By: Derek Dyson
At a routine press conference in London a young female journalist sat with bated breath as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out his country’s justification for military intervention in Syria. For weeks prior the Obama administration had been heavy handedly proposing “strategic air strikes” on the Assad regime and his chemical weapons stores that were the alleged cause of more than 1400 civilian casualties in and around the suburbs of Damascus on August 21st. Citing the Syrian military’s failure to follow “international norms” the administration has said that it is justified in taking unilateral action against “any direct threat to the US or it’s allies” and will be forced to do so because of the inability of the U.N. Security Council to take action on this issue. This, because of an all but certain veto by two of the five permanent members of the council, most notably coming from Russia and to a lesser extent China. With all of this information lingering in the back of her mind, CBS correspondent Margaret Brennan waited for an opening as Kerry closed with a plea for support from the British people. At this moment she stood up and after making remarks about a lack of evidence concerning the source of the chemical attack, utters what might be the most important phrase of her journalistic career. “Is there anything at this point his government [Bashar al Assad] could do or offer to stop an attack? ”. What happened next could possibly go down in history as the best diplomatic accident of our generation. Kerry, in a dismissive and off the cuff manner answered “Sure”, saying that if Assad would hand over Syria’s chemical weapon stores and manufacturing facilities to the U.N. they could avoid military intervention, adding “but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done”. Within hours of this statement Russian and Syrian diplomats come to an agreement and inform the International community that they accept this new diplomatic offer by the U.S. and will work through the U.N. Security Council to implement it. In a very strange twist of fate John Kerry had accidentally diverted war in favor of an international diplomatic approach. This is truly the sort of thing that Political Science professors salivate over. Quirky historical accidents that make young undergraduate eyes open widely in disbelief as they realize how easily history can be swayed. Like the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand starting WWI or the ticker tape malfunction that started a global depression…this off the cuff remark, a simple “sure” uttered in a press conference could be the only thing standing between diplomacy and all out war spanning the entirety of the Fertile Crescent.
The main caveat that all of this will be hinged upon is the phrase “could be” because this is still going to come down to vote in the Security Council, which will depend on a resolution that can make it past a Russian veto. At this point the U.S. is pushing for language that would leave military action on the table if Syria fails to meet demands or if it is proven that the Assad regime was the source of the attack. In a New York Times Op-Ed written by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was made clear that a diplomatic approach would be the only acceptable answer if it were to involve a Russian vote, saying that he was not protecting the Assad regime but much more importantly, protecting international law. This is because any act of aggression or threat of war proposed unilaterally and without the approval of the U.N. Security Council is by definition against International Law and the Charter that was set into place at the formation of the United Nations shortly after WWII. This is the roll of the Security Council above all else, which has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. This is done by a panel of 5 permanent Security Council members: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, any of whom can utilize sole veto power to stop any resolution that finds itself in front of the council, and 10 rotating members who have voting rights but no veto power. Historically this veto power has been a source of contention in the international community, often being used to protect economic or diplomatic allies who would otherwise be condemned by key members of the council. There is no better example of this than the relationship between the United States and Israel. In the last Forty years the U.S. has used its veto power in the Security Council to stop economic, diplomatic and military sanctions and/or official condemnation against the State of Israel by the International community on 45 separate occasions. This is in stark contrast to the three Russian vetoes used during this same time period in support of Arab States.
When a single country uses its veto power to undermine actions taken by the United Nations, an organization that was put into place largely to uphold peace and international law, it can easily undermine the authority of the entire organization. While the United States is not alone in it’s utilization of veto power, in last few decades it is without a doubt the most prolific veto invoking nation on the council. Most recognizably through relentless support of the State of Israel despite illegal military conquests and humanitarian crimes against thousands of civilian women and children, the U.S. has shown that it’s power on the world stage is almost limitless and largely unchecked by international law.
