U.N. not fixing Syria crisis anytime soon

Story highlights

  • U.N. General Assembly has been holding main debate this week
  • Zalmay Khalilzad: Security Council fundamentally divided on Iraq and Syria

Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2007-2009. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)This year's U.N. General Assembly meeting has been clarifying in at least one respect: the conflict in Syria will not be resolved by the United Nations anytime soon.

The exchange between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.N. General Assembly debate this week made clear that the Security Council is fundamentally divided on the causes of the conflict in Iraq and Syria, as well as the best path forward.
Zalmay Khalilzad
The key point of contention is whether the Bashar al-Assad regime is the precipitator of the conflict (the U.S. view) or whether, as Moscow claims, it is a stabilizing force against the extremist groups that are thriving amid the chaos. The Russian moves we have seen may be part of a broader strategy to challenge America's post-Cold War preeminence in the region.
    Hopes that regional organizations might galvanize international action amid a deadlocked Security Council were dashed in New York. Remarks by the Arab states, for example, suggest that the Arab League lacks either the will or the capability to act in Syria, as it did in the campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
    So, with international organizations missing in action, the outcome of the conflicts will be shaped by two rival coalitions of the willing. One is the 60-member coalition led by the United States, which is training and equipping Kurdish and moderate Sunni forces. The other, led by Russia and Iran, is backing the al-Assad regime.
    Still, overlapping interests between the coalitions point to the outlines of a political settlement. Both coalitions are committed to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Both have much to lose by the disintegration of state institutions in Iraq and Syria. And both are supporting proxies whose interests could be accommodated in new decentralized political orders with power sharing at the center and local control for various ethnic and sectarian groups.
    The trouble is that Iraq and Syria are battlegrounds for a broader sectarian rivalry between the region's major powers. Regional states are using militias to advance their agendas in the absence either of rules to govern conflicts, or robust forums to facilitate dialogues on issues of common concern.
    Ideally, the United Nations would exercise its convening and legitimizing powers. Given the Security Council's gridlock, however, the U.N. lacks a mandate to deploy its most forceful instruments to that end -- authorization of force, peacekeeping, and sanctions. For the time being, the United Nations can act only in a limited capacity. Through designated envoys, for example, it can facilitate dialogue between rival factions and their external supporters. And its functional agencies can mitigate the costs of the conflict's migrant and humanitarian crises.
    But it will take a major shift in ground realities for the United States and Russia to reach agreement and forge a settlement through the Security Council.
    The United States could catalyze this -- and shift the balance and possible outcome to a more favorable one -- through a no-fly zone and no-drive zone over areas not controlled by the regime in Syria. After all, it is unlikely that al-Assad will otherwise leave power, or that the Iranians will direct their Shiite proxies in Iraq to get behind the al-Abadi government's efforts to pursue reconciliation in Iraq.
    There is, of course, an alternative -- continued restraint. But while that may reduce U.S. exposure in the short term, it will eventually turn the regional proxy war into a genuinely international crisis.
    For a start, without an agreement that in effect turns Iraq into a confederal state, the Kurds might declare independence. That, or the indefinite proxy war and protracted stalemate on the battlefield could become so costly and destabilizing that it leads regional states to invite the United Nations to facilitate a new, more sustainable security architecture for the greater Middle East. The burden, in this scenario, would fall on the United States to broker a settlement.
    Ultimately, the path to any scenario under which the United Nations finds an opening to resolve the crisis will likely be a long and bloody one. Tragically, as a result, genocide or interstate conflicts of the sort that the United Nations was founded to avoid in the first place are again becoming very real possibilities.