Even when compared to his emollient competitor for the job Shashi Tharoor who is beloved in Europe and North America in a way that few international diplomats are, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is a bargain. Since taking office in 2007, Ban has hewed even more closely to any agenda set by NATO than even Barack Obama.
Indeed, following on the UN’s 21st century replay of the 1930s League of Nations principle of trusteeship in 2001 in Afghanistan and in 2003 in Iraq, the UN Security Council approved resolutions that in effect made the two countries colonies of their military occupiers. The local population was given zero rights. Interestingly, no time limits were placed on such an occupation.
Such a return to “Mandated Colonialism” may be said to be Kofi Annan’s contribution to the ideals of the UN, which have most clearly been expressed in the composition of the UN Security Council (UNSC). It has two European countries (the UK and France), another where the ruling elite considers itself part of Europe (Russia) and a fourth that has since its inception been happy to be regarded as a slice of Europe transplanted in the American continent, i.e. the U.S. Only China falls outside this category within the permament members of the UNSC, an ‘honour’ which Winston Churchill and his successor Clement Attlee succeeded in keeping India away from.
Today, the UNSC has in effect become the UN, with the rest of the “international” body’s membership reduced to irrelevance. The UNSC “Permanent 5″ usually manage to get another European country, Germany, into “P-5 plus 1″ arrangements, for example while dealing with Iran. Why Germany, and not Argentina or Indonesia, is never a point of debate within a UN headquarters that has over the decades been completely house-trained to reflect the views and the strategic and tactical needs of NATO. The non-NATO elements, Russia and China, usually parley their initial opposition to NATO-centric resolutions and statements into private deals between themselves and the NATO countries.
They thereby leave in the lurch those countries that had depended on their veto to avoid hostile actions which suit only the interests of NATO, but which are given an international gloss by becoming the subject of a UNSC resolution. Hence Russia and China’s unwillingness to seek a reversal of the 2011 UNSC resolution used by NATO as cover for giving military assistance to armed elements in Libya that sought not dialogue, but regime change in that country.
The odds are that Syria will witness a similar trajectory, when the U.S. and the EU’s (usually off-camera) offer of concessions to China and Russia reach a level that will ensure a Libya-style abstention in a future UNSC resolution that targets the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.
It is this propensity of Moscow and Beijing to exchange commitments to their allies for concessions from NATO members, that has given UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon the confidence needed to once again go four-square on the side of the Western alliance in an issue before the UN. While Kofi Annan covered up his cheerful, carrying-the-weight-of-NATO, commitments with sometimes acerbic language against the alliance – more notably the US – his successor Ban Ki-Moon has been endearingly honest in declaring his fealty to supporting the interests of NATO all across the globe. Indeed, Ban has evolved his own doctrine, which is that former colonial masters know best how to deal with issues that concern their former colonies.
Thus, he backed France in the Ivory Coast, when Paris armed a faction loyal to itself against another which sought autonomy from its former colonial master. Under Ban, France has once again become the arbiter of the destinies of several of its former colonies in Africa. Italy was given pride of place in the 2011 conferences on Libya, and France has been the location of choice for the numerous “Friends of Syria” meetings whose single aim is to ensure that Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, follows Muammar Gaddafy and Saddam Hussein into oblivion. About the only exception that Ban observes for his “former-colonial-masters-know-best” doctrine seems to be Japan, which he has not thus far tapped to be the lead actor in UN moves on the Korean peninsula. Ban is clearly aware of the distaste that Koreans have for their former colonial master, even while he ignores similar sentiments among African and Arab peoples.
As Syria was once a colony of France, the Ban-led UN has given the leadership position to Paris to fine-tune the response of the “international community” (otherwise known as NATO) towards Damascus.
This is nothing short of regime change. The “Arab Spring” would, it was hoped, lead to so many manifestations of dissent within Syria that the country would go the way of Egypt. What was forgotten was that the Egyptian military is a creature of NATO, while Syria’s is not. Despite his decades of service to the alliance, Hosni Mubarak was seen as expendable, even by the generals in Cairo, in large part because of the cupidity of his family members (who in their greed resemble certain political families in India) and his determination to have his headstrong, intellectually-challenged son Gamal succeed him as President of Egypt. While the Egyptian military was happy to allow Mubarak to continue in office till natural causes supervened, his increasing ill-health made it likely that Gamal would get speed-promoted through the hierarchy so as to take over from his father.
Unfortunately for the Mubarak family, such a transition plan was put off to 2013, or about three years too late for it to succeed. By 2010, even the military had realized that Mubarak and his brood were a burden on the brass, and needed to go. Hence the January 2011 signal from the Obama White House and State Department to dump Mubarak was accepted almost instantly. Operations to clear up Tahrir Square were abandoned, and Egypt and the rest of the Arab world entered upon a period of ferment, the consequences of which are still opaque.
For reasons that are not self-evident, it was the authorities in Qatar which gave a boost to the scattered demonstrations that took place in Tunisia and in other Arab countries beginning December 2010. There was almost certainly a prod from the Obama administration to local Arab satraps to remove those leaders who were symbols of greed and inefficiency.
