Book Review: Regional Maintenance of Peace and Security under International Law

Regional Maintenance of Peace and Security under International Law: The Distorted Mirrors, by Dace Winther. London / New York: Routledge, 2014. 264 pp, $140 hardcover 978-0-415-85499-3, $135 e-book 978-0-203-79735-8

The role of regional organizations adds a new mid-level layer in the hybrid global system of the governance of peace and security. The ‘soft’ regionalism embedded in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter was reactivated mainly after the end of the Cold War, and regional organizations became a tool for UN operations of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement in a context of proliferating crises, increased demands, and overwhelmed capacities. Most regions updated their mechanisms to deal with peace and security affairs and/or created new ones. The scope of potential operations widened and new concepts were applied, raising legal issues with regard to the use of force.

What action is appropriate and legal for regional institutions in the maintenance of peace and security? What are the scope and limits and how have they evolved? This book addresses these questions through a review of the legal documents and practice of selected regional organizations. The aim is a comparative analysis of eight regions to illuminate how they deal with crisis management in institutional and legal terms, and how their documents and practice adapt to – or challenge – the universal regulations of the UN.

You can read the Book Review in the Global Policy Journal.

Book Review – The UN and Changing World Politics

«International media headlines regularly cover issues such as international negotiations on climate change; conflict and stabilization missions in Mali, DRC Congo, Afghanistan and Lebanon; nuclear negotiations with Iran or the collective failure to protect Syrian civilians. What all of these events have in common is the complex and sometimes overlooked matrix of actors and relationships evolving behind the scenes to set policies, and the processes through which those policies and responses eventually become norms.»

I have just published a book review of The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Seventh Edition, by Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, Roger A. Coate and Kelly-Kate Pease. In this volume, the authors bring to the analysis their scholarly depth and practical experience to explain what the UN is – and what it is not – and how it operates. They also elucidate the systems of incentives and disincentives that facilitate (or hamper) processes and advances, and describe the relations with external actors ranging from states to NGOs and international organizations. It is in this realm of competition and cooperation among actors that world politics is shaped, created and re-created, and the UN is literally and symbolically placed at the centre of these endeavours.

The Book Review has been published by the Global Policy Journal. If you wish to read it complete, check here. And of course, if you are interested in world politics, do not miss the reviewed book.

Syria (3 of 3): Geopolitical Games

The Syrian uprising started in spring 2011 with peaceful anti-government demonstrations claiming for legal, economic and political reforms. Influenced by similar events in other Arab countries at the time, it was met with violence and repression by the Army and pro-government militias. President Assad announced limited steps towards reform but violence grew, and has done steadily up to now. 

There is no possible understanding of the events in Syria without having in mind the myriad of regional and international interests and agendas being played here and strongly influencing the course of events.

Syria is the scenery of a geopolitical game that has transformed this country in a proxy war similar to those of the Cold War. Foreign agendas have transformed Syria in a zero-sum game in which each actor fights fiercely for strategic interests and contribute with diplomatic, financial and even military support to exacerbate the conflict and to polarization of all sides on the ground. 

graphic_1378382738Map of the conflict, June 2013. Source: Syrian Needs Analysis Project

Given the complexity of the interests at stake, I don’t pretend to cover the whole range here. This is just a brief approximation that hopefully serves to have a first insight into internal and external players and their agendas. At the end of this post you fill find a list of official documents about this conflict.


The regime and the President, Bashar al-Assad

Following his father 30 years term, Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000. Commander of the Syrian Army and president of the Ba’ath Party, he was expected by some as a reformer who would undertake political reforms towards more rights and freedom. The Assad rule in Syria is secular and autocratic, maintaining the country strategic role in the Middle East through regional alliances with Iran, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The regime has been politically repressive but religiously tolerant in a traditionally secular country. Holding power for the Alawite Muslim minority, it is largely supported by other religious minorities and by large parts of urban middle classes. Other supporters of the regime include the Army, public sector, some business constituencies and professional unions.

