The Inconsistent Effectiveness of the UN Security Council

The Syrian political crisis has escalated rapidly in the last few years with Bashar al-Assad’s government employing chemical weapons against its own civilians. Even though Syria committed to destroying its chemical stockpile after intensified political pressure by the international community, the diplomatic process towards a solution appeared slow and extremely bureaucratic. Compare this approach with our direct and effective military response in 2011 to Muammar Gaddafi’s brutality against his people in Libya. Why have we not been able to effectively intervene in the case of Syria as we did with Libya through the UN Security Council?

It seems almost absurd that it is taking us so long to take political action in Syria despite our awareness of the fact that more than 100,000 people were killed by Assad’s repressive regime in the last two years or so: with thousands gassed to death.

Image courtesy of Julie, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Julie, © 2012, some rights reserved.

In the case of Libya, the Western powers managed to pass through a UN Security Council Resolution allowing the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya and support the insurgents in their fight against the government army. Explicit reference was given to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle to convince states that they had an obligation to step in and protect the Libyan people from their government. This principle dictates that military, economic, political, and diplomatic sanctions must have failed before the use of force is permissible. Despite comparable normative discourse surrounding the Syrian uprising, the international community has thus far failed to effectively intervene.

Why is it that despite the apparent similarities of systematic human rights violations, R2P was invoked in Libya but not in Syria? The difficulty with the R2P principle is that it only works smoothly if it does not conflict with the national interests of major powers. This can explain the discrepancy in political outcomes between the Libyan and Syrian political crises. In the case of Syria, national interests of major powers (especially Russia’s) would likely be compromised by the fall of the Assad regime. This division of interests in the UN Security Council lead to a political deadlock due to the repeating boycott of Russia and China who make frequent use of their veto power.

With Libya, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 empowered NATO ‘to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’. Just after the international community’s intervention in Libya, Russia and China began criticising the NATO members for overstepping the mandate and taking the mission further than was originally authorised by the UN. They claimed that the Western powers were actively contributing to the overthrow of Gaddafi, rather than just defending the Libyan people. Hereafter, this argument was employed by these opposing countries to justify their resistance against intervention in Syria.  However, even if NATO had not overstepped the mark, Russia and China would have nevertheless vetoed any intervention in Syria to protect vital interests at stake.

Most notably, Russia has a stake in upholding the Assad government, because of their economic and strategic ties. The political relationship between the two governments dates to the 1950s and culminated in the 1980s and 1990s, when Russia supplied Syria with military equipment worth $26 billion. Consequently, ninety per cent of Syrian military capabilities are due to Russian support.  About seven years ago, Russia agreed to cancel Syria’s debt of $9.8 billion from the Soviet era in exchange for a range of multi-million contracts, from trade and energy to arms and Russian investment in Syria now worth almost $19.4 billion.[1] In addition, Russia’s only extra-territorial naval base is in Syria and they would lose this if the Assad government were to fall, constituting a major blow to Russian plans to fortify its sea power in the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the insurgents’ disunity is a remaining cause of concern. Rebels in Libya had already taken hold of a major portion of territory when the Western powers decided to intervene. Though Gaddafi’s army was occupying the west of the country, the insurgents had liberated large parts of the east, with Benghazi as their self-declared capital. The opposition in Syria is much more heterogeneous as a result of the various different ethnic groups present in the country. The continuing struggle of the Syrian insurgents to form a united front is a cause of sincere concern to those who advocate R2P. Nonetheless, there appears to be some gradual improvement in the rebels’ situation – two of the leading opposition parties have decided to join forces.

All in all, we have seen that the United Nations Security Council was effective in the case of Libya because the costs to intervene in the country were quite small compared with the possible risk to take action. The vital interests of the intervening nations, supplemented with the ethical idea of Responsibility to Protect, eventually triumphed over the doctrine of sovereignty. However, in Syria human rights concerns have appeared to give way to realpolitik – Russia’s economic and geopolitical interests in the region. Hence, the effectiveness of the United Nations is ultimately determined by political will and national interests rather than the idea of Responsibility to Protect.

[1] ‘’RtoP – Why Intervention has taken place in Libya but not Syria’’, The Home of MsIntervention, To Be Accessed At <>.