Turtle Bay

U.N. diplomacy in Syria is not dead; it’s just taking a nap

U.N. diplomacy in Syria is not dead; it’s just taking a nap

Last week, the foreign policy punditry, myself included, had declared the U.N. role in Syria all but dead.

But of course no U.N. diplomatic initiative ever truly dies.

Ban Ki-moon has vowed to conduct a global search for a new envoy to replace the joint U.N.- Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who announced he would step down later this month, saying it was impossible to compel the combatants in Syria to put down their guns while the Security Council’s big powers squabbled over competing strategies.

France’s top diplomat Laurent Fabius today announced he is organizing a Security Council meeting for foreign ministers on August 30 on the grounds that the 15-nation body "cannot remain silent in the face of the tragedy playing out in Syria," according to a statement released today by the French Foreign Ministry.

So, it should come as no shock to learn that the United Nations leadership is scrambling to convince the United States, Britain, and France, to allow the U.N. to maintain a presence in Syria after the mandate for the monitoring mission expires on August 19. The United States has argued that it’s unconscionable for the U.N. monitors to remain in Syria to enforce a non-existent cease-fire agreement. They are like "sitting ducks," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told the council.

But the United Nations is reluctant to be seen abandoning the Syrians in their hour of need. The U.N. chief is expected to present the Security Council on August 16 with a plan to maintain a presence in Damascus beyond the end of the month.

Russia and China have called for keeping the U.N. mission in Syria as it is, saying it has kept the council informed about events on the ground and maintained an open line of communications with the warring factions. "Some useful work is being done by this mission," Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador told reporters last week. "It’s is not obvious at all what the strategy might be behind the call to terminate the mission.

Iran, meanwhile, appeared to be looking to the U.N. mission for help in securing the release of more than 40 Iranian hostages, though U.N. officials said the monitors were playing no such role.

Any new U.N. mission, which may or may not require a new Security Council mandate, would help coordinate the U.N.’s ongoing humanitarian activities in Syria, but more importantly, it would devote its attention to maintaining contact with combatants on both sides.

Responsibility for managing the mission may be transferred from the U.N. peacekeeping to the department of political affairs, which is headed by a former U.S. State Department official, Jeffrey Feltman.

The current chief of peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, signaled the U.N.’s intention to remain in Syria in a closed-door briefing to the Security Council last week. He said that the U.N. was still playing a role in aiding the efforts of U.N. relief organizations and that it was maintaining contacts with the key warring factions.

For the moment, the discussions about the fate of the mission have naturally been overtaken by events on the ground in Aleppo, where the Syrian government has launched a ground offensive aimed at rooting out rebel forces.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post today that the U.N. would be needed in Syria once the fighting ends.

"Washington should remain open to an active U.N. role in finalizing a transitional road map once the conditions for a new order are in place," Khalilzad wrote in a piece that urged the United States to arm the rebels while encouraging a military coup. "The United Nations has played such a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan, among other places, where U.N. special representatives catalyzed a process to establish an interim regime, draft a constitution and hold elections."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch