by James Spencer
“Removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the only way to defeat Islamic State, and it remains the goal of Saudi policy,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on February 12, 2016. A few days later, the foreign minister reiterated Saudi Arabia’s commitment to removing Assad from power, either through a political process or a military operation, according to The Wall Street Journal. “It is certain”, the paper quoted al-Jubeir as saying. “Not likely. Not questionably. Not possibly. It is certain that he would be removed. There is no doubt about it. It can happen quickly and more smoothly through a political process, or it could happen by force,” he reportedly added.
This is a bold statement of a simple policy. The problem is that such an intent goes against the entire raison d’etre of the United Nations, which is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” (Preamble to the UN Charter). The generic principals are laid out clearly and succinctly in the UN Charter, Chapter 1, Article 1:
The Purposes of the United Nations are:
To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, […][eq]
and Article 2:
‘The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.
- ‘The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.
‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’[eq]
In regard to military action in Syria, the UN Security Council has been highly specific, probably due to the influence of Russia, and doubtless in consideration of how a previous “loosely worded” UNSCR was exploited to invade Iraq. UNSCR 2249 of November 20, 2015 reaffirmed the UNSC’s “respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and unity of all States in accordance with purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter” and:
5. Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the Statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;
The lack of authorisation for the use of force under Chapter VII is glaring by its absence, while the presence of so many caveats on action in Syria is highly noteworthy: the very clear target set (“as designated by the United Nations Security Council”), and the geographical constraint “on the territory under the control of ISIL.” That very clearly does not allow “mistaken” precision-guided missiles anywhere near Damascus.
If there were any doubt as to any UN conniving over Saudi intentions towards the Bashar al-Assad regime, UNSCR 2258 of December 22, 2015 began by “[r]eaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.
Aside from these legal considerations, Saudi action ultra vires would also strike a sour note in its ongoing public relations campaign. Indeed, KSA attempts to bring down the Assad regime would look like rank hypocrisy, given its own appropriate complaints about external interference; e.g., “Saudi rejects foreign interference in Iraq, blames ‘sectarian’ Maliki,” and indeed the recent “Saudi King Salman calls for others not to interfere in kingdom.” Such hypocrisy would be grist for the Iranian rumour mill: Saudi Arabia discussing intervention in Syria in support of rebels against the “legitimate” (certainly the legal) government of Syria, while KSA et al have spent billions of dollars propping up the “legitimate” (but probably no longer legal) government in Yemen.
By contrast, the Russians and the Iranians are both acting in their own strategic interests but are doing so nominally at the request of the Syrian government, which thus does not require UNSCR authorisation. Nor are their deployments constrained by the UNSCR. This is similar to the situation in Iraq, where the US, UK, and Iran(!) are operating at the request of the Iraqi government, without the need for—or constraint of—a UNSCR. (The lack of a UNSCR at the time is one of the reasons why the British parliament voted against unilateral airstrikes in Syria, since the government was not prepared to ask for Syrian permission.)
International law has been built up over centuries, in great part to curtail excess violence, reduce retribution, and protect the weak, be they people or states. Yet increasingly, various powers have played fast and loose with the law for short-term political gains. The most notorious and egregious example was the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 on spurious grounds, and under the gossamer-thin excuse of a UNSCR that was “found” ex post facto (but known ante bellum) to have been false. Elsewhere, torture was used in the hope of extracting information, and numerous hospitals have been recently bombed. None of these offences has met with the proper punishment, with the result that international law is progressively weakened. A major contributory factor is the US claim to “exceptionalism,” a right that countries such as Russia, China, Iran—and now Saudi Arabia–claim, too. Exceptionalism is thus fast becoming the rule, and international law and order risk becoming a farce.
To prevent a return to pre-Westphalian anarchy, the P5 members must shoulder—not shirk—their responsibility, investigate and punish past breaches, and “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.” That will be painful, for it will involve taking the beam from their own eyes as much as the motes from others. But only then will the international order be restored. Holding the line on Syria is a good place to start.
Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.