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Syria and Kosovo: The Fate of Old? (part 1)

Why does Syria not have Kosovo’s “luck”?

As the debate over intervention in Syria or the prevalence of diplomacy shakes and divides the international community, the question over whether Kosovo should serve as a precedent case for acting without a United Nations mandate has been raised by many analysts and scholars.

While watching the news and listening to debates on Syria, I cannot help but wonder: Why does Syria not have Kosovo’s “luck”?

The whole situation brings us back to the diplomatic negotiations of 1999, conducted while innocent people were being slaughtered on the ground. Paris, Geneva and other fancy venues for the “big powers” remind me of the time when I witnessed the Rambouillet negotiations, while not being sure whether there would be a roof over my head by the end of the day.

The Arab Uprisings took a different direction in Syria by escalating into bloody turmoil, considered to be a domestic war with international actors on the ground. The situation drew real attention from the international community quite late — or to be precise, after 2.1 million refugees fled the country and more than 100,000 people were killed as estimated by the UN.

The debate over Syria is shifting tectonic plaques in the international arena by involving big powers such as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, and Iran. Many regional states have entrenched interests in the struggle. Some countries are directly involved with support for fighters on the ground, while others stick to diplomatic efforts. However, Moscow and Washington are currently the most active international parties in leading the debate.

Lately, we have witnessed a true diplomatic battle between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, while the rest of the world decides which one of them is actually taking the lead by presenting more arguments against the other party.

Putin’s famous letter published in The New York Times, describing the power of the United Nations and also the respect that the five “peace loving countries” should show for the UN Charter that they created in 1945, was a key news story for international media.

On the other hand, Obama, using his well-known charismatic and emotional speeches, struggled to convince the American public of another air campaign in the Middle East — only to settle with Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament after an unexpected diplomatic opening with Syria and Russia.

The UN, State Sovereignty, and Humanitarian Interventions

Many are familiar with the first article of the UN Charter, which clearly states that the purpose of the United Nations is:

“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, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace” (UN Charter, Art 1/1).

Despite the strong presence of voices calling for the respect of nations’ sovereignty and the UN contract that each state agreed upon, history has witnessed many exceptions. Quite often, states’ sovereignty has been perceived through a “black and white” dichotomy and understood along the lines of “either all or nothing,” as stated in Article 2 of the UN Charter:

“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter” (UN Charter, Art 2/7).

Nevertheless, as world politics and circumstances have changed since 1945, and the international community has faced serious crises, the absolute principle of state sovereignty has been slightly softened. Consequently, the world has witnessed a few cases where breaches of sovereignty have been legally justified by the UN Security Council.

The UN charter, with amendments made to chapters VI, VII and VIII, incorporated human rights and clear wording as to what action a state might take in such a matter, as well as the responsibility of the international community in guaranteeing that these rights are respected.

A potential intervention by the international community would be justified in specific circumstances or if it constitutes a threat to international peace and security — these cases become an issue for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Yet a decision taken by the UNSC requires votes of the “big five,” the five permanent members of the council. Historically, in many cases, a veto by one of them has blocked potential interventions.

Using the Kosovo War as an example, the field presence of the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) peacekeeping forces in 1999 in order to continue with the Rambouillet negotiations before the NATO air campaign in former Yugoslavia, show evidence of a shift towards humanitarian interventions taken and authorized by the UNSC based on Article 39, which emphasizes:

“The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security” (UN Charter Art 39).

Previous resolutions — such as in the cases of Somalia (Resolution 814, 1993), Bosnia (Resolution 819, 1993), Haiti (Resolution 940, 1994) and Albania (Resolution 1101, 1997) — are prior examples of a trend towards humanitarian interventions authorized by the UNSC.

However, the cases of Rwanda (Resolution 929, 1994) and Kosovo (Resolution 1244, 1999) marked the ultimate turning points in the international arena.

The case of Kosovo in 1999 sparked heated discussions between the US government and Russia. Despite long debates about the UN charter and the legality of an intervention, the decision to intervene in Kosovo was taken by the US, supported by the UK, France and Germany, without UNSC authorization — leaving the “big five” still divided.

Almost 15 years later, the UN Security Council is similarly deadlocked when it comes to a potential intervention in Syria.

The reasoning behind many interventions – as in the case of Syria – is based on continuous human rights violations. A crucial concept in this is the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect,” established in 2005.

The “red line” that President Obama drew in the case of Syria in 2012, defined by the use of chemical weapons, has been crossed and the US administration spoke of the need to end human suffering; yet an intervention is not being seen on the horizon. Many are raising the question: Why was there a humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and not one in Syria?

Here are some key elements behind that answer.

Wrong Time, Wrong Place

The Obama administration is well aware of the Levant’s complexity, as well as the difficult domestic and international political circumstances at this period of time. Domestically, Obama is having to deal with public opinion being strongly opposed to another military campaign in the Middle East; whereas on the international stage, the US president has not obtained the much-needed support from key Western allies, while being faced with Russian antagonism.

When dealing with Middle Eastern countries, no war can be ended with a short air campaign as the one in the Balkan countries. History has shown that the US’ multiple interventions in the Middle East have known zero or very contested successes; Iraq can serve as a prime example here. The situation relates to Sisyphus, according to the Greek myth of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back down.

*Cover image ‘KFOR Einsatz’ by Bundeswehr Fotos


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