Analysis: On the UN’s Waning Power to End Conflict in Syria, Yemen and Libya

Published March 14th, 2018 - 03:35 GMT
The U.N. risks becoming obsolete (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
The U.N. risks becoming obsolete (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


  • The U.N. was made to be a unified peacemaker in the world
  • But civil wars are, on average, lasting longer and humanitarian crises are multiplying
  • The U.N. is being replaced in several key warzones as a mediator
  • Can the international body save itself from becoming obsolete?


By Ty Joplin


The Middle East continues to churn in political chaos with conflicts producing millions of refugees. Wars seem more intractable than ever.

Globally, civil wars are getting longer, and the Middle East is host to numerous conflicts that have no end in sight.

The Syrian Civil War has just entered its eight year. The war in Yemen, now having gone through multiple stages of escalation, is in a hopeless stalemate, and Libya is barely recognizable as a country.

The only international body seemingly capable of mediating any conflict, the United Nations, is struggling to cope with its responsibility to achieve and keep peace.

Although it symbolizes the most ambitious attempt yet to create a single international order under a doctrine of human rights respect, the U.N. risks becoming a powerless mediator in the face of inaction, obsolescence and woefully under-thought interventions.

Its role, or lack thereof, within the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya represent three critical areas that demonstrate the challenges the U.N. faces in maintaining a decisive and positive role in world affairs.

The U.N. has countless bodies and contractors servicing aid and development within the Middle East, and in this sense its presence can be seen everywhere.

But in its ability to mediate conflict and promote peace in war-torn regions, its power appears to be declining.

The U.N. Charter details both its primary function and the criteria by which it should be judged. Article 1, Chapter 1 states: “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

If it cannot prevent violence, promote respect for international law and maintain peace, then the U.N. requires a serious re-assessment as to its ability to uphold its charter. In at least three critical theaters of conflict, the U.N. may be failing to uphold its charter.



A fighter looks on to a destroyed town in Syria (AFP/FILE)


When the war in Syria began, the U.N. immediately set out to establish an observer force to try and regulate the conflict. It didn’t work, and after a few months they were forced to pull out due to escalating violence.

Then, they worked to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons, a task that also proved impossible as chlorine gas attacks now regularly occur in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. The U.N. has held several meetings to discuss investigating the use of chemical weapons, but for Syrians on the ground, these conversations may well have never occurred.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has passed numerous resolutions calling for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to deliver aid to besieged civilians in addition to ceasefires.

These too, are not panning out.

“The UNSC cannot exert any form of enforcement mechanism as part of any ceasefire resolution. Without such a measure of objective enforcement, UNSC attempts to the end or even lessen the conflict are not durable,” said Jesse Marks, a Scoville Fellow who has written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to Al Bawaba.

Most recently, the UNSC attempted to enforce a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow aid into Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus that was relentlessly bombed by Assad and Russia air forces. The ceasefire was announced on Feb. 24, and just hours later, reports flooded in that Assad was continuing his bombing campaign of Eastern Ghouta. The ceasefire not only collapsed immediately, it never appears to have existed in practice.

The one tangible attempts at mediation have come not from U.N.-sponsored talks, but from joint sessions held by Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria in Sochi and Astana, Kazakhstan. In Astana, the major powers acting in Syria agreed to establish four de-escalation zones to begin mediating the conflict. Though analysis points out that these zones may have been created to regulate different frontlines and serve the self-interests of the parties involved, their very implementation points to a fault in the U.N.’s ability to do the same.

According to Marks, Russia “hijacked Syrian negotiations from Geneva and attempted to bring together a new coalition.” This coalition, periodically meeting without influence from the U.N., is likely to draw the postwar map of Syria and determine the fate of Assad, with or without the U.N.’s consent.

While the U.N.’s Charter explicates its role to be solely in peacemaking, those involved in the Asanta talks are now in the process of dividing up Syria amongst themselves, trading strategic points and opening new frontlines in various grabs at regional power.



Russia has secured a permanent military presence in Syria and a reliable weapons trade client. Iranian militias are flowing freely throughout the entire country, and are working to cement Iranian influence. Turkey and its allied militias in the Free Syrian Army are creating a foothold in Afrin, in addition to maintaining their grip on Manbij to the east and Idlib province.

They, in other words, are not in the peacemaking business.

To them, the U.N. has no answer. The U.N. Secretary General, unable to contest the Astana players, have only offered general words of encouragement, in addition to stressing the importance of humanitarianism.

In legally justifying their particular intervention, they used the logic of UNSC Resolution 2254 calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, ironically using the U.N.’s own jurisprudence and a launchboard to continuing the war efforts in Syria.

For Syria, the U.N. has retreated and been replaced.



A Houthi rebel stands among the ruins of building in Yemen (AFP/FILE)


The U.N.’s role in Yemen tells a similar story.

When Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered Saudi forces to intervene in Yemen, he did so with a coalition of Arab states, the U.S. and U.K. backing him. One of his first targets was the agricultural infrastructure of Yemen, striking it until Yemen, as a whole, was crippled and totally dependent on importing food, fuel, water and medical supplies.

