The Syrian Crisis and Gridlock of Global Security Governance

By Tom Hale, David Held, Kyle McNally and Kevin Young - 08 July 2013

As the death toll in Syria reaches between 93,000 and 120,000, the refuge crisis involves more than 1 million people and the number of internally displaced escalates to over 4 million, there is no question that the world is currently witnessing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Yet, nothing but questions arise when considering the range of international responses so far, or lack thereof.

The international community has failed to address the calamity in a manner that would provide protection to civilians or bring the conflict to a close. Nowhere was this clearer than in the recent G8 conference at Lough Erne, Ireland. Russia blocked any mention of Assad in the official communiqué while all parties agreed on a banal reference to the desirability of a political solution (paragraph 7). The reductio ad absurdum came when the communiqué called for Syrian authorities ‘to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to Al Qaeda, and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism’ (paragraph 87). Surely Assad would be delighted to read this.

The geopolitics of the G8 meeting has long standing roots. The UN Security Council has deliberated and voted on three separate resolutions pertaining to the conflict. Each one has been vetoed in turn by Russia and China. Russia, in particular, has maintained its arms trade agreements with the Syrian regime. Numerous countries are supporting factions within the rebel forces, with the Gulf monarchies, the EU and the US supporting a motley, and often disparate, set of groups. The opposition is fragmented, increasingly radicalized and supported by a wide range of state and non-state actors.

Whilst the international community is unable to agree on a coherent position, individual states have resorted to unilateral action. With fears over the diffusion of chemical and other weapons, Israel has launched attacks on select Syrian targets and facilities. This naturally exacerbates the existing tensions between Israel and its neighbors – in particular, Iran, which has also been involved in the conflict to the degree to which it continues to support the Assad regime.

In the absence of a coherent approach from the international community, the conflict increasingly takes an unpredictable course. With US marines congregating in Jordan and Obama deciding to arm some of the rebels, it is hard to see any outcome other than escalation. The arrival of Hezbollah on the scene has galvanized Assad’s forces and has brought them renewed confidence. On the other hand, the boasting of Hezbollah to be liberating Qusair from Sunni fanatics has enflamed Sunni opposition further.

When it comes to Syria, the international community is, for all intents and purposes, gridlocked. The institution tasked with maintaining global peace and security – the United Nations – has failed in remarkable ways to respond to the Syrian crisis. The reasons for this are contested. This will remain the case if the crisis is simply seen as an isolated instance of multilateral failure. Yet, it is part of a much wider pattern of breakdown in global cooperation. In a recent publication, Hale, Held and Young set out to explain the current breakdown of global cooperation across many areas, from security to the global economy and the environment. They do this by identifying four pathways to ‘gridlock’: institutional inertia, emerging multipolarity (the shifting balance of power across the world), complex (harder) problems and institutional and organizational fragmentation.

Interestingly, these drivers of gridlock have their roots in the very successes of the postwar order – that is, the creation of international and transnational institutions which fostered the entrenchment of globalization and interdependence, and provided an impetus for decades of prosperity. However, what became a cycle of self-reinforcing interdependence has now produced unintended consequences which have, to a significant extent, undermined the success of the postwar era. Pathways to gridlock take different forms in different sectors; in the case of Syria, institutional inertia, complex (harder) problems and fragmentation all play a part.

Institutional inertia pervades the UN system. In order to foster participation in the UN, the founders embedded certain privileges for themselves in its institutional design. Almost 70 years later, the veto privilege enjoyed by the five permanent members (the ‘P-5’) appears increasingly anachronistic when set against the realities of global power today. Shifts in the balance of power have expanded both the reach and voice of emerging countries whilst the old P-5 continue to veto according to their interests alone. This has often led to gridlock in the Security Council and created incentives for countries to go it alone. The G8’s failure to develop a coherent approach to Syria inevitably reflects this context.

The nature of the Syrian civil war represents the complex character of contemporary conflicts well. The UN system was built in a time when the greatest concern was preventing great power war. The Syrian conflict does not fit this mold and the conventional military logic of inter-state war is insufficient for the current demand of security placed before the international community. It is, in every sense, a far more complex and “harder” problem than those accounted for by the UN architects.

Moreover, fragmentation can be observed in the competition of institutional mandates. This is revealed in the first instance in the clash between the principles of sovereignty and of non-intervention enshrined by the UN Charter (article II) and the humanitarian imperatives embedded in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine adopted, in principle, by UN member states. The international community’s position is hopelessly unresolved on this matter, oscillating from one position to the other in different conflicts. In the context of this uncertainty, leading states play out a diversity of positions, geared as much towards domestic politics as wider multilateral considerations. Furthermore, in the midst of this chaos, a proliferation of under-coordinated actors and civil society agents seek to pick up the pieces on the margins on a diversity of issues, ranging from delivery of humanitarian aid to the management of migration flows.

The Syrian crisis is a symptom of a deeper institutional malaise. This malaise is manifest in a general breakdown of international negotiations and coordination across many pressing transborder problems, from trade negotiations to how we regulate international financial markets and govern trade, to climate change and the environment. It is unlikely that an effective solution to any of these challenges can be found unless gridlock can be overcome. In the meantime, the situation in Syria is unlikely to improve, and the world continues to watch as Syria disintegrates.

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