Given the United States track record on the Security Council it stands to reason that the international community would be outraged by the current situation in Syria. In stark contrast to it’s foreign policy concerning the State of Israel when it comes to the UN Security Council, up until John Kerry’s slip up, the United States was refusing to seek U.N. approval because of a likely veto from Russia. Why is it acceptable for the United States to to protect its assets in Israel at all costs, but unacceptable for Russia to do the same? Why do U.S. officials believe they have the authority to take unilateral action in Syria, fully aware of the fact that if the international community were to have taken the same action in regards to the State of Israel, that country would not only be geographically unrecognizable today, but would have also been writhing from nearly 40 years of diplomatic, military and economic sanctions imposed by United Nation member States? Most importantly, what events lead to a practice that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations on a daily basis, harkening back memories of what eventually lead to the dissolving of the League of Nations, it’s predecessor?
On June 5th, 1967 the Israeli military initiated a “preemptive” military strike on Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian military outposts and air bases, in what has since been known as “The Six Day War”. By the 10th of June Israel had expanded its land holdings to three times what it had been only days before, effectively occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in former Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the Golan Heights in Syria. The aftermath of this land grab left nearly one million Arabs, the majority of whom were Palestinians, under Israeli rule and set into motion the most contentious post WWII military and humanitarian conflict of the 20th century or what is now known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United Nations Security Council quickly condemned the attacks in Resolution 242 and called for Israeli forces to secede the land taken by military conquest, a practice that had been condemned by international law by way of the Nuremberg Principles at the end of WWII. Israel failed to comply with this resolution as well as the vast majority of more than 200 Security Council resolutions that would eventually stem from this conflict. While some of these resolutions passed with unanimous support, many of them were blocked outright by a sole veto by the United States. In fact, the U.S. has exercised this unilateral veto no less than 45 times since 1972 in favor of it’s Israeli allies and in opposition to international outcry for justice on behalf of the displaced Arabs of the region.
Illegal Israeli land expansion after 1967 war. Image courtesy of the bbc.
If we are going to compare the United States use of Security Council vetoes to that of Russia, we must first look at the history of America’s support of Israel to that of Russia’s support of the Arab nations surrounding it. After the war in 1967 the USSR solidified its role as arms supplier and adviser to many of the Arabs states in the region, as did the U.S. to Israel. Dual superpower involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict only intensified the contentious nature of an already unstable Arab Peninsula, and added yet another layer of distrust between two countries well into the throws of the Cold War.
While the U.S. and Russia have shown unwavering support for their opposing allies since 1967, it would be disingenuous to assume that the support provided by each side is somehow equal. Israel has the 17th largest military budget in the world at just under $15 billion, roughly 20% of which is directly subsidized by the United States. Contrast that with the Syrian military which ranks in at number 52 with a total budget or roughly $2 billion, none of which is subsidized by Russia, though they are the supplier of the majority of arms and support utilized by the country.
As stated above, the United states has invoked its veto power in the Security Council in favor of Israel 45 times since 1972, an astonishing number when compared to Russia’s veto count, which sits at a grand total of 3 vetoes since 1967 in favor of any Middle Eastern country involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All 3 Russian vetoes have occurred in the last 3 years. This obvious unbalanced support of Israeli foreign policy by the US has come at the cost of civilian casualties and humanitarian disasters that number in the thousands, not only in Palestinian settlements but also in border regions of Syria and Lebanon. So much so, that roughly 48% of the country specific resolutions passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council have been in condemnation of Israeli human rights violations against neighboring countries. Israel has yet to comply to diplomatic, military or economic sanctions imposed by resolutions under the U.N. Charter which number the 100’s and because of this has received official condemnation requests 22 times since it’s formation in 1948.
Shortly after the Six Day War ended the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling for a draw back of Israeli forces in the occupied territories. Israel, Egypt and Lebanon eventually agreed to abide by the resolution (Syria abstained until 1974, refusing to acknowledge Israel as an actual state) but the opposing sides interpreted the resolution in drastically different ways. While the Arab countries (along with the international community) assumed the resolution would return the land that was taken from them by the Israeli military, the State of Israel contended that the resolution left the boundaries neutral and expected displaced Arabs to migrate to surrounding countries. With the help of U.S. vetoes in the Security Council Israel has maintained control of these areas and eventually allowed its citizens to settle in these territories as their population has multiplied over the last 50 years. The wars that followed have lead to a long list of Security Council Resolutions against actions taken by Israel, many of which were vetoed by a sole vote by the United States.
