What’s the use

The UN Security Council met today in special session today to discuss yesterday’s chemical weapons incident in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, the death toll from which is now up to at least 72. Nothing came of it, because the UN Security Council is set up, pretty much by design, to do nothing on any matter of controversy.

First of all, here’s what the media is reporting about what happened in Syria yesterday. I almost said “here’s what we know about what happened,” but then we don’t actually know what happened, we only really know what the press is reporting to us.

  • First of all, questions about cause aside, all the evidence collected from the scene that I’ve read about is consistent with the idea that the victims were exposed to a nerve agent. That includes the way the gas behaved (chlorine gas, for example, dissipates much more quickly than this stuff did) and the symptoms observed by medical personnel. Sarin seems to be the likeliest possibility, but it certainly could have been something else, or sarin in combination with something else.
  • Second, we know that somebody affiliated with the Syrian government and possessing an air force in Syria, either the government itself or Russia, bombed Khan Shaykhun yesterday. Nobody denies this. Hell, they reportedly did it again today.

That’s the stuff that seems fairly certain. Now we get into the question of causation, which is of course being disputed. 

  • The simplest answer remains that it was a Syrian government strike that released the gas. We know Assad had sarin before the civil war started. With all due respect to Seymour Hersh’s anonymous sources, his forces probably were behind the August 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta and may have been behind the March 2013 sarin attack in Khan al-Assal. Assad says he destroyed all his sarin after Ghouta, under the US-Russia deal that helped forestall an American intervention, but, well, I can’t think of any reason to believe Assad here any more than I could think of a reason to believe any other world leader under similar circumstances, which is to say that I can’t think of one at all. And what’s been reported about this incident so far, from people who claim to have been witnesses, seems to support the theory that the gas came from one of the bombs dropped during yesterday’s strikes.
  • Now, assuming this was the government’s doing, the question of intent comes into play. It is possible, after all, that somebody loaded the wrong bomb onto a plane, that some unaccounted-for sarin canister was used when heavy explosives were intended, or that some rogue whatever in the Syrian air force decided to use sarin absent orders from on high. I heard UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson on BBC radio this morning definitively assigning deliberate intent for the gassing to Assad, and I have to say it doesn’t help the “Assad Did It” folks to have this guy running around definitively stating things he couldn’t possibly know for sure.
  • Indeed, the question of motive is maybe the biggest one that proponents of the “Assad Did It” theory have to answer. Assuming he did it, and again I agree that’s the most likely scenario, why? In some senses the 2013 Ghouta attack, if you believe Assad was behind it, made sense. He was struggling at that point, the strong rebel presence in a suburb of Damascus was a clear threat to his continued survival both in power and on this planet, and no precedent had been set as to how the international community would react. None of that is true here. Assad is now clearly winning the war; this was an attack in Idlib province, in a place that Assad wants to retake but where the rebel presence isn’t an immediate threat to him; and Assad would have known that there would’ve been a serious international backlash. What could he possibly have imagined this would get him? Chemical weapons aren’t even tactically that useful except insofar as they terrify civilians, and I guess that could have been the point, but Assad has shown himself plenty capable of terrifying civilians, and much worse, with conventional weapons, and those don’t generate nearly the problems that he knows the use of CWs does. I’d be willing to entertain the notion that he did it to heighten the international contradictions, so to speak, to force Russia to come strongly to his defense because he’s worried that Moscow might be wavering on his future for some reason, but that’s really speculative. I’m struggling to figure out the answer to this question, though I’m not Bashar al-Assad and I don’t want to suggest that it’s somehow beyond him to have decided to do this despite the apparent lack of benefit.
  • The alternative is that this incident was caused by a conventional explosive striking a rebel arms depot that contained stockpiled sarin. That’s Russia’s story and they’re sticking to it. And it’s not out of the question. There have been reports of rebel forces capturing government chemical weapons stocks, possibly including sarin, and there have also been some more poorly sourced reports suggesting that the rebels have developed the ability to manufacture their own CWs (which, if we’re talking about chlorine or mustard gas I can see, but sarin is another level of sophistication). There’s also the Ghouta and Khan al-Assal chemical weapons incidents to consider–if you come down on the “Rebels Did It” side on either of those attacks, then that means we know they have sarin. But there are problems with Russia’s story. For one thing, they’re saying that the strike that hit this supposed weapons depot happened around noon yesterday, local time, but there were numerous reports of a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun that went online hours earlier, the timing of which is consistent with eyewitness reports. Some of the physical evidence also doesn’t align here–specifically, if heavy explosives had hit a warehouse containing sarin stockpiles, they would have incinerated most or all of the gas in the ensuing explosion. International agencies are trying to get samples from the area to see if this gas looks like what was used in Ghouta and Khan al-Assal, which would help determine whether it came from Syrian government stocks or was manufactured by somebody else. But assuming the signature matches, that doesn’t mean this sarin wasn’t part of a supply that had been captured by the rebels at some point.

