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Has the UN simply failed in Syria, or is it complicit in the regime’s crimes?

February 6, 2021 at 1:13 pm

Syrian children huddle around a fire during winter season in Idlib, Syria on 30 January 2021 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the conflict rages on with no apparent end in sight. The role of the United Nations, the international organisation created to keep the peace and promote human rights in the world, has clearly been a dismal failure. Whilst no one claims that the Syrian conflict is the death knell for the UN, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how the organisation can move forward from here. A litany of failures by the organisation has resulted in the Syrian people feeling abandoned by the international community. An argument could be made that the UN did not simply fail, but is complicit in the murder of Syrians on a huge scale.

The recent revelation that the World Health Organisation, a body that feeds into the UN, has been using the Rami Makhlouf-owned airline “Cham Wings” to deliver aid to Libya from Dubai is deeply disturbing. Makhlouf is the maternal cousin of Bashar Al-Assad and has been on the EU as well as the Caesar Act sanctions’ lists. He exemplifies the corrupt elite who have profited under Assad’s two-decade rule and, up until very recently, has had vast influence within the regime. The UN should be held to account for using his company. Furthermore, on the issue of the WHO, its representative in Syria Elizabeth Hoff’s appointment of Shukria Mekdad, the wife of the Syrian Foreign Minister, as a WHO mental health consultant for displaced persons was also a major concern. The lack of impartiality and the lack of qualifications on her part together indicate a lack of care towards the Syrian people.

The fact that there has been no concerted effort by the UN to ensure that humanitarian and medical aid reaches opposition held areas has been catastrophic. There have been avoidable deaths in north-west Syria; deaths that need not have happened. With the race to deliver the new Covid-19 vaccines there are genuine fears that these areas will miss out whilst regime-held areas benefit. Withholding healthcare as a weapon of war has been a modus operandi of the Syrian regime, but the UN has done little to stop it.

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Whilst some may be inclined to avoid the UN because of the failings of the WHO, the failings of the former go far beyond this. The negligence of the organisation knows no bounds. The UN is known to have given Russia the coordinates to hospitals in the Idlib area in northern Syria; these coordinates have been used to bomb hospitals, which is a war crime. Ironically, UN committees have published reports that Russia has committed war crimes in Syria; before and after the coordinate incident. Moreover, UN aid programmes have directly funded regime figures. This begs the question, if the UN is aware of its own complicity in the mass murder of the Syrian people, how is it still powerless?

Even the US, which did not veto resolutions condemning the regime, failed the Syrian people when it mattered most. Barack Obama was hesitant to act and dithered. The red line of which the US spoke meant nothing when Assad launched chemical weapons against his own people. The regime was emboldened by this empty threat, and that was a turning point in the conflict. Obama’s failure stained his legacy. It can only be hoped that the Biden administration learns from these mistakes.

The UN is essentially shackled by the original sin of its founding, which was to grant the permanent members of the Security Council the power of veto. An anachronism in 2021, it has nevertheless lasted from the birth of the UN itself and was in fact demanded by the permanent members themselves, lest the catastrophe of a weak League of Nations led to another world war, as it did in the 1930s with no US or Soviet Union within the organisation. The veto was the cost of American and Soviet participation in the newly-formed UN, which replaced the League. Systemic failures have led to a million people dying in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime. The former Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon admitted that the Security Council had failed Syria. The frustration and exasperation of senior figures in the organisation was indicative of the uselessness and failures of the UN.

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A presidential “election” is meant to be taking place in Syria this summer. This election will, of course, be a sham. The only uncertainly will be what the margin of victory will be for Bashar Al-Assad’s re-election. With the UN saying nothing about this yet, it has clearly abandoned the long agreed upon Geneva process which moves towards a transitional body. The agreement, it seems, is hardly worth the paper it is written on. The work on the Syria Constitutional Committee which seeks a political process will be obsolete if the UN does not block another “election” that Assad will surely “win”.

The UN is clearly responsible for a wide range of failures and owes an incalculable debt to the Syrian people. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been taken away. Life changing injuries and forced displacement have affected millions. All are a result of the Assad regime’s impunity over the past decade, while the UN sits on the sidelines. After the incomprehensible failures of Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 which left hundreds of thousands dead, it would be reasonable to expect the UN to have learnt a lesson. Syria proves otherwise. The Assad killing machine is still running, but the UN does nothing, and is complicit in the regime’s crimes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.