MIDDLE EAST DOSSIER: The Continuing Agony Of Syria

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The Writer | Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Jayantha Dhanapala*

KANDY, Sri Lanka - The United Nations rose to one of its finest moments when the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2118(2013) on the September 27 addressing the outrageous use of chemical weapons in Syria while setting guidelines for a political solution to the civil war in that country. Great powers can sometimes agree to use diplomacy wisely to save the world from conflict. However the assumption that the Syrian crisis has been solved through a U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons hides the ugly reality of a continuing civil war with daily death tolls adding to a total of about 100,000, a suffering populace and an exodus of refugees now numbering 1.9 million apart from the displaced.

Certainly the world was saved from another display of arrogant adventurism by self appointed global policemen without the legality of a UN Security Council resolution converting yet another Arab country into the same sectarian disunity that engulfs Iraq and Libya after regime change was achieved there.Obama failed to pursuade his own Congress and his war-weary public that the Assad regime was guilty of using chemical weapons on August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta and had therefore to be punished with air strikes without waiting for the UN inspectors report. There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this while reaffirming the need for a political solution to the Syrian conflict beginning with a Geneva II conference.

Having rashly proclaimed the red line of chemical weapon use as a trigger for U.S. military action, President Obama tolerated several earlier incidents until the August 21 use. This horrifying incident took place, interestingly, after the UN inspectors were permitted entry into Syria with the consent of the Assad regime. Obama promptly concluded that there had in fact been chemical weapons use and that it was by the Syrian regime and not the rebels. Subsequent revelations hint that US intelligence that he relied on was doctored. The U.S. President, who ironically had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize soon after his first election, called for military strikes without putting U.S. boots on the ground.

Prime Minister Cameron of UK fell into line, rather like the way Blair supported Bush over Iraq. The important difference was that with strong public opinion polls both in the US and UK opposing military action, Obama and Cameron cautiously decided to consult their legislatures. The British House of Commons voted 285-272 against any intervention and with many of his backbenchers and his Liberal-Democrat partners also joining in the opposition, Cameron backed down.

Not so Obama who pressed on, no doubt influenced by the pro-Israeli lobby led by the powerful American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), addressing the nation and proposing a resolution in Congress despite voices against it. Faced with imminent defeat Obama was thrown a political lifeline by an ingenious Russian diplomatic move, which could prove to be the game changer. At the same time leaked CIA files proved the U.S. knowingly helped Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran in 1988 with intelligence on Iranian troop formations, location and movements. In a climactic week what appeared to be an inevitable attack on Syria by some Western powers turned into a constructive diplomatic negotiation to seek peaceful solutions.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s brilliant Foreign Minister who began his career in Colombo where he studied Sinhala, proposed international custody of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Assad went even further offering to surrender all his weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which they had avoided because of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Events proceeded quickly with Putin rubbing in the humiliation of Obama with an op-ed in the New York Times addressing the people of the U.S. over the heads of its leaders. He warned, “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

Despite Russia’s support for Syria and her supply of arms to the Assad regime this warning resonated around the world. The Lavrov-Kerry meeting in Geneva worked hard to come out with a balanced agreement which was greeted by relief by all except of course Israel and France. The latter under a Socialist President Hollande, in marked contrast to the more conservative President Jacques Chirac who opposed Bush strongly over Iraq in 2003, announced support for Obama and for the Syrian rebels. The UN Secretary-General while condemning the use of chemical weapons was consistent in urging member states to wait for the report of his experts and warned against action outside the UN Charter. The UN’s mandate was to find out whether chemical weapons had been used and not who used them.

An amazing chutzpah

There is an amazing chutzpah on the part of the U.S., France and Israel, as possessor states of the most destructive weapons of mass destruction – the nuclear weapon – in their reaction to chemical weapons. A statement issued by the Nobel Peace Prize recipient the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs stated, inter alia:

“Rather than a limited military intervention with unclear goals, a cessation of all war-related actions should be promoted, by engaging in an all-inclusive dialogue including the government of Syria, the representatives of opposition, the neighbouring countries (including Iran, Saudi Arabia), as well as NATO countries and Russia. The universalization of the CWC and the dismantlement of CW stockpiles is a goal that needs to be prioritized and plans should be discussed for how to achieve a Syria free of chemical weapons following the cessation of the current conflict. Events in Syria reinforce the urgent need for a Middle East WMD Free Zone. The conference called for by the NPT Review Conference in 2010 for 2012 should be held with utmost urgency. Those countries who believe the use of military force is a viable option following an alleged attack, but who block efforts to convene meetings that could lead to the eradication of these weapons from regional arsenals, bear some responsibility for the deepening quagmire in the Middle East.”

Hans Blix who headed UNMOVIC, the UN body vested with the verification and destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, wisely observed: “The political dynamics are running ahead of due process.”

Another expert, Professor Ramesh Thakur, wrote: “The one significant development since 2003 is the unanimous adoption of the responsibility to protect (R2P) norm in 2005. As one of the main authors of the original R2P report in 2001, let me say two things. First, the use of chemical weapons does constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity, thereby triggering R2P, which covers four atrocity crimes in all (the others being genocide and ethnic cleansing). The U.N. secretary general’s special advisers were right to call attention to this. If use is proven and guilt established, the U.N. as the custodian of our collective conscience must take appropriately tough action and hold the perpetrators criminally accountable. But (second), they failed to speak truth to power by not emphasizing, at a time when the FUKUS leaders were uttering public threats of military strikes unilaterally if necessary, that R2P action must be U.N. -authorized, in conformity with the U.N. Charter, and for civilian protection, not punishment…….If NATO were to launch military strikes on Syria by misusing R2P language, they will kill R2P.”

“R2P” as a concept in international relations has already lost credibility in the UN since the West transformed it into a tool of their own policies for selective regime change. A resolution in the Security Council seeking military action in Syria is certain to be vetoed by both Russia and China and any NATO action thereafter would spark global outrage and tragic consequences for the Middle East with spiraling terrorism, sectarian violence and no prospect of regional peace for the immediate future.

The only country this will satisfy would be Israel who is feeding the neo-conservative lobby in the U.S. against Assad and the Iranian regime which, after the election of Rouhani, has demonstrated a willingness to talk to Obama to resolve the issue of its nuclear programme through diplomacy.

The process of chemical weapons inspection and destruction will take time and money. The time can be used for diplomacy. The money for the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should ideally come from the BRICS, and especially China, which must contribute towards the solution of global problems commensurate with her growing economic power and political influence.

Syria has already furnished records of its chemical weapons arsenal, which must of course be verified. That opportunity could be used to accelerate the search for a political solution and the convening of Geneva II under the wise guidance of veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. If meanwhile evidence is produced by an impartial and credible source that the now proven use of chemical weapons was by the Assad regime then a process approved by the Security Council must be launched to prosecute him and his associates in the International Criminal Court.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is currently President of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize recipient the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 30, 2013]

The writer's previous articles on IDN:
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Photo: The Writer | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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