U.N. Peacekeeping's Year of Living Dangerously
Yet at the beginning of this year, it appeared quite possible that international peacekeepers would deploy to Syria in the course of 2013. In the last months of 2012, planners at U.N. headquarters drew up proposals for a large-scale blue-helmeted observation force to police any cease-fire between President Bashar Assad and his armed opponents. After the 300-strong U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) had withdrawn in 2012, the planners believed that any new mission would need to involve 3,000 personnel or more. Some speculated the figure could eventually rise as high as 10,000.
Even those who favored a deployment feared that it could go badly wrong, with the peacekeepers surrounded by endemic violence. A major terrorist attack or chemical weapons incident could present the U.N. with a humiliating disaster. Nonetheless, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, argued that some sort of military presence would be required to give credibility to any cease-fire deal.
Although this proposal has faded for now, it should not be forgotten. For some skeptical U.N. officials, the mere fact that such a potentially dangerous proposal could be considered at all was a threat to the basic principles of the organization’s operations. In 2000, a panel of U.N. heavyweights chaired by Brahimi had declared that peacekeepers should not go where there was “no peace to keep.” Now the man behind that mantra appeared to be skirting his own advice. For traditionalists at U.N. headquarters, this seemed indicative of a new willingness among the organization’s leaders and Security Council members to take risks with peacekeepers’ lives and disregard lessons from previous operations.
These critics fear that trends toward aggressive "peacekeeping" have shaped not only U.N. planning for the Middle East but also current missions in Africa. The resulting debate over the risks and rules of peacekeeping has ground on inside U.N. headquarters throughout the year, punctuated by victories and setbacks from the Great Lakes to the Sahel. What if anything has the organization learned? And is there still a chance that U.N. peacekeepers could be called upon to return to Syria and face threats that they were spared this year?
Syria was only one among a number of potential missions on the horizon for the U.N. at the end of 2012. There was a mounting possibility that a U.N. force would be needed in Mali, while African governments were lobbying the Security Council to send a peace enforcement mission to fight rebel militias in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Yet it also remained possible that local African states might be able to police Mali, albeit with U.N. planning advice and logistical assistance, and that the council would conclude that the costs and risks of a new force in the DRC were not worthwhile. The organization already had more than 95,000 peacekeepers worldwide, costing more than $7 billion, after all. Had there been an opening for a new mission in Syria, it would surely have dominated the U.N.’s attention, as UNSMIS did in mid-2012, relegating the African conflicts to, at best, minor concerns.
But the Syrian mission proved to be an unworkable notion. In the last week of December 2012, Brahimi visited Damascus and both privately and publicly made a case for a cease-fire and “strong observation” force. Assad dismissed Brahimi’s proposals and belittled his efforts in a speech on Jan. 6, 2013. The very next day, French troops and aircraft deployed to Mali to counter rebel advances. It was to be a year of African crisis management for peacekeepers after all. While U.N. officials have kept their Syrian options updated, and were able to draw on them to back the mission launched to inspect and disarm Assad’s chemical arsenal after the Ghouta incident, the prospects for a larger force remain remote.
In the meantime, the Security Council mandated a “Force Intervention Brigade” for the DRC in March—although this was put in the framework of the existing U.N. mission in the Congo, MONUSCO—and the U.N. took over peacekeeping duties in Mali this summer. Now some of the planners that prepared those missions have switched focus to identify the U.N.’s options for backing France in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In each case, just as over Syria, there have been complaints inside and outside the U.N. secretariat that the organization is taking excessive risks, thereby putting the U.N.’s broader reputation on the line.
The DRC brigade was especially controversial because its mandate authorized it to “neutralize” rebel groups, breaking the tradition that peacekeepers should be impartial and use only limited violence. The Security Council recognized these concerns by promising that the brigade would not be a precedent for other operations. The mandate for the Mali force was less explicitly aggressive, although some hawks at the U.N. would have liked to include a strong peace enforcement component in that mission as well. But it was clear that Mali might prove especially dangerous because of the presence of radical Islamist groups in the north of the country and the wider Sahel. Like it or not, the U.N. could end up facing an insurgency.
To defenders of these new operational concepts, such complaints seemed overblown. U.N. forces may have declared their fealty to concepts like impartiality, but they have always bent the rules. In the DRC in particular, peacekeepers have used significant force in the past. The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) circulated talking points explaining that the new brigade was a matter of “evolution not revolution,” although some big troop contributors like India remained unhappy. And while the Islamist presence in Mali was a genuine concern, the French intervention had done enough damage to hardcore insurgents for the U.N. to begin operations without facing widespread challenges. One DPKO official was even heard to predict that Mali would be as relaxed a peacekeeping billet as Cyprus.
