Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order. Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN. If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.
Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues. Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people. But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.
The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem. Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people. Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL). Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria. Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.
It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date. In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.
Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law. Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea. A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs. Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.