John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands after conducting a bilateral meeting during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
In his classic history of the birth of the United Nations, Act of Creation, Stephen Schlesinger recalls President Dwight D. Eisenhower saying in a speech that “the UN still represents man’s best-organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.” In reaching unanimous agreement on a resolution to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, the Security Council has proved that this can still be true—if and when governments allow statesmanship to prevail.
The success that John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov achieved in tuning out the shrill politics in the United States and Russia as they put long hours into writing a broadly acceptable resolution is profoundly important to the UN as a demonstration of how the Council was designed to work. The UN Charter, promulgated in 1945, says that the Council is tasked not only to seek solutions to crises “by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation…or other peaceful means” but should also be responsible for the “regulation of armaments.” The Council has done both in this case.
There are skeptics and cynics galore who question the ultimate impact the resolution adopted at the end of last week will have in the short term on the Syria crisis. Other enormous issues are still out there, not the least of which is getting effective help to the millions of Syrian civilians displaced by a particularly nasty civil war. And yes, Bashar al-Assad may without doubt, try to game the UN expert disarmament system, as Saddam Hussein did over and over through the 1990s. Furthermore, there is no certainty that in the end the US and perhaps others would not resort to military action.
But hidden by all the prophecies of doom and focus on the pointless “who won, who lost” debate over Russian and American approaches to Syria, are significant gains for diplomacy and for the UN. First, the job got done not by summiteering or name-calling between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Both entrusted their top foreign policy experts at ministerial level to find a way out of a potentially dangerous situation, which is their rightful role.
On the Russian side, Foreign Minister Lavrov, a well known and much respected figure around the UN after his five years as Moscow’s envoy there during the vexed disarming of Iraq, was perhaps the only person anywhere who could go to Damascus and deliver to Assad the news that he could no longer pretend that he did not have the kind of weapons raining sarin gas on helpless people in civilian neighborhoods – and was prepared to use them. Meanwhile the question of whether or not any of the disparate rebel factions also had found and used poison gas was left open for UN inspectors to determine.
On the American side, Secretary of State Kerry, with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and service as an occasional administration troubleshooter, seems not to seek celebrity treatment by the media, as Hillary Clinton often did, however well she served to smooth over much of the bad feeling toward the US engendered by the Bush administration. Kerry is, moreover, a cosmopolitan figure representing a country always teetering on provincialism and isolationism, where no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has really been at home in the world.
Both Kerry and Lavrov had to work in the face of flip-flops and Congressional squawking in the US over how to proceed, and repeated accusations in Moscow that the Syrian rebels, not the government, were responsible for the deaths in the Damascus suburb where more than 1,4000 people, at least a third of them children, were reported to have died. All of that noise seems to have been turned off.
Within the UN, there was some surprise and much relief that the process of writing the new resolution on Syria was accomplished so quickly and easily after the Kerry-Lavrov team had laid the groundwork. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, often a reticent official, was pleased, but warned that it should not be interpreted as “a license to kill with conventional weapons.” Arms experts echoed the opinion of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, that finally under President Obama the US was proving not to be “trigger happy.”
The UN document – Security Council Resolution 2118 – was not written under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which specifically permits the punitive use of force. But in the end that issue was finessed and was not the stumbling block that many predicted it would be. The Council, saying it was “deeply outraged” by the use of poison gas (without blaming either party in the civil war) established, in cooperation with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a timetable for finding and destroying or disarming such weapons stores. Who had them would be clearer later.
Russia and like-minded Council members could be satisfied that the Assad government was not named or directly accused; the US and its allies were able to insure that military action was not explicitly ruled out over the long term. In its resolution, the Council warned unambiguously that the door to punitive military force remained open. In the words of the resolution, the Council: “Decides, in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”