Is the United Nations about to fall prey to a nervous breakdown? On the surface, last week’s annual UN General Assembly circus on the East River went roughly as normal, with world leaders giving the usual sonorous speeches that have already been forgotten. But the collapse of the latest cessation of hostilities in Syria dominated the proceeding, and has set the scene for a rapid freeze in relations between Russia and the United States in the Security Council, potentially paralyzing UN diplomacy far more generally in the coming months.
The meltdown over Syria followed a predictable pattern. Russia has consistently manipulated UN diplomacy over Syria, getting U.S. diplomats and UN mediators bogged down in negotiations to distract from military developments on the ground. As I argued in The American Interest this past year,
a vicious cycle has emerged in diplomacy over Syria: Russia’s tactics have repeatedly caused the war to worsen; each time the situation deteriorates, Moscow steps up to suggest that it can ease matters through the UN….
Russia’s preferred tactics involve (i) entangling the West in fragile peace initiatives that have little genuine chance of success and rely on Moscow’s goodwill; (ii) dispensing more-or-less illusory concessions on minor issues to appear constructive; and (iii) sending dark signals that, unless it is listened to, it may go on a diplomatic rampage and start blocking Western proposals far more brutally.
Moscow used this playbook again in the run-up to and during the General Assembly, but even more egregiously than in the past. In the weeks before the UN jamboree, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hashed out a complex, confidential, and weak agreement on a cessation of hostilities. Russian diplomats indicated that they would like to sanctify this in a Security Council resolution in parallel with the General Assembly. But once the UN jamboree was under way, Russian and Syrian forces destroyed a UN aid convoy and then launched a new offensive against the rebel-held sections of Aleppo.
The move looked almost designed to humiliate Kerry, who launched an atypically fierce attack on the Russians in the Security Council last Wednesday. It seems that the United States and its Western allies—many of which thought that Kerry had given far too much away already—are finally sick of Russia’s gamesmanship. At a second, and extremely heated, Council meeting this weekend, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power accused Russia of “barbarism,” while her British counterpart claimed that Moscow might be guilty of war crimes.
This display of pent-up anger over Russia’s machinations regarding Syria could mark a sea change in UN diplomacy over the conflict. Rather than pretending to cooperate, Russia and the West could resort to confrontational public diplomacy—calling each other out for real and imagined atrocities on the ground, and vetoing one another’s condemnatory Security Council resolutions in tit-for-tat exchanges. France is already working on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Aleppo, mainly as a tactic to shame Russia. Moscow, the Europeans and the United States engaged in this sort of confrontation over Syria in late 2011 and 2012 before attempting to cooperate.
It is not clear that returning to these tactics now will save many lives in Syria, and other urgent UN business could become collateral damage. In the early years of the war, the Security Council managed to maintain a sort of diplomatic firewall between its disagreements over Damascus and topics such as the Iran deal and peacekeeping in Africa. Over the past year, however, the United States and its allies have butted heads with Russia and China at the United Nations over secondary crises such as the violence in Burundi and South Sudan, with the two non-Western veto powers arguing that the United Nations should limit its interference in sovereign states.
UN officials worry that Moscow and Beijing are aiming to limit the West’s influence in the Council in general, not only over Syria. There are rumors that they are also hoping to take over senior positions in the organization’s political and peacekeeping offices next year, when a new Secretary-General will replace the instinctively pro-American Ban Ki-moon. In the meantime, the United Nations faces new challenges to the organization’s overstretched humanitarian operations. As I argued this past year, one unintended consequence of the Obama Administration’s unsuccessful efforts to forge a Syria deal via the United Nations has been to place the organization’s aid agencies under intolerable political, financial, and operational pressure:
The UN now needs over $20 billion a year for its relief efforts (more than double the figure for 2009, President Obama’s first year in office) and the money is running out. The World Food Programme (WFP) has had to make repeated cuts to the rations it gives Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, fueling the rush of refugees into Europe. Senior UN officials privately worry that they are approaching “peak crisis”: a moment when they simply cannot run any additional large relief missions.
The destruction of a UN aid convoy near Aleppo on Monday of this past week—allegedly either a direct Russian strike or a Syrian strike abetted by Russian forces—brings this this prospect ever closer. Whoever actually launched the attack, the fact that a permanent member of the Security Council could be complicit in a cynical strike against aid workers raises questions about the essential credibility of international humanitarian norms. If Russia can purposefully blow up aid truck—or help its friends do so—with impunity, what moral or political obstacle is there to other authoritarian regimes in conflict zones doing likewise? More immediately, the renewed siege of Aleppo could result in a fresh surge of mass displacement in Syria and large-scale refugee flows into Turkey and eventually Western Europe, ratcheting up day-to-day pressures on UN agencies in the region even further.
The current spike of American ill temper in the Security Council is not guaranteed to last. It is possible that Russia will work its dark diplomatic magic again, and somehow persuade the United States to offer it new political concessions in return for a temporary reduction in fighting inside Syria. This would just renew the vicious cycle of bloodshed and false negotiations that have characterized the war to date. It is arguable that, however hopeless this cycle may be, winning short-term pauses in violence is still a better course of action than resorting to slanging matches in the Security Council. But at least this past week’s events have demonstrated once and for all the dangers of letting Moscow write the rules of peacemaking via the United Nations.