November 3, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Spotlight on Syria

A broken clock is right twice a day. Somewhat of the same could be said for the U.N. Security Council. Not that the Security Council necessarily right twice a day - would that it were, but sometimes it does reach the correct conclusion, if the correct conclusion is blindingly obvious. And such moments should be acknowledged.

On Monday, the Security Council in a rare moment of clarity voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for the Syrian leadership to cooperate fully with the inquiry into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

This unequivocal international demand, which resulted from a rareinstanceof France and the United States working together, is movement in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. When it comes to actually taking action in regards to Syria, for instance, or in regards to Iran, the Security Council is a deplorably flawed tool. Going to the Security Council can be part of a strategy, but it can never be a strategy in itself.

A U.N. investigative report produced by Commissioner Detlev Mehlis and published on Oct. 19 clearly states that all the facts of the Hariri case point in the direction of Syrian involvement in the car bombing that killed the popular Lebanese politician and 22 others in February. What did Mr. Hariri do to deserve blown to pieces? He had refused obey a command from Syrian President Bashar Assad to back Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, resigned in protest and joined the growing number of Lebanese who were calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Mr. Mehlis, who is evidently a dogged and determined investigator, established in his report that operatives close to Mr. Assad not only had the motive to eliminate Mr. Hariri, but had also left a long trail of cell-phone records as they plotted. Two Syrian witnesses even told Mr. Mehlis that they saw the bomb being built in a Syrian camp. After Monday's vote Mr. Mehlis has the authority to pursue his investigation in Syria and the power to identify individuals who should be subject to travels bans and the freezing of assets, though he still needs council approval for the latter.

In Damascus the Syrian leadership is smarting, and speculation has started that this might be the beginning of the end for Mr. Assad, whose position already was weakened when Syria was forced in April to start withdrawing its troops from Lebanon under international pressure. The trail of the assassination plot leads to members of the president's family as close as Mr. Assad's brother and brother-in-law.

Thus the noose tightens around one of the Middle East's most repressive regimes and most unscrupulous sponsors of international terrorism. As for Lebanon, democratic elections held in May gave its long-oppressed people the chance for self-determination and freedom for the first time in decades.
Unfortunately, though, the U.N. Security Council is a poor enforcer of its own resolutions. Even when on rare occasions when the Security Council gets it right, enforcement is absent, a problem the U.S. government continuously encountered regarding the Iraq resolutions before the Iraq war.

Thus in order to get Monday's resolution passed, its sponsors, the United States, Britain and France, had to drop the important specific threat of international sanctions if Syria refuses to cooperate with the investigation. As always, Russia and China took a stand against sanctions, claiming they were "too harsh," their real purpose of course being to constrain action by the United States and its allies. As usual, the dynamic of power politics among the veto powers on the Security Council has pre-empted action. In other words, we can get a unanimous U.N. resolution if it doesn't mean anything. We can't if it does.

What does this mean for dealing with the problems before us, such as countries like Syria and Iran - or Iraq for that matter? It means a realistic approach to what we can achieve through the United Nations. Sometimes, there are important successes, such as the investigative report on Syria or condemnation of Iran's nuclear program.

But more often than not the U.N. Security Council may not be sufficient for dealing with the problem at hand, i.e. Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, or Iran's quest for the bomb. For the moment, let us be pleased that Syria is getting nailed, while recognizing that we cannot let up on the pressure if regimes of this ilk are eventually to be a thing of the past in the Middle East.

Helle Dale
is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times