To date, the evidence from the field has justified elements of both the optimistic and pessimistic arguments. The Intervention Brigade has succeeded in fighting back the Congolese rebels alongside the national army. Even some ambassadors who opposed the concept in the Security Council have changed their minds. There has been greater progress than many cynics suggested in forging a peace deal for the eastern DRC and its neighborhood to consolidate this military success. While the operation lost three Tanzanian soldiers in the fighting, the gains achieved appeared to justify the U.N.’s wager on using force.
The verdict on Mali is less certain. The U.N. mission there, MINUSMA, has overseen credible national elections, but there are signs of mounting discontent in the north of the country. Two Chadian and two Senegalese troops serving with the mission in Mali have been killed in bomb attacks, and the operation is likely to sustain further fatalities in future—not least because a lot of the African contingents involved are poorly equipped and relatively easy targets. Senior U.N. officials are flabbergasted by how long it has taken to get additional troops on the ground, leaving the mission stretched thin and reliant on French troops to quell crises.
Overall, however, it has been a year of tentative success for the U.N.’s new African adventures. Indeed, the organization’s toughest challenges on the continent have arguably been in Darfur, where regular attacks on peacekeepers have continued to sap the credibility of an exhausted mission, and South Sudan, where the U.N. and government are increasingly at loggerheads just two-and-a-half years after blue helmets ushered the new state to independence.
It’s also worth considering the losses that a U.N. mission in Syria might have sustained during the past year. In theory, the risks would have been low if a genuine cease-fire and political process had taken root. But U.N. officials recognized that there was unlikely to be a clear-cut cessation of hostilities even in a good scenario. UNSMIS operated for four months without suffering fatalities, but many of its personnel were on lockdown for much of that period. A larger force would have had greater vulnerabilities, and might have been a target for terrorists even if, or because, it managed to coexist with pro-Assad forces.
So a Syrian mission could well have surpassed the U.N.’s new African operations in terms of threats and casualties: Peacekeepers have certainly taken huge risks this year, but they may have avoided greater ones.
Indeed, some U.N. officials fear that the Security Council may learn precisely the wrong lessons if it concludes that the Mali and DRC operations have succeeded. If U.N. attack troops are able to suppress nasty rebels in the eastern DRC, why not give future blue helmet forces tougher mandates in the Middle East? If Chadian troops can weather repeated Islamist bombings in Mali, surely other U.N. personnel, hopefully better equipped and protected, would be able to navigate similar threats in a postwar Syria?
Security Council diplomats are not quite so simple-minded as to draw such facile connections between very different missions. They have also been reminded of the limits of peacekeeping over the past year by events on the Golan Heights, where the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been harassed by Syrian rebels based in its area of operations. Since it was launched to watch over Syrian and Israeli forces in the 1970s, UNDOF has been a notoriously quiet mission. But in March, 21 Filipino soldiers were taken hostage by rebels. Four more were seized in May. Although the hostages were released, worried governments including Japan and Austria withdrew their troops from the Golan. While friends of the U.N. led by Ireland offered replacements, UNDOF showed that Islamists can still cow U.N. operations.
It is possible that the U.N. will in the future find it much easier to launch high-intensity missions in Africa than in other regions, because African governments are increasingly willing to take risks and launch offensive operations compared to their counterparts elsewhere. U.N. officials speak with a mixture of awe and apprehension of the fact that contributors to the African Union stabilization force in Somalia have sustained thousands of fatalities over the past five years. The U.N. could not manage a fraction of that death rate in any of its missions, and the Western powers that provide a significant percentage of the personnel for the organization’s operations in the Middle East are especially cautious after Afghanistan.
To those who remain critical of the U.N.’s recent experiments with risk, this potential fragmentation of the organization’s efforts signals a deeper flaw in the evolution of peacekeeping. For skeptics, the most important question is not whether individual missions succeed in dealing with individual crises, but whether the U.N.’s leadership has a real understanding of the foundations and limits of peacemaking.
This question is especially sensitive because U.N. veterans believe that, in the years after the publication of the Brahimi Report in 2000, they did build up a robust understanding of these issues. Under the guidance of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. officials attempted to grasp the lessons of past missions, including the failures of the 1990s such as Rwanda and Bosnia, and convert them into a doctrine of peacekeeping.
The principles that they set out included not only the importance of a “peace to keep” and impartiality, but also the centrality of political processes to effective peacemaking. There was a new focus on facilitating economic peacebuilding and long-term institution-building. U.N. officials wanted to distinguish their operations from war-fighting and avoid getting drawn back into situations characterized by simmering large-scale conflicts, as the former Yugoslavia had been in the 1990s. On this basis, they fought to keep the U.N. out of Somalia. Many questioned the wisdom of deploying to Darfur, where an inchoate and fragmentary conflict made it very unlikely that peacekeeping could make an impact.
