Tag Archives: UN Security Council

The Media, Tipping Points, and a Massacre in Syria

Images of rows of bodies in Houla, Syria–many of them women and children–were publicized by many media outlets on Saturday.

It is difficult to predict when policymakers will decide that “enough is enough” and it is time to intervene to stop genocide, mass starvation, and other humanitarian crises. Some crises, such as the Rwandan genocide, never produce that level of commitment, or “political will,” from the international community (or at least from one powerful actor with the means to stop the carnage).  But widespread media coverage of particularly galling atrocities appears to be one catalyst for intervention.  For example, in 1995 the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica, along with the subsequent shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace, galvanized NATO countries to take military action against Bosnian Serbs.

So there is some reason to believe that the news today that Syrian government forces have massacred approximately 100 civilians (perhaps as many as 50 of them children) in the town of Houla, together with the presence of graphic video and pictures to tell the story, could have the ability to shock world leaders into finally taking serious action on Syria.  So far, the UN has taken the largely ineffective steps of sponsoring an oft-violated ceasefire and sending unarmed monitors to watch the events unfold.  As discussed previously in this blog, the UN Security Council has failed to take stronger action at least in part because Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, has veto power over any Security Council resolution that might authorize force or harsh sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Political scientists have noted both the agenda-setting and framing power of the media.  Agenda-setting refers to what the media chooses to cover (which can dictate what issues are on citizens’ and policymakers’ minds), while framing involves how the media chooses to cover an event (the “spin” that is given to the facts).  Grotesque images paired with a clear identification of the guilty party–whether the full story is given or not–can be a powerful incentive for policymakers to take notice, particularly in democracies where they are accountable to the public.  The rise of blogs, Twitter, cable news, and other outlets beyond traditional print or TV news outlets has made it more difficult for the media to act in conscious unison to promote an agenda, but has also made it possible for events and interpretations to travel farther and faster than ever before.  (The unprecedented Kony 2012 campaign is but one example of the potential such media hold).

Whether today’s events in Syria will set off the kind of media firestorm that might force world leaders’ hands remains to be seen, but some leaders are already calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, so it appears possible that we are approaching some sort of “tipping point” when it comes to Syria.

Can a UN Monitoring Mission Stop the Bloodshed in Syria?

Is a UN peacekeeping mission the answer to Syria's ongoing violence? Or are lightly-armed "blue helmets" the wrong tool to get the job done?

The news from Syria remained grim this week as President Bashar-al Assad agreed in principle to accept UN envoy Kofi Annan’s 6-point peace plan, but showed no signs of implementing the plan.  Violence between Syria’s security forces and rebels, which has claimed over 9,000 lives, continued unabated and was punctuated by gruesome video images of the crackdown.  Today’s “Friends of Syria” meetingin Istanbul, attended by leaders from 83 countries, produced a communique that urged Assad to implement the Annan plan but did not officially recognize the opposition Syrian National Council or provide aid to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The UN Security Council is unlikely to support military action to aid the rebels or overthrow the Assad regime since Russia and China strongly oppose such actions and enjoy veto power on the Security Council.  (This entitles them to kill any proposed Security Council resolution simply by voting no).  In the absence of stronger measures, some leaders are calling for a UN monitoring mission that can observe the implementation of a ceasefire and report violations in an objective way.  Such a mission would fall within the category of UN peacekeeping, and in fact the UN’s peacekeeping department is currently “developing plans for a mission of about 250 unarmed, international observers to monitor the peace and hopefully to buy some time for political talks to forge a lasting settlement.”

An interesting post on Foreign Policy‘s Turtle Bay blog (which provides reporting from inside the UN by Colum Lynch) describes the planning for such a mission and assesses the likelihood that it will succeed.  Lynch notes that we must learn lessons from the failed Arab League monitoring mission that saw 150 “poorly equipped, ill-trained” monitors withdraw from Syria in January.  He cites Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, who provides six operational criteria that must be met for a new UN monitoring mission to succeed.  These criteria are: 1) freedom of movement, 2) a secure HQ and communications, 3) access to Syrian artillery and armor, 4) satellites and drones, 5) special investigators, and 6) an emergency exit strategy.  Freedom of movement may be the most important criterion, and one that the Arab League mission sorely lacked:

“The Arab League observer mission was under constant supervision by Syrian security personnel, and could not travel to trouble-spots without their minders. To have even minimal credibility, the U.N. mission would need to be able to make monitoring visits on their own initiative. The team would need their own vehicles (probably armored 4x4s) and independent close-protection officers. The Syrian authorities will argue that the observers should notify them in advance of trips for safety’s sake. Nonetheless, the U.N, should insist on the right on to make spot-checks with 2-3 hours notice at most.”

Another crucial requirement that the Arab League mission lacked is a secure headquarters and communications:

“The Arab observers were headquartered in a hotel, and had [to] use Syrian communications systems to contact the Arab League in Cairo, inevitably compromising their reporting. A credible U.N. mission would need an independent base — off-limits to Syrian authorities — and the ability to send encrypted communications to New York. A neutral government such as Switzerland could provide military communications experts to support the mission. It might not take long for the Syrians (with Russian and Iranian help) to crack the codes, but this would at least signal the observers’ autonomy.”

What do you think?  Is there any chance that these six requirements will be met, given that they require the acquiescence of the Syrian government?  Is peacekeeping simply an inappropriate tool to consider in Syria today given the lack of a ceasefire and the inherent weakness of unarmed observers?  Or is a UN observer mission the best hope we have for achieving peace in Syria?