What is appalling for many Syrians is the need to choose between the regime and a divided and polarized opposition, while facing a humanitarian crisis and a disastrous economic situation. Religious factors have come to play a role as seculars and some minorities fear the political intentions (and potential retaliation) of some rebel groups.

The opposition

Opposition groups (armed and not) are far from sharing opinions with regards to the political future. Rivalries have soared among those who oppose the government:  local leaders and exiles, militia commanders on the ground, and between those who seek accommodation with elements of the current structures and those who seek to bring down the entire regime. Islamist and secular activists at odds, while Kurd groups seek autonomy and armed extremist groups gain military strength on the ground.

Although even the main groups are far from unified, there have been attempts to create a united opposition front. The Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed in 2011 in Turkey and included a variety of groups, mainly with ideological ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. In November 2012, the US and other countries facilitated the creation of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, an umbrella of groups seeking to overthrow the regime through political means and armed struggle and to become a transitional governing body after the regime’s collapse. Recognized by the Cooperation Council of the Gulf, the Arab League (except for Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon) and NATO countries such as France, UK, the US, and Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army is the main armed group, born in June 2011. Formed by Army defectors it was later joined by local militias and civilians, but apparently remains a loosely collection of scattered militias lacking unified structure and a coherent ideology. It is thought to have around 100,000 troops.

The Al Nusra Front emerged at the beginning of 2012. Still a minority among the opposition, it includes religious militant groups and foreign jihadist fighters. It has links with Al Qaeda in Iraq and recruits at home and abroad to fight for an Islamic State. Blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US State Department in late 2012, their ruthlessness and brutal tactics have raised the stakes in the Syrian groups. Other Salafist groups have emerged later in this complex landscape.

Finally, a number of Kurdish militias joined the Democratic Union Party in mid-2012 and began taking over majority Kurdish towns in the north and east of the country, raising tensions with the Turkey government. Recently they have rallied against armed Islamist groups.


The US, UK and France

Syria has been seen as a danger for US interests since its independence. Syria supported the Palestinian cause, fought three wars with Israel and have kept tensions open for the Golan Heights. The alliance with the Soviet Union added to this rivalry that has expressed more recently by affairs in Lebanon (with Syrian support for Hezbollah) and Palestine (with support for Hamas). Political circles have long considered Syria a main rival for the US interests in a key political region as the Middle East. The Economist takes position here in an illustrative way. Even clearer this analysis of the Hoover Institution.

Current geopolitical interest and historical reasons merge even more in the UK and France cases (both were at any time colonial rulers over Syrian territory”. The UK and France share with the US the Western interest over the Middle East and geopolitical competition with Russia and China, and seek to replace the Assad regime with a pro-Western one (a movement that would also serve to weaken Iran). For the UK there is also the “strategic alliance” with the US. And France seeks long-term interests and a need to boost its international image. In May 2013 France and the UK successfully lobbied for the EU’s arms embargo to be lifted (so as to allow further supplies to the rebels).


One of the most important international backers of the government, it has extensive trade and strategic interests many of which go back to the Soviet Union era. Syria, at odds with the West since independence in 1946 and feeling vulnerable in face of some neighbors (the US backed Israel, among others) got Moscow support.

Russia exports large amounts of weapons to Syria and increasing amounts of small arms. Trade ties are linked to oil, grains and technological equipment, among other supplies. The Syria port of Tartous is the only Russia navy outpost in the Mediterranean, now a permanent base. Defending Syria is also part of a general principle of non-interference in internal affairs that also serves Russian internal interests.

Russia supported the peace plan presented by the joint UN-Arab League envoy KofiAnnan as a way to reach a political solution, has explored other options, and has finally reached an agreement with the US about the Syrian chemical arsenal.


China has joined Russia in blocking resolutions critical of Syria at the UN Security Council. It was also critic of the prospect of military strikes. Although it has no strategic interests in Syria, it may have taken a stand for a mix of reasons, including a more assertive foreign policy; concern over the Islamist component among the rebel groups; outrage about past events in Syria (were NATO intervention went far beyond what the UN had authorized) and a shared concern with Russia about Western interference in Middle East affairs.


Turkey had peaceful but distant relations with the Syrian government for years and attempted to convince al-Assad of the need to initiate reforms. Since the beginning of the conflict it has been one of the most prominent critics of the government. Heavily affected by violence at the border, the Parliament authorized cross-border action as a response at the end of 2012. It hosts political refugees and some of the political and armed opposition groups (especially those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood). Developments associated with the situation of Kurdish minorities in Syria are another fact in this equation. Public opinion is reluctant to openly intervene in Syrian affairs.

Saudi Arabia

For years, one of the main rivals of the Syrian government with regards to regional preeminence. Very active in pursuing and advocating military action against the regime it supports armed opposition groups, mainly the Salafist ones. Being Iran its main rival in the fight for geopolitical hegemony in the Gulf and the Middle East, the Saudi objective is breaking up the Syria-Iran alliance. They also compete in support for opposing groups (with Syria supporting Hezbollah) and Palestine (where Syria supports Hamas while Saudis hold those groups, like Fatah, in favor of a negotiated peace deal with Israel). Finally, the Saudi regime sees itself as a defender of Sunnis in the Muslim world against Shia (ruling Syria and Iran and also an important internal minority in Saudi Arabia).


Main supplier of weapons to Syrian rebels, it is thought to have provided them around 1-3 billion dollars in aid. The Qatari single-minded support to anyone with a possibility to bring down the House of Assad has negatively impacted the legitimacy of opposition groups. Saudi-Qatari rivalries, rooted in the their different experiences with the Muslim Brotherhood and their different reactions to the 2011 pro democracy uprisings across the Arab world, have further helped to fragment the Syrian opposition coalition. Opportunistic Jihadist groups have exploited this access to arms and money.


Hostility with Syria goes back to the creation of both countries in late 1940s due to Syrian support for the Palestinian resistance and subsequent wars (1948, 1967 and 1973). Israel holds control of Syrian Golan Heights. Over years Syria has maintained pressure over Israel not by direct confrontation but by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Israel was expected to be a beneficiary of the fall of Assad but the current composition and ideological orientation of some opposition groups makes the future look uncertain. It is no good news for Israel if Syria becomes a safe haven for extremist and Islamist militant groups.

The Army considers limited cross-border incursions to secure a buffer zone and prevent the shelling of Israeli territory from Syria. By early 2013, clashes between Syrian rebels and government troops spread to the Israeli border, with artillery shells frequently falling on the Israeli territory. Israel retaliated with an air strike.


There is deep division in the country between supporters and opponents of President Assad. The Syrian war has potentially deep impact here. The Shiite majority, mostly represented by Hezbollah, has in Assad its closest ally, while many Sunnis sympathize with the rebels and Christian population is divided. Due to the power system in Lebanon that holds posts shared by the three main religious groups, the Syrian situation impacts in Lebanese political balances.

The north of the country is a host for Syrian refugees, deserters and rebel groups, mostly welcomed by the Sunni population. At times tensions rise as in the city of Tripoli, between Sunnis and the Alawite (pro-Assad) minority that also resonate in the south. But the majority of Lebanese Sunnis are secular and only some Islamists have joined the fight in Syria. The Lebanese Army remains neutral.


Jordan has received half a million Syrian refugees. The government has called for a political solution but is also believed to have provided weapons to rebel groups in early 2013. Fear for spillover of the Syrian conflict and internal destabilization domains. When international intervention was in sight, the government backed a limited military action if the use of chemical weapons was proved, although limited to the arsenals.


Iran has been for a long time the main regional Syrian ally. Both countries share a wide range of interests: support for Palestinian group Hamas; support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel as a common enemy, as well as geopolitical preeminence in the Middle East. More recently, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, both countries wanted to avoid the establishment of an US dependent regime in Baghdad. Iran developed a close relationship with Shiite political parties (and later with the government) in Iraq.


