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Leadership in the Syrian imbroglio

The continuing manoeuvring around the use of chemical weapons in Syria has raised interesting questions of what constitutes leadership. Unfortunately, the dominant view of leadership is not peacemaking but a willingness to undertake punitive action against countries deemed to have breached international laws and/or conventions, even if that involves even more egregious disregard for that most important symbol of international law – the United Nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is being praised for having averted war through a stroke of statesmanship (or chicanery), depending on your politics, by coming up with a plan for Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons – handing them over to the United Nations to be disabled. China, India, and most other countries have supported this non-military solution.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate acceptance of the Russian proposal is dismissed as being undertaken dues to a fear of U.S. missile attacks, which may well be true.

Simultaneously, U.S. President Barack Obama is being mocked for falling into a trap set by the Russian bear. His courageous support for a non-military solution is pilloried as forfeiting his own, and American, prestige and credibility.

France, scorned as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” by the then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, for refusing to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by President George Bush, has been transformed into America’s oldest ally. Let down by the French economy but buoyed up by the January 2013 intervention in Mali, President Francois Hollande was among the first to insist that Assad be punished with military action.

Saddest of all for being prevented from showing leadership may be British Prime Minister David Cameron. The UK Parliament narrowly rejected his motion to authorise military action against Syria.

The UN Secretary General’s Report has confirmed the use of the nerve gas sarin in a rocket attack during the August 21 incident in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which killed hundreds, including children. The UN team was not mandated to, and therefore has not, identified whether the perpetrators were the Syrian government or some of the numerous rebel groups.

Undaunted, the U.S., UK and France, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, have claimed the Report confirms what they already knew from their own intelligence – that the Syrian government is responsible for the outrage. They are now bending their efforts to draft a UN Security Council Resolution for the matter to be dealt with under Chapter 7 of its charter, to keep open the threat of use of force. The time-line – one week for the provision of information and six months for the destruction of the stockpiles – is so short that it seems to have the sub-textual intent of making it impossible for the Syrian government to comply. This keeps the probability for military action high.

Forgotten in the din, or deliberately effaced from memory, is the inconvenient speculation of Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, that there were strong, concrete suspicions, but not incontrovertible proof, of the use of sarin by rebel groups in some instances in May 2013. If she is right, then it cannot be ruled out that the, by now, even better armed rebel groups were responsible for the Ghouta attack as well. This may especially be the case because Assad, who was making gains on the ground, had nothing to gain from providing the casus belli for a U.S. military intervention that could only benefit his opponents.

West Asia, already convulsed by the upheavals of the Arab awakening, is being torn apart by the conflict in Syria since early 2011. All the fault-lines of the region are at play – monarchies versus dictatorial republics, political Islam versus secular governments, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Shia versus Sunni, Arab versus Persian, and then some.

In this imbroglio, powerful countries and ethnicities promote their interests, rendering regional organisations partisan and ineffective. Thus, although Saudi Arabia and Qatar have financed the rebel groups in their proxy battle with Iran, the latter, having been at the receiving end of chemical weapon attacks by Iraq in the 1980’s, had soundly condemned the use of such weapons.

Both the Saudi-dominated Arab League (AL) and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) initially called on the international community to act to end the slaughter of Syrian civilians and later to support the U.S.-Russian deal on the disposal of the chemical weapons. But so far only, the only initiative the AL and OIC have themselves taken is to expel Syria from membership.

Of the four countries that most credibly aspire to membership of the UN Security Council, India, Germany and Brazil had abstained on Resolution No. 1973 authorising the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of all necessary measures  to protect civilians. In the Syrian case too, they have opposed military measures.

Singed as the international community is by the hollowness of western claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, the misuse of the UNSC Resolution on Libya to effect regime change, and the sheer weariness with war in the U.S. and western Europe, people and parliamentarians across the world have loudly opposed the use of force in Syria. Tragically, however, many of their governments are still looking for excuses to disregard these sentiments.

Can the U.S. and former colonial powers like France and UK, used to thinking of themselves as setting standards even as they pursued dominance through the use of force for hundreds of years, begin to think differently? Will the global shift in economic and political weight force this change – just as Russia was forced to shed some of its great power pretensions as the Soviet Union? Can they, like Germany and Japan, on which the recent past weighs heavy, reject the use of force as first resort?

Can emerging powers like China be the different kind of power it claims to want to be? And is India’s support for peaceful resolutions a form of ‘Gandhigiri’ or merely a reflection of its internal dysfunctionality? Can the world aspire to a future where the use of force is not synonymous with leadership?

Ambassador Neelam Deo is Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations and former Ambassador to Denmark and former Joint Secretary for Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh.

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