To Retain Credibility, U.N. Must Insist Syria Behave
The U.N.’s oil-for-food scandal was placed center stage last year, but with Iraqi elections fast-approaching, there is another scandalous development at the U.N. that is beginning to receive national attention: How Syria, which served as a member of the U.N. Security Council from early 2002 through the end of 2003, has been continuing to back international terrorism and even turning itself into the main line of supply for the current insurgency in western Iraq.
Ongoing developments in the oil-for-food scandal plus new revelations into Syria continuing to act as a staging ground for the Iraqi insurgency will no doubt raise serious questions about what kind of a role the U.N. can possibly play in sensitive areas of international security.
Historically, the U.N. had a special role for the Syrians. After the 1991 Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker visited Damascus to speak with Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Baker was trying to organize what would become the Madrid Peace Conference, but kept hearing from the Syrians that U.N. auspices for proposed Arab-Israeli summit was absolutely vital. “The U.N.,” it was repeatedly explained, was “the source of international legitimacy.”
This was known at U.N. headquarters in New York 10 years later. For that reason, high-level U.N. officials were hopeful that Syria would change its behavior on terrorism, when it was elected for a two-year term to the U.N. Security Council in October 2001 (a month after 9/11), by more than a two-thirds majority by the General Assembly. Since council members were entrusted to safeguard international peace and security, it was then argued, Syria would have to curtail its support for Hezbollah and a dozen other terrorist groups to which it had given sanctuary for nearly two decades.
This U.N. scenario for Syria didn’t pan out. The regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to defy U.N. resolutions and harbor terrorist groups. Despite explicit warnings from the Bush administration, throughout 2002 Syria helped the regime of Saddam Hussein circumvent U.N. sanctions and allowed illegal Iraqi oil to be pumped through the Syrian oil pipeline to the Mediterranean.
It no longer held Hezbollah on a tight leash but permitted its Iranian backers to reinforce the organization’s military infrastructure in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, with thousands of rockets aimed at central Israel, creating a new Middle Eastern powder keg. At the same time, Syria hosted terrorist operatives belonging to the al-Qaida affiliate network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who plotted against Jordan.
In short, Syria was increasingly playing with fire precisely during the very same years it sat on the council. From its backing of Saddam’s Iraq to its ongoing occupation of Lebanon and finally to its continued support for international terrorist organizations, Syria hardly safeguarded international peace and security but rather systematically undermined it.
This is not just a story about Syria behaving as a rogue state; it is also a glaring example of the U.N. system failing. For security council membership did not lead to more moderate Syrian behavior but rather to the opposite: a more defiant posture than was even witnessed during the years in which Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria. Last month, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, disclosed that the Iraqi insurgency was being run by former Iraqi Baath Party officials from Syria. The current Iraqi leadership in Baghdad has suggested the involvement of the Syrian security services in the insurgency, as well.
This latest deterioration in Syrian international behavior should not come as a complete surprise. Syria had been on the U.S. Department of State’s terrorism list since its inception in the late 1970s. But from the standpoint of the U.N., Syria could sit on its most august body without having to modify its behavior in the least. What message did the Syrians internalize from this promotion in their international status? If the U.N., from the Syrian standpoint, was the “source of international legitimacy,” then Syrian behavior was viewed in the morally skewed universe of the U.N. as legitimate.
Amid all the talk about U.N. reform, including the expansion of the security council from 15 to 24 members, the story of Syria and terrorism is a sharp reminder that for the U.N. to have any positive influence in the future, its changes cannot be structural alone.
The U.N. must demand minimal standards of behavior of member states; if not, it risks becoming a bankrupt idea. The original U.N. of President Roosevelt was born in 1945 in a moment of moral clarity, at which time new members had to declare war on one of the Axis powers. Unless that clarity is restored, the U.N. will not promote world order, but will inevitably turn into an instrument for global chaos instead.
Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., is the author of Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos.