‘We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.’ So wrote Vladimir Putin in The New York Times in September last year. Last week, he invaded Ukraine.
A system of ‘international law’ which gives a man like President Putin the right to decide whether a proposed action is legal or not, is morally bankrupt. Yet that is how the United Nations Security Council functions – and that is why Western democracies should not shrink from taking action even when the Russian veto stands in the way.
President Putin’s New York Times piece was about Syria. He was appealing to the American public not to assist Bashar al-Assad’s opponents. Assad has used barrel bombs to cause indiscriminate death among civilians, has enforced starvation sieges on Syrian cities, and has sent out his forces with orders to arrest, torture and kill his opponents. Photographs smuggled out of the country in January showed evidence that 11,000 people had been tortured and killed in detention. In all, over 140,000 Syrians have been killed since Assad initiated a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2011. During all this time, Putin’s government has given Assad military, economic and diplomatic support.
In contrast, Western support for the Syrian opposition has been limited and hesitant. Even when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013, the UK Parliament voted against taking any decisive action in response. No wonder Assad has dragged his feet in implementing the agreement he made to ship out all his chemical weapons stockpile: he has only surrendered so far about 11 per cent of it. And no wonder Vladimir Putin, watching the West’s disarray, has felt able to annexe the Crimea.
In January this year, we went to peace talks at Geneva, in the hope of reaching a peaceful and just settlement to the conflict in Syria. The talks broke down because Assad’s delegates were wholly intransigent. As Ambassador Robert Ford revealed, even the UN chair of those talks, Lakhdar Brahimi, blamed Assad’s chief delegate ‘100%’ for their collapse. Subsequently the UN Security Council managed to agree Resolution 2139 on 22 February, demanding an end to all attacks on civilians, a lifting of all sieges, and humanitarian access. The Security Council asked for a report from Ban Ki-moon on implementation of the Resolution, and expressed its intent ‘to take further steps in the case of non-compliance’. So far the Syrian regime has done nothing to comply.
The international community has been distracted from the crisis in Syria by events in Ukraine. But these two situations are interlinked. The failure to punish the Russian-backed Assad regime’s multiple abuses has shown that the West has no appetite to protect human rights. Neither sovereignty nor international law has been strengthened by this, as the invasion of Ukraine shows. When Ban Ki-moon reports, Russian veto or no, the West has a chance to put this right. Notwithstanding a likely Russian veto, now is the chance for the international community to ensure Syria’s compliance with resolution 2139, which would finally uphold the rights of Syrian civilians, rather than the interests of the Russian-backed Assad regime.
Brooks Newmark is the Conservative MP for Braintree