Syria will be the first task for Antonio Guterres
Antonio Guterres served in one post after another with a lot of acumen, determination, and flexibility
The consensus of the UN Security Council members to nominate the veteran Portuguese diplomat Antonio Guterres to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as UN secretary general comes amid sharp tensions between the US, Europe and Russia over the Syrian issue, and amid dented confidence in the credibility of the UN because of its failure to put an end to the ongoing massacre in Syria and failure to uphold the principle of accountability for war crimes.
His expected confirmation in that post would put in the post a man well versed with the issue of refugees, having served in related functions over the past decade as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015). But this time he will have different tools and powers at his disposal. Guterres is no ordinary bureaucrat and he is the first secretary general who would have previously served as prime minister.
Guterres began his career at 25 in 1974, when he joined the Portuguese Socialist Party, rising up the ranks shortly after the end of Salazar’s dictatorship. He was elected MP for Lisbon in 1976. In 1988, he became leader of the Socialist Bloc in parliament, and in 1992, he became leader of his party, paving the way for the post of prime minister he assumed in 1995. In 2000, he was appointed as president of the European Council, highlighting his international ambitions leading up to the top job at the UN today.
His experience, his skillful campaign, and his daring scramble for a post that was supposed to have been earmarked for a woman or an Eastern European candidate put him ahead, helping him dodge criticism that he had “hijacked” the post. The man who will now lead the UN is thus not an unknown entity, but may well be viewed as the necessary choice at this juncture. So how might Guterres act amid the Western-Russian duel, the collapse of US-Russian partnership, and the increasing international anger over the deafening silence vis-à-vis the war crimes and child killing in Aleppo and other Syrian cities?
Nothing today indicates Western-Russian relations will soon be mended with regard to Syria, especially as the Russian government appears intent on pressing the battle of Aleppo to its conclusion, no matter how much time it takes and no matter the cost. The Russian envoy to the UN Vitaly Churkin was clear. Russia will not apologize for the bombardment and the human tragedy it is causing, as it restricts the issue to fighting the al-Nusra Front even if that means leveling Aleppo.
Since Russia has inserted itself into a battle that will be fateful for it and not just Syria, and in light of preparations for a Turkish-Gulf Plan B with a European umbrella and US blessing, the coming phase in international relations will be very complicated and full of flagrant brutality on the part of Russia and its allies in Syria, all at a prohibitive human cost.
Not an easy task
It will not be easy for Antonio Guterres to face the media, public opinion, and member states with a weak policy or by evading the challenges coming from Syria. He will have to formulate strong stances to navigate the turbulent seas of current international policies. Neither will he be able to attack Russia for its violations in Syria early in his tenure, nor is he ready to pretend as if nothing is happening there.
Guterres is likely to focus on the refugee angle of the Syrian crisis, rather than the war crimes perpetrated by the regime, Russia, Iran, allied militias and terrorist groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra FrontRaghida Dergham
Therefore, Guterres is likely to focus on the refugee angle of the Syrian crisis, rather than the war crimes perpetrated by the regime, Russia, Iran, allied militias, and terrorist groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Guterres will focus on the delivery of humanitarian aid, which will require a cessation of hostilities. He will seek a new start that could take the form of appointing a replacement of current UN envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura, or keep him on condition of changing his current approach based on reforming US-Russian relations.
Something that could help Guterres as he prepares to assume his duties in January is that he is coming in at a time dominated by multilateral, multidirectional efforts rather than the kind of skirting the issues that prevailed in the UN corridors pending a US-Russian deal. Indeed, the UN Security Council had shamefully abandoned its duties in Syria under the pretext of the looming Russian veto, choosing not to act as Syria descended further into the abyss. In reality, the UN Security Council member states had mandated the US and Russia to act on their behalf, abandoning their moral and legal duties.
Now, after Kerry lost his patience and the US military establishment decided it has had enough, the UN General Secretariat is showing more boldness, as Britain and France began to propose draft resolutions and put forward new ideas on Syria. Ban Ki-moon recently announced that he will appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate the bombing of the humanitarian convoy in the countryside of Aleppo.
The joint investigation between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will present its fourth and final report and it is thought the US is preparing a draft resolution regarding the next step in light of the findings. France has prepared a move at the Security Council on the issue of chemical weapons, focusing not on the contentious Syrian angle but on the basis of non-proliferation of WMDs. France has also prepared a UN Security Council resolution addressing a truce in Aleppo, and a mechanism for monitoring and aid delivery. All these moves are opposed by Russia.
The ‘Plan B’
Britain is talking of a new phase of diplomacy with Russia following the failure of the old policy, which for years tasked Russia to pressure the regime in Damascus and sought to change how Russia behaved. London is not talking about military confrontation with Russia in Syria, however, rather about a margin existing between full military intervention and non-intervention. In other words, Britain is talking about securing a European umbrella for Turkish-Gulf measures to establish a no-fly and safe zone. This is the plan B a Gulf minister detailed to Al-Hayat published in this column last week.
Why all this sudden flurry of activity? The answer of course lies with the failed US-Russian partnership in Syria, but also with the growing magnitude of the carnage in Syria. However, there are other dynamics such as the desire to spur the Obama administration before it departs, to avoid turning the transition in the US post-elections into an opportunity for Russia to act as it pleases with impunity over the next six months.
Russia is betting on the time factor. Vladimir Putin may be even betting on a Trump victory in the US, as the Republican candidate is likely to accommodate him in Syria and elsewhere. Syria would otherwise pay a high price in the dead time in the US, requiring the UN to push for necessary actions. This is perhaps why Britain is seeking to preempt demands to do more as a permanent member of the Security Council, instead of hiding behind the collapse of US-Russian partnership on Syria.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Raad warned Russia this week of the consequences of its excesses in Syria. He said the situation in Aleppo requires new and bold initiatives, "including proposals to put an end to the use of the veto by a permanent member in the Security Council.” This, in his opinion, will enable United Nations to refer the situation in Syria to the international Criminal Court.
Such a referral would be more than justified given the rampant and deeply shocking impunity that has characterized the conflict and the magnitude of the crimes that have been committed, some of which may indeed amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to Prince Zeid bin Raad.
Ban Ki-moon’s legacy
Ban Ki-moon had hoped for his legacy to be an end to impunity, but he failed. He had said once that ultimately, there was no escape from trying Bashar al-Assad and punishing him for his actions in Syria. Perhaps he is right. But today, Ban Ki-moon leaves his post without any punishment on the horizon, rather the contrary: impunity.
This legacy that wasn’t lies in wait for the new UN Chief Antonio Guterres. Initially, Guterres will have to implement what was negotiated with Russia, China, the US, Britain, and France before he was nominated, in terms of top appointments such as UN undersecretary general for political affairs currently held by Jeffery Feltman. Russia has asked for the post to be taken away from the US and return it to Britain, as was once the norm. Very soon, Syria will chase up the new secretary general, who will have to start working on his legacy for when he leaves his post.
Kofi Annan was once said to be adept at navigating obstacles because he was a technocrat. Ban Ki-moon was said to be a bureaucrat par excellence. Antonio Guterres served in one post after another with a lot of acumen, determination, and flexibility. For this reason, the socialist former prime minister was suddenly the preferred nominee, leaving behind women candidates and others.
Perhaps the US-Russian accord over the man was compensation for the ongoing confrontations between them. Perhaps it is a sign of accord to avoid further confrontation and walk towards repairing ties, so long as a radical reformation of policies on Syria remains impossible.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 07, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham
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