The changing and unstable internal political situation in Egypt has a deep impact in regional alliances. The now overthrown government of Mohammed Morsi stood against the Syrian regime, cut off relations with the country and called for a no-fly zone (remember the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syrian rebel groups). But after the coup, the military-backed current government seems very wary of any to rebel groups and has rejected intervention without UN authorization. The changing Egyptian position mirrors changes in internal politics.

The United Nations 

The UN monitors the situation in Syria with the deployment of peace envoys and inspectors of disarmament. The Security Council has been unable to agree on how to stop violence for the different interests held by its five permanent members (UK, France and the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other).

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was appointed as the UN-Arab League Peace Envoy and presented a peace plan in May 2012. The proposal included a Syrian-led political process; UN supervision of the cessation of armed violence by all parties; allow the provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas; intensify the release of persons arbitrarily detained; access to the whole country for journalists and respect for the rights of association and demonstration. The document was presented in March 2012 and by April there was a ceasefire. The UN Mission on Syria was deployed then, but it lacked leverage over the parties and the agreement was soon broken.

The plan was a political compromise that seek to stabilize the situation to allow Syrians to advance political negotiations. But 2012 was probably too late for Syrian parties to agree on anything, as polarization had soared (and has not stopped up to now).

Annan resigned in August 2012 and was followed in this position by the Algerian diplomat LakhdarBrahimi. Neither of them have succeeded, although both have probably offered the most realistic and comprehensive analysis of the situation and of the possible solution (recognized as a necessarily regional political process and agreement).

One additional reflection: Is this a religious conflict?

According to experts, the answer is no… at the beginning. The question at stake was the continuity of the regime. But some minorities were more supportive of it than others and this factor influenced political alignments. The religious factor coupled with those political positions has been used to fuel intolerance in some parts of this (formerly secular) country. The emergence among the rebel groups of Islamist and Salafist militias (both Syrian born and foreign fighters), and even Al Qaeda linked groups, that fight for an Islamic state, have further polarized positions. The roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the regional setting, exploiting the Sunni-Shia factor, only added complexity. Nowadays, the religious element must not be discarded.

It is well explained here: “This is not a fight purely or even primarily about Islam; it is a war about the future of the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, all the talk about sectarian war is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 


It may seem a hopeless conclusion for this post series but, after reviewing the Syrian humanitarian situation, the possibilities of (and some reasons behind) a military attack, and the complex game of interests that are at stake in Syria, one main question comes to mind. Who cares for the Syrian people?

A few official documents 

U.S. Government: Assessment of Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, The White House

Statement by Secretary of State Kerry on Syria, August 30, 2013

Statement by President Obama on Syria, August 31, 2013

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: “Hearing: The Authorization of Use of Force in Syria,” September 3, 2013

Draft Senate Resolution Authorizing Syria Strike, September 4, 2013

House Committee of Foreign Affairs: “Hearing: Syria: Weighing the Obama Administration’s Response,” September 4, 2013

Letter from the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) about reported chemical weapons use in Syria, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, August 29, 2013

French National Executive Summary of Declassified Intelligence, September 2, 2013

France: Synthesis of declassified national intelligence on Syrian chemical program, past uses and 21 August attack

UK: Position on the legality of military action

UK: Joint Intelligence Organization’s assessment of allegations

Protection of Civilians in the DRC: Steps and Dilemmas

Operations of search and seizure of unauthorized weapons have started in the East of the DRC. The UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) had given everyone in the city of Goma and surrounding area until August 1st to hand on their weapons, including members of rebel movements. The MONUSCO deployment includes now an Intervention Brigade of 3.000 members with a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to address disarmament and protect civilians. The security area includes the city, the airport, refugee camps and the military bases. Within that perimeter it is expected that everybody carrying a weapon will be disarmed.

