When the United Nations Security Council tries to micromanage a conflict, as some of its members are poised to do with regard to Syria’s civil war, it is a pretty good bet that the situation will very soon get worse. The council offers a useful, if often malfunctioning, mechanism for creating diplomatic frameworks to handle crises. When it is united, it can bring pressure to bear on warring parties. Yet when the council gets into the operational details of conflict management, such as how to protect specific cities from attack or to deliver aid, it is liable to wade out of its depth.
In 1993, the council infamously passed resolutions identifying several Bosnian towns, including Srebrenica, as “safe areas,” even though U.N. peacekeepers never had the resources to defend them. The hollowness of the entire exercise was laid bare when Bosnian Serb forces seized Srebrenica and killed 8,000 men and boys in 1995.
The fundamental lesson of the Srebrenica episode, as Daniel Korski and I argued some years ago, is that the Security Council should not try to establish itself as a “command post” directing specific operations. The ambassadors who voted for the safe area concept were genuinely horrified by the “slow-motion genocide” they saw taking place in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. But while their response may have made sense diplomatically, it simply set up the U.N. force in Bosnia to fail operationally.