Now we come to the UN, where, as I say, nothing happened today apart from a bunch of diplomats performatively being angry with each other. The US, UK, and France are circulating a resolution condemning the attack, and I don’t know whether or not it points the finger at Assad, but if it does you can be assured that Russia and probably China will veto it. Which means it may not even come up for a vote. This is the way the Security Council works, because it’s designed to break down over controversial issues.

The UN Security Council ostensibly exists to solve conflicts quickly–it has fewer members and a much tighter focus than the UN General Assembly, so it’s where the real UN action happens. In reality, it’s meant to ensure the diplomatic supremacy of the five permanent members–the US, UK, France, Russia, and China–over the rest of the world. Yes, there are ten other seats on the council that each rotate every two years (five seats change every year), but in practice those members are superfluous. On the rare occasions when all five permanent members agree on something, or at least are indifferent enough on it that they won’t exercise their veto, the other members will almost certainly be in alignment as well. On the much more frequent occasions when one or more of the permanent members disagrees with the others on something, they’ll likely exercise their veto and make the other members’ votes entirely irrelevant.

The selection of the permanent members and the enshrinement of their veto was meant to acknowledge the five victorious World War II powers. The seats have changed hands a bit since 1945 (from the French provisional government to Fourth Republic in 1946 to the current Fifth Republic in 1958, from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, and of course from the USSR to Russia in 1992), but the principle is still that these five countries are The Boss of Everybody, so they get to have the final say in any important world business. And since they rarely agree, and rarely have agreed since the council was established, the end result is that the council doesn’t do very much. There have been proposals to reform the Security Council by taking away the veto–good luck getting any of the veto holders to go along with that–or by adding more permanent members with vetoes–good luck getting any of the current veto holders to agree on which countries should be given those seats.

It could be worse–every member had a veto in the League of Nations, for example, and to be honest you could easily envision a scenario without the veto, wherein the Security Council is able to get a lot of shit done, and wherein it consistently does terrible things. So I’m not necessarily complaining here though admittedly the tone suggests I am–that’s just my general bad mood coming through, sorry. But if you’ve ever wondered why the UN doesn’t Do Something at times like this, well, this is largely why.

One major drawback of the Security Council’s frequent paralysis is that it encourages major powers to go it alone if they really want to Do Something about whatever they see as a serious problem (see Iraq, 2003 US Invasion of). Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, hinted today that the US could go that route in responding to Assad’s (alleged) action here, but I don’t expect that will happen (UPDATE: well, then again). I can’t envision a scenario where any US administration, least of all this one, would want to pick a fight with Russia over anything that happens in Syria (UPDATE: yeah, I realize they went with the old “one-off missile strike” standby, but I think the point about picking a fight with Russia stands–they didn’t do anything that really risked an escalation with Moscow). You might see some new US moves to aid the Syrian rebels, but Washington is also heavily constrained here because of the degree to which al-Qaeda has come to dominate so much of the active rebellion. I do think whatever chance still remained of a Trump-Putin Grand Reset, which had already mostly been blocked by the controversies surrounding Trump’s relationship with Russia, has now completely evaporated, at least for the foreseeable future.

You’ll notice that very little of what’s been reported or talked about since yesterday has focused on the victims of the incident, whatever its cause, except when they’ve been cited as witnesses or their symptoms cited as evidence of a nerve gas attack. I’ve just written about 1700 words on this attack while barely mentioning the scores of people who died in agony because of it. On the international level, Syrians have mostly been incidental to the Syrian civil war, their suffering used to bash one side or the other and their displacement used either to fear-monger about imagined terrorist infiltrators or as part of an elaborate diplomatic tug-of-war between Turkey and the EU. So it is here. We all “care” about their suffering, but only insofar as we can use it to advance some other agenda.

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