The security zone is a preventive measure intended to put limits to the rebel group M23, although everyone in possession of a weapon will be disarmed and considered an imminent threat of physical violence. The new mandate and rules of engagement, as well as the presence of the Intervention Brigade, mark a new departure in UN peace operations. But it is not without risk.

Diverse groups and interests at stake

The M23 is one of the main rebel groups operating in the DRC. It is probably the most well-known, due to their 2012 offensive against Goma. They were able to capture the city for a whole week with no opposition from Congolese armed forces neither international troops. Their operations have caused the displacement of more than 100,000 persons. One of its leaders is under custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and both the UN and the DRC Government accuse Rwanda of providing steady support for this group (something that this country harshly denies). Last May the M23 started a new offensive in this area with indiscriminate attacks and civilian casualties, while the Intervention Brigade was completing its deployment.

There are around 25 armed groups operating in the East of the DRC, in the regions of Kivu North and Kivu South, according to Oxfam. This is a typical feature in modern wars, that may last for years if not decades and have many interests at stake. The DRC is not only a huge country but also immensely rich in natural resources, especially valuable and strategic minerals. Alliances among armed groups are shifting and unstable, but they usually try to control mines (of gold, coltan, tin and other minerals) and transportation routes. With this, they can control the mineral trade and ‘tax’ people travelling by those routes. As Oxfam said, civilians have become a commodity of war here.


Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Although the DRC has a problematic colonial legacy, widespread violence started in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide. Years later this was called the ‘first African world war’, in which a number of countries of the continent took part representing different national, regional and international interests. Behind the war, political and economic interests merged, as all the groups took advantage of the situation to spoil natural resources and make money through a well established war economy (including, of course, DRC and neighbouring countries elites).

By 2003 a peace agreement gave place to a transition government, and a reconstruction process that never reached the East of the country. Here an array of local and foreign groups have operated and the interests at stake are multiple and complex. Last February 24th a new regional peace accord was signed with support of 11 countries, but it has no lasted. In this region the game at play involves the control of land with high potential for agriculture and cattle and important mines. The ethnic balances are fragile after massive population displacement, and there is continuous interference of external actors like Rwanda and (to a lesser extent nowadays) Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis is one of the gravest in the world, with around 2.6 million internal displaced people and more than 6 million persons dependent on emergency and food aid. An estimated number of 4 million have died in this war, as a result of direct violence or associated crises like displacement, malnutrition and diseases.

Protection of civilians and dilemmas of the potential use of lethal force

The new MONUSCO mandate including the use of lethal force if necessary to disarm combatants in the security area relies on the principle of protection of civilians in armed conflict. However it also involves risks and dilemmas. One of them is how to use force with maximum caution in order to avoid getting caught within the war dynamics, and become part of the problem and not of the solution (as happened in Somalia in 1992). Another one is for humanitarian organizations that must rely on protection and security provided by MONUSCO while safeguarding their independence and neutrality.

According to the Congolese think tank CRESA, the intervention force can have a positive impact on civilian protection and will probably be welcomed by the population. But in order to achieve success, they must establish open and honest communication channels with the population and their representatives. The Intervention Brigade operations would also have more possibilities of success if they were a step among many in an ambitious framework of State and security reform and of protection of civilians with different means.

The most pressing problem in the DRC is institutional fragility and scarce State capacity. The use of military means is necessary but probably not enough substitute for the political will to address root causes and grievances behind the conflict (including management of natural resources), improve security institutions and implement programs of good governance. Measures are also acutely needed at regional and international levels to curtail the flow of weapons, training and military support from outside, and the international trade of natural resources that enriches many (if not all) parts of this conflict while the population suffers the consequences. Natural resources, of course, end up in developed markets and international companies are not completely free of guilt.

The protection of civilians has been absent for a long time in the DRC, and the UN has faced important criticisms for its inability to undertake decisive action. The new step, if correctly implemented, could be welcomed by the population and civil society in the DRC. However, the risks associated to the pursued new military strategy are also evident.