In December of 1975 the U.S. used its first veto in support of Israel when the U.N. “deplored Israel’s defiance to resolutions demanding their withdrawal from Lebanon”. In June of 1976 it again uses its veto power, denying the Palestinian people diplomatic representation on the world stage. In April of 1980 the Security council proposed a resolution to reaffirm earlier stances by the council, mainly that Israel should withdraw from all Arab territories obtained in 1967. The United States was again the lone veto.
In January of 1982 the council proposed a resolution to “take appropriate measures” in removing Israel from occupied territories in the Golan Heights of Syria, a territory they had held since 1967, and attacked not because of a military threat, but largely because of strategic resources found in the area, predominantly fresh water. The Golan Heights is now the principal source of fresh water for the State of Israel and is ironically the home of Israel’s only Ski resort. The US was the sole veto of this measure.
In June of 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to destabilize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Up to 8000 civilians were killed in the conflict (84% of the deaths in Beirut alone accounting for over 5,000 civilian casualties), forcing the Security Council to act once again. In this proposed resolution the Security Council called for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops out of Lebanon and a cease fire within 6 hours, where in the event of non-compliance the council would reconvene and take “appropriate action” which included military sanctions that would forbid the United States from supplying weapons to the Israeli military. The United States was the sole veto of this measure. The Israeli army did not fully withdraw from this territory until June 16th, 2000.
In December of 1987 the first major conflict between Israel and the Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip had begun. Known as the “First Intifada” the Israeli government deployed 80,000 soldiers to put down Palestinian protesters armed largely with rocks and molotov cocktails. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed while another 120,000 were arrested. The NGO Save the Children estimated that 7% of the Palestinian population under the age of 18 suffered from beatings, exposure to tear gas or worse during the first 2 years of this conflict. In the 5+ years this war was waged the United States vetoed 3 different resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations and obstructions to the Geneva Convention.
From the year 2000 on there have been 4 more wars between Israel and surrounding Arab countries resulting in an estimated 4,281 Palestinian deaths. The number of civilians killed in these conflicts are hard to calculate, but the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories estimated that 2,038 were non-combatant civilians. During this period the United States vetoed 10 resolutions proposed by the UN Security Council condemning Israel for human rights violations and failing to adhere to the Geneva Convention.
While the current situation in Syria is vastly different than the past conflicts involving Israel, mainly because of the use of chemical weapons and the sheer number of civilian deaths in the current civil war, International Law and the Security Council charters that govern war have been the same. Any attacks by the United States against the Syrian government without the backing of the U.N. Security Council would violate this charter, effectively undermining the authority of the entire organization and potentially rendering it useless.
The United States, acting as a rogue nation, has wreaked havoc on the world stage on numerous occasions. 40 years ago almost to the day, the United States lead a siege on the Parliamentary Democracy of Chile via the CIA that eventually lead to a military coup, placing a brutal dictator by the name of Augusto Pinochet into power for almost 20 years. He was responsible for the death and torture of tens of thousands of Chilean citizens before he was ousted. Similar action was taken in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950’s and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960’s. Add to this list The Bay of Pigs, Grenada, Indochina, and most recently the 2003 invasion of Iraq and it becomes very clear that U.S. military unilateralism has always trumped International Law and it’s adherence Article VII of the U.N Charter.
The United States unwavering support for the State of Israel continues to be one of the largest sources of contention in the most dangerous region on the globe and there is no evidence that this will change anytime soon. These unilateral military actions, coupled with a failure of the United States to seek diplomatic solutions to conflict have destabilized entire regions of this planet for decades, all in an effort to protect American assets and allies at all costs. When framed in a historical context the current situation in Syria isn’t much different. Ultimately, an unstable Syrian government poses a threat to neighboring Israel which poses an economic threat to America, while an American threat to Syria poses an economic threat to Russia. Thus the Security Council vetoes will continue, as will the wars that they fail to prevent.
Update: On Saturday (9-14-13) after a two day deliberation in Geneva the United States and Russia brokered a deal based on Kerry’s “diplomatic option”. As of now it is unclear if military action will be on the table if Syria fails to comply with the mid-2014 deadline of handing over chemical weapon stores. While the wording of the agreement seems to suggest military action is an option, it would still fall under the jurisdiction of the UN Security Council and would likely be met with a Russian veto if the situation were to degrade to that level.