, with initial claims of his capture slowly being replaced by suggestions that rebels had shot him in the head, and later reports of his demise in the crossfire of battle.  What is known is that Gaddafi’s final moments before capture were spent in a location and manner to which he would certainly not have been accustomed: ‘cowering’ inside an ‘irrigation’ channel. Continue reading »

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment