Saturday, September 21, 2013

Syrian Dilemmas



Will there be a US-led military campaign to disarm and topple the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria or will the Syrian dictator have the last laugh? The upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York will prove to be crucial in determining the US-led international community’s course of action against the Syrian government. While the internal civil war in Syria has been going on since mid 2011, as a direct outcome of the Arab Spring, the US and allies were hesitant to directly involve themselves in Syria till, of course, the Syrian government, allegedly, used Chemical weapons in rebel held areas killing over a thousand civilians.  The UN appointed a commission to inquire into the Chemical weapon use on the 21st of last month and the commission has already submitted its report. 

The UN inquiry report has concluded that Chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict on a very large scale but has stopped short of putting the blame on the Syrian government. The American government, using various inferences from the UN report, has argued that the report contains enough indirect evidence to put the blame on the Assad regime. But why is the use of Chemical weapons significant given that it has killed only over a thousand people whereas the fighting over the last two years have killed over a hundred thousand people, mostly civilians? The 1993 Chemical weapons Convention (CWC) outlawed the production and use of Chemical weapons given that they are weapon of mass destruction. Use of Chemical weapons, therefore, is widely considered to be a taboo and, as the argument goes, steps should be taken when this taboo is violated. 

Syria is now at the center of the geopolitical storm in West Asia replacing Iran especially since the June 2013 election of the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who has reached out to the US paving the way for potential reconciliation between the two sides. Accommodating Iran, despite resistance from Israel, will enable the Obama administration to focus all its energies on Syria and gain the much-needed support for a military campaign against Syria. The US has not only been facing opposition from within the country, but also from its partners in Europe (Germany has said no to the use of force and the British Parliament has prevented its government from going ahead with a military campaign against Syria).

However, what is bothering the US is not really the lack of European partners but the stiff resistance from China and Russia who has effectively blocked any possibility of US getting the go-ahead from the UN Security Council. Clearly China and Russia would like to, for balance of power and other purposes, make sure that the Americans do not get to do what they would like to on the world stage. But more importantly, both the challengers have deep economic links with Syria. Not only do both Russia and China have considerable trade links with Syria but have also been selling great mounts of weapons to Syria.  According to some reports “Russian defense industry contracts with Syria exceed $4 billion with an added $162 million per year in Russian arms sales to Syria in 2009 and 2010.”

India’s dilemma New Delhi, at least in the initial period, was unsure whom to support vis-à-vis Syria. It has now made up its mind clarifying that it would not support any military action that is not endorsed by the UNSC. India’s no-war position is clearly influenced by a number of factors: instability in West Asia will create problems for India given the fact that it has millions of its citizens working in that region, and a war in Syria will continue to hike the already sky-high fuel prices. New Delhi also believes that UNSC mandate is necessary for the use of force. However, New Delhi’s dilemma comes from the fact that arguing against the use of force against Syria will clearly frustrate its strategic partnership with the US and its allies.

The black or white positions The current debate on whether or not to use military force to stop the Syrian government from killing its own citizens suffers from an “either or against” conceptualization which primarily stems from a “problem-solving” approach to political issues. One appreciates the need to have solutions but such a need should not blind us from deconstructing the narratives constructed by the opposing sides.
Those resisting the proposed American military action against Syria (especially China and Russia) tend to justify the Syrian government’s crimes against its own people, or at the least ignore them. The simple fact is that Bashar al-Assad is not a democratically elected leader but a dictator who continues in power thanks to the support of the Syrian military. The popular uprising that begun in 2011 was, at least for the most part of it, a genuine political movement by the people for better governance, democracy, transparency and accountability. This needs to be recognized by those opposing the proposed American action in Syria.

However, on the other hand, those supporting the American intervention overlook a number of realities. One, an external military intervention in Syria will surely result in more casualties and untold miseries, slide the country into more anarchy, and violate international law if undertaken without UNSC sanction. More so, the Syrian opposition has also been supplied arms and other resources by the Western countries and hence they are not a 100% locally bred genuine opposition.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, September 22, 2013. URL: 

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