In some cases, as over Somalia, the U.N. secretariat managed to defend these principles. In others, including Darfur, the secretariat failed. Security Council diplomats sometimes seethed at what they saw as deadening risk-aversion. Yet the peacekeepers’ prudent approach allowed the U.N. to re-emerge as a significant security actor after its flops of the 1990s. Above all, the nightmare scenario to avoid was “another Srebrenica,” where U.N. troops would find themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered by forces intent on a massacre.
For all DPKO’s talk of “evolution not revolution,” however, many U.N. officials agree that recent crises have shown that the Annan-era principles are losing relevance. Ironically, both advocates and opponents of this year’s missions in the DRC and Mali can agree on many of the factors involved in this shift. They recognize that the nature of conflict is changing, with transnational actors ranging from terrorists to organized criminal gangs fueling violence. They know that the ideologies and interest of such groups militate against successful political processes. And they worry that the declining influence of the U.N.’s traditional if inconstant diplomatic allies the U.S. and the European Union will make it harder to handle cases like the DRC in future.
Yet U.N. officials respond to these challenges in fundamentally different ways. Some adopt a form of conservative pessimism, insisting that the organization must stand by its timeworn principles in the face of change. Others take an increasingly minimalist view of what the organization would achieve, and would like to see peacekeeping focus on a narrow range of security-building tasks in future. Relative hawks, like those who supported the Intervention Brigade in DRC, counter that the U.N. will only marginalize itself if it turns away from new crises. They favor pushing the boundaries on matters such as the use of force and accepting the concomitant risks where peacekeeping and mediation have failed.
This last group is in the ascendance for now, but even its boldest members know that a major crisis—“another Srebrenica”—in Congo or Mali could reverse this process. In the meantime, it is hard to see how the current debates over U.N. peacekeeping will cohere into a new strategic narrative about its potential and limitations. It is now a cliche that there can be no “one size fits all” peace operations, and there is a new emphasis on improving the U.N.’s planning, intelligence and analysis. Its capacities for all three have often proved startlingly insufficient in the past. In Mali, the Netherlands and Nordic countries are forming an intelligence cell that could be a model for other operations in future.
But while it is obviously a very good thing for U.N. missions to be well-planned and well-informed, it’s arguable that these technical fixes leave big questions unanswered, especially when it comes to assessing the levels of risk and robustness necessary to make missions work. These questions are likely to be on display in the debate over the CAR in the coming months. There is little doubt that the poor and brutally fragmented country will need considerable U.N. assistance for some years to come, assuming that France can at least restore a modicum of order. But what peacekeeping package should the U.N. offer?
Options range from a relatively lightweight presence to facilitate humanitarian aid and public order to a large-scale mission that includes a hefty military component capable of putting down challenges. The latter could protect civilians in the short and medium terms, but how long will the Security Council want peacekeepers patrolling a country that registers in very few geopolitical debates indeed? The operational debates that surrounded the DRC and Mali in early 2013 are likely to reoccur over the CAR in 2014. It is also possible that the arguments over peacekeeping in Syria that flared up a year ago will reappear.
The idea that any organization, let alone the U.N., might launch peacekeepers into Syria in the foreseeable future may seem incredible. When Brahimi visited Damascus in December 2012 to press the case for a cease-fire and observation force, he was convinced that Assad was under acute military pressure and might need to make a deal. This proved to be a misconception. Today, few if any objective observers believe that Assad, having survived the chemical weapons crisis and seen his forces gain ground against the divided rebels, is either about to lose the war or offer his resignation.
Yet political deals and demands for peacekeeping forces can emerge at unexpected junctures. International actors are increasingly focused on the threat posed by radical Islamists in Syria. They also accept that, given the weak state of the moderate opposition, Assad’s military is the best buffer against the radicals. It is quite conceivable that, as the conflict deteriorates, the U.S. and its allies will opt for a political deal that keeps the Syrian army firmly in place as part of a larger compromise with the Syrian government, Russia and Iran aimed at containing the Islamists. This would raise further dilemmas. Could the army be trusted to concentrate its fire on radicals rather than civilians? How would moderate rebels behave?
In such a context, U.N. observers might return to Syria to keep watch over the army or patrol the boundaries between different factions’ zones of control. If this sounds implausible, it is not that far from what UNSMIS undertook in 2012 or what Brahimi envisaged at the beginning of this year.
And if another 300, 3,000 or 10,000 peacekeepers get drawn into such an operation, then all the risks that seemed to loom for the U.N. at the start of the year will be back. The blue helmets have come through their year of living dangerously in Mali and the DRC relatively unscathed. They have no time to relax in either case, or in preparing for the CAR. But even greater dangers may lie ahead in Syria in 2014.
Richard Gowan is the associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.