Iran, Syria, Ukraine: Berlin Should Take a Leadership Role

26 June 2018   ·   Richard Gowan

Germany should use its time on the UN Security Council to address some of the world’s most pressing crises. This includes acting as a mediator on the Iran deal as well as leading negotiations on reconstruction in Syria and on a possible UN mission in Ukraine. Taking on such initiatives is risky. But nobody said that holding a seat on the Council in the current political climate was going to be easy.

The most important decision any elected member of the Security Council must make is what crises and countries to prioritize during their two-year term. The Council’s agenda is bulging with issues ranging from the Colombian peace process to sanctions on North Korea. Even the best-prepared and resourced non-permanent member can only hope to make a meaningful difference on a limited number of these files. The five permanent members insist on handling the majority of sensitive items themselves.

As an alternative to focusing on specific crises, elected members frequently take up some thematic issues to promote during their terms, usually by organizing high-level, open debates when they hold the Council presidency. In 2011-2012, Berlin made the security effects of climate change a priority. This was controversial with China and Russia at the time, but the Council now discusses environmental threats, such as desertification in the Sahel, with increasing regularity. It would be consistent for Germany to table climate change again in some form in 2019 or 2020. Other thematic issues of interest to Berlin include children in armed conflict, and the security implications of pandemic diseases.

Non-permanent members can play a bigger role in crisis diplomacy

These are certainly important causes, but the Council’s non-permanent members are ultimately judged on their impact (if any) on specific countries and crises, not on thematic issues. Many diplomats would like to see fewer thematic debates overall, as they consume time and often have limited concrete outcomes. A determined elected member can lead on a specific country situation. Germany managed Council discussions on Afghanistan in 2011-2012. Since then, the deterioration of relations between the permanent members has created space for some other elected members to play a greater role in crisis diplomacy. Australia and Luxembourg – which both held seats from 2013 to 2014 – launched a series of resolutions on humanitarian assistance to Syria that, while failing to break the overall deadlock over the war, still helped relief agencies get aid to suffering areas. Sweden, which joined the Council in 2017, has been extremely active on the humanitarian file and in trying to reduce frictions between the permanent members more generally, although they have not always welcomed its efforts.

Work closely with France and the UK to keep the Iran deal alive

As a weighty elected member of the Council, Germany should not shy away from following Sweden’s example and taking on some of the hard cases on the UN agenda. It will not really be able to avoid doing so. Germany is almost certain to find itself involved in complex diplomacy over Iran throughout its term. Exactly what form this will take depends on whether the Iranian nuclear deal unravels completely under US pressure in 2018. If there are still prospects of sustaining some version of the nuclear bargain by the beginning of 2019, Berlin may have to act as a mediator with Tehran to keep diplomacy alive. If the deal collapses beyond salvation this year, Germany will find itself in a painful position alongside the UK and France in the Security Council, with both (1) trying to persuade the US to return to diplomacy and avoid escalatory steps in the Middle East, and (2) aiming to dissuade Tehran from provocative actions that could worsen the situation further. To have any chance of success, Berlin will have to coordinate closely with France and the UK in the E3 format – an ad hoc framework that German officials hope can survive Brexit – while also working more loosely with China and Russia to avoid counterproductive clashes over Iran in the Security Council. A persistent level of friction with the US is virtually inevitable. 

Whatever approach Germany adopts on the Iranian issue, Berlin will have an interest in trying to keep other tracks of UN diplomacy alive. As far as possible, it should aim to protect the “compartmentalization” of diplomatic issues: pushing for progress where it is possible, and preventing irresolvable disputes (like that over Iran) from paralyzing the UN as a whole. There are two cases in which Berlin could invest that could create opportunities for big power brokering: (1) practical steps to assist de-escalation and reconstruction in Syria; and (2) a UN operation to end the Ukrainian war.

Berlin should lead the Council negotiations on Syria

As I have noted, Australia and Luxembourg launched a Security Council initiative to support humanitarian assistance in Syria in 2013. This expanded to include resolutions authorizing relief agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held areas without consent from the Syrian government (Resolution 2165). While the Security Council has reauthorized this year on year, Russia has signaled that it thinks it is no longer relevant, now that Damascus has recaptured much of its territory. Moscow wants Western countries to stop talking about humanitarian issues – and other matters like chemical weapons – and offer reconstruction cash to Syria instead. Western powers, including Germany, have balked at these demands. A crisis over the Iranian nuclear deal is likely to make compromises over Syria even harder to achieve. But if President Bashar al-Assad and his allies continue to grind down the opposition, it may ultimately be necessary to negotiate some sort of UN-backed framework for reconstruction and reconciliation that is acceptable to Russia and gives donors some control over how their aid is used, so that it does not simply degenerate into handouts for the regime. This will require tough compromises by all sides. Germany could be well-placed (or least-worst-placed) to lead Council negotiations on this business, because it has not been entangled in the P3-Russia arguments over Syria in recent years and because it is a major aid donor.

Germany will have a decisive role in designing a possible UN mission in Ukraine

If UN talks on Syria are bound to be toxic, there is an outside chance that Germany could contribute to more positive discussions on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised Western officials in September 2017 by hinting that he could be open to some sort of UN presence in the Donbass to end the war there. Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel responded with excitement and, less predictably, the Trump administration jumped on the idea. There has been on-off US-Russian engagement on the issue since, and while many differences remain with regard to the size and mission of any UN force, a workable compromise may eventually arise. The recent German coalition agreement encourages this outcome. If an opportunity for a deal emerges in 2019 or 2020, Berlin will have a decisive role in finalizing it as a member of the Normandy Format for discussions on Ukraine, and could also help shepherd a resolution mandating an international deployment through the Security Council.

Partner with South Africa and France on African security issues

One question for Berlin is whether it should try to play a significant role in Council debates concerning any of the UN’s peace operations in Africa, which take up over half of the Security Council’s time and involve over 70,000 troops and police. The 2013 Mali crisis, the recognition that Sahel is a base for Al-Qaeda, and above all the large-scale migrant and refugee movements across the Sahara, mean that Berlin has become more alert to African security issues. Germany should try to make some sort of concrete contribution to African affairs in the Security Council. The problem is identifying issues for which Germany is a more natural lead than either France in Francophone Africa or the three African members.

Berlin’s best approach could be to partner with some of these other powers. Berlin and Paris could collaborate on related Security Council resolutions on security, development, and environmental threats to the region. This would combine France’s regional influence with Germany’s financial clout. Berlin could also reach out to South Africa, which will join the Council in 2019, too. As two prominent but non-permanent Council members, Germany and South Africa could work together on reinforcing African peacekeeping and conflict prevention through EU, AU and UN channels.

Seize the opportunity to address the real crises at the UN

There are obvious downsides to taking on hard cases rather than purely thematic issues in the Security Council. The permanent members do not like other states trespassing on their turf. There is a high risk that creative initiatives on cases such as Syria and Ukraine will fail, fomenting tensions with Russia or the United States. But nobody said that holding a seat on the Security Council was going to be easy in the current geopolitical climate. Having secured its place at the UN’s top table, Germany should seize the opportunity to address some of the deep crises that threaten to undermine the UN’s credibility.

Vereinte Nationen Osteuropa English Frieden & Sicherheit UN-Sicherheitsrat Syrien Ukraine

Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan recently joined the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research as a Senior Fellow, and is also a Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and NYU Center on International Cooperation. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.  

This essay is adapted from In the Hot Seat: What can Germany achieve in the Security Council? (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, May 2018).