Puri: Stalemate over Syria Is Security Council’s “Most Serious Failure”

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Hardeep Singh Puri, former ambassador of India and author of Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, told a book launch event at IPI on October 25th that the stalemate over Syria and the Council’s consequent inaction was the panel’s “most serious failure.”

He said there must now be a “Syrian peace process” that would lead to an end of fighting and disbanding of rebel forces.

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Mr. Puri was a member of the Council in 2011-2012 and President of the Council twice during that period. “What happened in Syria to me is the most serious failure,” he said.

“For whatever reason,” he explained, “the Council allowed itself to be stalemated. There were repeated vetoes. The only solution to the Syrian problem during India’s Presidency of the Council and now, is complete cessation of hostilities, and the army of rebels has to disband.”

He added: “You can look at it from the humanitarian point of view, and you would think the conscience of the international community would be disturbed. It’s the most serious indictment of the international community’s misaction.”

Mr. Puri’s book makes similarly harsh judgments of the Council’s actions in Libya in 2011 where a United Nations-approved intervention, taken in the name of protecting civilians under threat from the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, turned instead into a great power regime change campaign that ended with the killing of Gaddafi.

“We thought we had negotiated a very balanced resolution for a ceasefire, but it worked out differently,” he said. “At the end of the day, some of us who wanted a Council resolution had regime change in mind. It’s not that there was any misunderstanding; these were well-meaning people who lost control of the process. The arming of rebels along with the use of force produced a toxic output that led to the unraveling of Libya.”

In the book, Mr. Puri, with Libya in mind, lists “the three easy steps for regime change” as a Security Council resolution, the arming of rebels and military action by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.)“Statesmanship,” he writes, “requires calling a halt to the chaos and helping restore legitimate state authority.”

He said that the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine, which had been invoked to justify the Libyan intervention, would remain valid despite the outcome of the action. “There were doubts about RtoP when it was born, there continue to be doubts,” he said. “But now, when you put the pieces together, when you look at the failures in Syria and Libya, that doesn’t take away from the doctrine itself.”

While he was critical of these two military interventions, he said the Security Council “must have power to carry out a Chapter VII mandate.” His reference was to the chapter of the United Nations Charter that authorizes military action in select cases of threats to international peace and security.

“If you exercise that power, it has to be done very carefully,” he said. “There has to be a weighing of the consequences.”

“Are all interventions bad? “ he asked. “No. Some interventions are actually good.”

Arguing that you need unity among the five permanent members for the Security Council to function, he declared, “There is no alternative but for Washington and Moscow to resolve their differences bilaterally.”

Mr. Puri is also a former Vice President of IPI and former Secretary-General of IPI’s Independent Commission on Multilateralism.

Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, made opening remarks and moderated the discussion.