Then, bin Salman implemented a naval and air blockade over Yemen, choking off civilians from critical resources. After about a year, it was clear the coalition had effectively starved one of the world’s poorest countries and created what is perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. 22 out of 28 million civilians are in need of humanitarian assistance, eight million are on the brink of famine, two million have been displaced, and over a million had at one point contracted cholera.

In response, the UNSC has met continuously but failed to implement an actionable resolution.

Most recently Feb. 26, the UNSC met and unanimously passed Resolution 2402 on Yemen renewing sanctions against the country and re-iterate the requirement that humanitarian aid should flow into the country unhindered.

As the UNSC is the only U.N. body with supposed binding power, it would be assumed from such a resolution that countries would have a legal obligation to service the opening of Yemen’s ports to allow aid to flow in.

However, this is not the case.

Bin Salman periodically chokes off and eases Yemen’s ports but has never fully allowed a humanitarian aid route to form, meaning Yemeni civilians are stuck relying on the Saudi prince rather than the U.N.


Smoke billows following a strike in Yemen (AFP/FILE)


Like the Astana signatories in Syria, the Saudi-led coalition has no interest in ensuring peace in Yemen. They are preoccupied with destroying the Houthi rebels, who receive logistical and arms support from Iran.

Resolution 2402 is a telling example of the U.N.’s inability to meaningfully act for peace in Yemen. The resolution, already vague and unenforceable, is a watered down version of a previous draft introduced by the United Kingdom.

In the first draft, the UNSC would have recognized intentional targeting of civilians in Saudi’s relentless campaign, which is supported by UNSC permanent members like the U.S. and U.K. Russia vetoed the resolution and forced the council to stay silent on civilian deaths.

“The UN seems helpless to stop the carnage in Syria or Yemen yet it can identify wrongdoing and mobilise public opinion on behalf of the victims,” argues Richard Falk, a professor of International Law at Princeton and former expert for the U.N.

While international pressure has certainly built on Saudi to ease its restrictions and bombings in Yemen, it only appears to be tangentially and temporarily effective.

Like in Syria, the U.N.’s directives on Yemen exists more as a voice of discontent than a force capable of directing the political landscape.



The body of a migrant is washed ashore on a beach in Libya (AFP/FILE)


One of the few resolutions the UNSC passed that was actually implemented in The Middle East was in Libya. That resolution, number 1973, stands as an infamous example of selective action that may have appeared appealing in the short-run, but contributed dangerously to a long-term chaos the U.N. has been unable to control ever since.

In March 2011, the UNSC met and proposed Resolution 1973, calling for an immediate ceasefire between regime troops and opposition forces. It further demanded a no-fly zone be established.

It was passed on March 17, with notable abstentions from Russia and China, and saw its first consequence on March 19. French, British and American missiles and jets filled Libya’s skies and began bombarding regime troops’ positions.

In enforcing the no-fly zone, the international coalition decisively tilted Libya’s civil war, which was stalling, in favor of the rebels. Unable to make any gains against the fast-approaching rebels, Muammar Gaddafi’s defenses collapsed. Gaddafi was killed in October 2011, about six months after the coalition stepped in.

Without an accepted and cohesive follow-up plan in place to ensure peace, the UNSC has watched helplessly as Libya slowly disintegrates.

Its murder rate is one of the highest in the Arab world, its GDP is about half of what it was since 2011. Militias and warlords are the critical playmakers, and African slaves are being traded in open markets.  

In Libya’s west, a U.N.-backed government called the Government of National Accord is in competition with another rival governmental in Tobruk to the east. Neither side looks to be gaining any momentum over the other. Localized militias control the rest of Libya, and also show no signs of giving up their footholds.

As a country, Libya is recognizable only on paper.


What Does this Leave the World?

New High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein in Geneva (AFP/FILE)


In evaluating the efficacy and influence of the U.N., its Charter sets itself an ideal goal that may never have been realistically achievable. But in handing over mediations to local interests as in the case of Syria, and standing powerlessly by regimes blocking aid in Yemen, there are lingering concerns to whether the U.N. and its constituent countries are dedicated to positive peace in the first place.

Dr. Falk claims that “we can hope for more, but we should not overlook, or fail to appreciate, the abundant positive accomplishments of the UN.”

Those accomplishments include, “supporting the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, “ and being a “vital force with respect to conflict and peacekeeping.” Recently however, few examples of such a vital force have materialized.

Dr. Falks also states, “the UN has more authority than any political actor in determining whether certain claims by states or peoples are legitimate or not.”

When the U.N. voiced its approval for the Astana talks in Syria, it signaled the relinquishment of determining claims within Syria to Russia, who organized the talks and is quickly becoming the key dealmaker and powerbroker in Syria.

The U.N.’s ability to end conflicts in the Middle East is either going unused or becoming unusable. In its stead, rising powers are replacing the U.N.—powers that have no interest in promoting peace and every reason to prolong war for as long as it remains profitable to them.

As humanitarian crises intensify, warring parties become entrenched and the human flow of refugees grows heavier, many are learning to not count on the U.N. to save them.

Whether the U.N. can save itself remains to be seen.

© 2000 - 2023 Al Bawaba (

You may also like


Sign up to our newsletter for exclusive updates and enhanced content