With all the focus on corruption in the UN’s Oil for Food program, there is yet another scandalous development at the UN, that has been barely noticed: how Syria, which served as a member of the UN Security Council from early 2002 through the end of 2003 decided that it could continue to back international terrorism and even turn itself into the main line of supply for the current insurgency in Western Iraq. How a Security Council member decided that such a dangerous line of policy would not compromise its special UN status raises serious questions about what kind of a role the organization can possibly play in sensitive areas of international security in the future.
Historically the UN had a special role for the Syrians. Just after the 1991 Gulf War, then Secretary of State James Baker visited Damascus to speak with Hafiz 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 UN auspices for proposed Arab-Israeli peace summit was absolutely vital. “The UN” it was repeatedly explained was “the source of international legitimacy.”
This was known at UN headquarters in New York ten years later. For that reason, high-level UN officials were hopeful that Syria would change its behavior on terrorism, when it was elected for a two year term to the UN Security Council in October 2001 (a month after 9/11), by more than a two-thirds majority by the UN General Assembly. Since UN Security Council members were entrusted to safeguard international peace and security, it was then argued, Syria would have no choice but to curtail its support for Hezbullah and a dozen other terrorist groups to which it had given sanctuary for nearly two decades.
This UN scenario for Syria, however didn’t pan out. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continued to defy UN resolutions and harbor terrorist groups. Despite explicit warnings from the Bush administration in early 2001, throughout 2002 it helped the regime of Saddam Hussein circumvent UN sanctions and allowed illegal Iraqi oil to be pumped through the Syrian oil pipeline to the Mediterranean. It no longer held Hezbullah on a tight leash but permitted its Iranian backers to reinforce the organization’s military infrastructure, in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, with thousands of Fajr artillery rockets aimed at central Israel, thereby creating a new Middle Eastern powder-keg. At the same time in 2002, Syria hosted terrorist operatives belonging to the al-Qaeda affiliate network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who plotted against the Kingdom of Jordan.
In short, as far as Syria goes, things went from bad to worse precisely during the very same years it sat on the UN Security Council. While the exact whereabouts of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction remains a mystery, Western intelligence agencies monitored the movement of large convoys of high-volume trucks from a presidential palace in Iraq to a presidential palace in Syria, on the eve of the 2003 Iraq War. According to former Iraq Survey Group head, David Kay, from US interrogations of former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime, “components of Saddam’s WMD” went to Syria before the war. 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 UN system failing. For UN Security Council membership from early 2002 through 2003 did not lead to more moderate Syrian behavior but rather to the exact opposite: a more defiant posture than was even witnessed during the years in which Hafiz al-Assad ruled Syria. And in December 2004, General George W. Casey, Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, has disclosed that the Iraqi insurgency was being run by former Iraqi Baath Party officials from Syria, itself. The current Iraqi leadership in Baghdad has suggested the involvement of the Syrian security services in the insurgency, as well. Indeed, US troops uncovered photographs of senior Syrian officials when they stormed insurgent strongholds in Falujah last November. A captured insurgent in Najaf told the Iraqi security authorities that he had gone through training camps in Syria. In short, Syrian fingerprints are all over the insurgency.
This latest deterioration in Syrian international behavior should not come as a complete surprise. For during those critical years in 2002 and 2003, Syria was promoted to sit on the UN Security Council without any pre-conditions. True 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 UN, 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 UN, from the Syrian standpoint, was the “source of international legitimacy,” then Syrian behavior was viewed in the morally-skewed universe of the UN as legitimate.
Amidst all the talk about UN reform, including the expansion of the UN Security Council from fifteen to twenty-four members, the story of Syria and terrorism is a sharp reminder that for the UN to have any positive influence in the future, its changes cannot be structural alone. The UN must demand minimal standards of behavior of its member states; if not, it risks becoming an entirely bankrupt idea. The original UN 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 UN will not promote world order, but will inevitably turn into an instrument for global chaos instead.
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