MIDDLE EAST: Syria: Enough Is Enough

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Image: The writer's portrait pictureBy Jayantha Dhanapala* 

KANDY - The two-year-old conflict in Syria rages on with the embattled dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party withstanding the attacks of a motley group of rebels supported by the West and by the money bag monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar with Israel not far behind. Dictatorships - whether unelected, elected or inherited – are of course unacceptable in this day and age when the palpable consent of a sovereign people is paramount for the governance of independent countries. However, no regime change by self-appointed guardians of democracy from abroad can replace a genuine movement for change by the people, of the people and for the people.

Applicable international law, even in the implementation of the controversial 'Responsibility to Protect' doctrine, is very clear on this – only the Security Council can take action in the name of maintaining international peace and security. The tenth anniversary of the infamously illegal invasion of Iraq for the purpose of regime change and on the false pretext of eradicating weapons of mass destruction was recently observed by massive bombings and blood-letting in Iraq with a weak government presiding over a faction-ridden country coping with unbridled violence. Is that the future that awaits Syria?

The Syria imbroglio differs from the Iraqi one in a number of ways. It emerged at the time of the Arab Spring when Tunisia first and then Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Libya  and other Arab countries saw the people rise spontaneously against dictatorial regimes with whom the West and the rest of the world had been content to have normal, and even cozy, relations.

The West supported these popular uprisings selectively. Tunisia’s revolt was autonomous and did not need foreign assistance to succeed. In the case of Libya, Gaddafi’s resistance was soon swept away when the Western powers in the Security Council exploited voting abstentions by Russia and China to empower NATO to enter the battle. Libya, post Gaddafi today, remains divided by factions and is dangerously unstable. The revolt in Bahrain was suppressed because the Saudis supported the unpopular ruler there. Syria was the next target and this suited Israel’s agenda since it was on Israel’s border and Syrian territory on the Golan Heights remains occupied by Israel.

The Arab world was divided in supporting the Syrian regime, which comes from the 12% Alawite sect of the Shias in Syria where the Sunnis and Kurds demand power sharing as in Iraq. The Arab League suspended the Syrian regime and later gave the Syrian National Coalition that seat in its body. The fact is that a heterogeneous collection of groups including the Jihadist Jabbah-al-Nusra and other extremist groups suspected of Al Qaeda links are benefiting from arms supplied by the Western supporters and the wealthy Saudi and Qatari financiers of the rebel groups.

Regional rivalry

The regional rivalry between the Saudis and the Qataris has complicated the Syrian problem. Syria is the linchpin of the Middle East and its complex religious and ethnic mix can affect the whole region if it unravels. In the past the connection between Lebanon and Syria was well established but today the links between Syria and the Middle East region are far wider and deeper. The explicit support for the Syrian regime by the Hezbollah is sufficient to ensure Israeli and Western opposition to continue and reports of Israeli missile attacks on Syria are no surprise. The Syrian regime has suffered a number of defections at senior military, official and diplomatic levels. At the international level Russia remains the main supporter and arms supplier of the Assad regime. After the bitter lesson of the Libyan episode, Russia and China have vetoed any move by the West to obtain Security Council approval for action on Syria.

The humanitarian cost of the war has been enormous. The heads of humanitarian agencies in the UN system took the unusual step of coming out with a joint statement urging a political solution saying “Enough, enough…. We, leaders of U.N. agencies charged with dealing with the human costs of this tragedy, appeal to political leaders involved to meet their responsibility to the people of Syria and to the future of the region.”

The death toll of more than 70,000 is tragic. The displacement of refugees (over 1.3 million to date) has created problems for neighbouring countries especially in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Palestinian refugees within Syria have also to face acute distress. The UN’s efforts have been unproductive – but not for want of trying. First, Kofi Annan was appointed Special Envoy but gave up in the face of the intransigence of the parties. Lakhdar Brahimi succeeded him and talked of finding chinks in the blank wall that faced him. He is still trying to get the parties to the negotiating table but the lack of unity among the rebel forces and the perception that negotiating with Assad, instead of insisting on his resignation, will perpetuate the ruling regime, stand in the way.

"Red line" controversy

The latest controversy surrounds the alleged use of chemical weapons in particular the nerve gas sarin. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993 bans chemical weapons universally but Syria is among a very few states, including Egypt and Israel, not party to the CWC. Its stocks of these weapons are probably small but it is also likely that rebel groups have secured access to these weapons and have used them to implicate the regime. This likelihood is increased by the imprudent statement of Obama, desperately fighting against the pro-Israeli and other war-mongering groups in the US, saying that the Assad regime would be crossing a “red line” if it used chemical weapons against its own people. This signalled to all that, if that “red line” was crossed, the US would shift from the sidelines of this conflict providing intelligence and used light weapons to actually putting boots on the ground.

Such a step would be a giant flip backwards for Obama who came into power to extricate his economically troubled country from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into which the preceding Bush Administration had led the USA with disastrous consequences. The opinion polls in the US are against another war. Obama has now been forced to qualify his earlier statement by seeking answers to the questions as to when and how the chemical weapons were used and by whom. He is unlikely to get clear-cut, unambiguous answers especially since the UN mandated team of experts has not been permitted to enter Syria. The Russian offer to send their own experts is likely to be rebuffed by the Western powers who doubt the credibility of Russian experts.

As the controversy rages the people of Syria are being killed and wounded and the cities including Damascus – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – are being destroyed and with it a priceless heritage of humankind. The contending parties have to first agree to a ceasefire with a UN peacekeeping force to supervise it. The next step is to negotiate in order to form a coalition government that can bring a stable peace and genuine democracy to Syria with the Ba’ath Party included with or without Assad. Russia must pressure Assad and the West, Saudi Arabia and Qatar must persuade its coalition to take these steps since outright victory for either party is unlikely in this stalemate where all are losers.

Indeed it is rumoured in Washington that Obama favours the pragmatic Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council in a Russian brokered deal to end the war. Pending a peaceful solution US supplies of arms to the rebels while Russia supplies arms to the Assad regime would be a regression to the proxy wars of the Cold War era while Syria bleeds. And in the midst of all this where is the role of once influential Non Aligned Movement (NAM)?

*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 - May 8, 2013]

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