Was this the reason why Al Jazeera emerged as the cheerleader of what became known as the “Arab Spring”? Few know, and those who do, are not talking. However, the fact is that the upsurge was immensely fuelled by the 24/7 coverage given by the news channel to the demonstrations, especially in Egypt. Exaggerated accounts of crowd strength were repeatedly aired, such as the frequent estimates (first by Al Jazeera and subsequently CNN and BBC) of a million “protestors” congregating in Tahrir Square, when independent reports never put the number as higher than 200,000 within the square itself. The figure of a million was obviously arrived at by adding bystanders as well as local residents to the number of actual protestors.
Barack Obama’s decision to back his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in giving full-throated backing to the “Arab Spring” may, in time, be seen as a decision as momentous as that of the French to give asylum to Ayatollah Khomeini just before the change of regime in Tehran in 1979, and of President Carter’s injunction that year to an ailing Shah of Iran to avoid the use of force when dealing with protestors. Teheran could have been cleared up in a week, had the Iranian military been given freedom to do so, while Tahrir Square could have similarly been denuded of protestors, had the Egyptian army enforced the same policy as that followed by the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing in 1989. However, it needs to be remembered that militaries in the Mideast are almost all clients of the principal NATO powers, and lack the freedom to act independently in such matters.
Unlike in the case of Libya, where Secretary General Ban was able to ensure the execution of both Colonel Gaddafi as well as his regime, such a result is unlikely in Syria. For one, there is no Saif Al-Islam in Syria. In Libya, Saif and other sons of Muammar Gaddafi prevailed upon their doting father to place his fate in the hands of NATO by surrendering his weapons of mass destruction and his intelligence trove. NATO would like Asma Assad, the spouse of Bashar al-Assad, to play such a role in Syria, by “persuading” her husband to, in effect, concede defeat unilaterally by ceasing operations against irregulars focussed on his destruction.
But there is no evidence that the siren calls (and threats) from NATO capitals is having any effect on Asma Assad’s views. The spectacle of the final days of Muammar Gaddafi must be sufficient reason for her to disbelieve the promises made by NATO of safe conduct, or the same inducements that were offered to Gaddafi (and in large part accepted, until it became clear that nothing except his downfall would satisfy NATO). It is clear that what NATO seeks is the physical end of the Assad regime, including its highest tier, and this has brought together the leading elements of the regime in a way that has not been seen before in Libya, where high-level defections are frequent.
Second, unlike Saddamite Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya, Syria has not unilaterally disarmed in response to the siren calls of NATO. The UN-imposed arms embargo has not stopped the constant flow of weapons from Turkey to Syria via its 600-kilometre land border (the prohibition is imposed only on weapons sold to the regime in Damascus), and it is yet to reach a scale sufficient to threaten the dominance of the Syrian military. Should Ankara (together with Doha) seek to significantly increase the flow of weapons, it may lead to a conflict with the Syrian military as well as a militarization of the Kurdish areas of Turkey, that for long have been eager for independence. It is telling that within Syria, the Kurds – even though Sunni – are keeping away from the NATO-backed insurgency. Should the regime in Damascus decide on a tit-for-tat policy of providing a safe haven for armed Kurdish groups active in Turkey, Istanbul may find itself paying a steep price for joining hands with Doha and Riyadh to remove a Shia from power in a country that is 66% Sunni (including Kurds).
Interestingly, the question of casualties has been framed in the context of the Syrian Army being solely responsible for them. The reality though, is more complex. More than 6000 members of the security forces and their relatives have been killed by the “freedom fighters,” while the figure of deaths for the latter is around 3000. As in Kashmir in the past, the narrative omits the reality of conflict, giving the impression that all such killings are unilateral, committed by the Syrian security forces on innocent civilians. In fact, as in Libya, several armed groups have sprung up on the anti-regime side, who have scant hesitation in taking civilian lives.
Oddly, despite their commitment to “Christian values,” Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron are siding with Wahabbis in locations such as Homs, where the Christian minority is comprehensively opposed to the CNN/BBC/Al Jazeera-fuelled insurrection in that city. The Christians there and in the rest of Syria, who ccomprise more than 9% of the population, are terrified that NATO’s allies will succeed in Syria the way they have in Libya, and replace a secular regime with a Wahabbi substitute. Perhaps because of gaps in their intelligence-gathering mechanisms, as yet Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama seem unaware that Christians have zero rights in Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the situation in Syria, or that neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia are democracies. Somehow, in her calls for the world to embrace democracy, these two countries seem to have been left out even by Hillary Clinton.
Even within the majority-Sunni community, the overwhelming masses are terrified that their country will go the way of Libya, should NATO succeed in swapping the Assad regime with the Wahabbi-Salafi mix now in control of the ground in Libya. Alawis – the same group to which Bashar Assad belongs – form 11% of the population, and other Shias a further 13%. More than a third of the population is from the minority communities.
None of these considerations seem likely to prevent the Sarkozy-Obama-Cameron trio from backing Ankara, Riyadh and Doha in forcing regime change on Syria. A beginning has been made by sending UN observers, within which those from countries like Morocco and Denmark who are against the Assad regime, predominate. These can be expected to twist their mission from monitoring the ceasefire to locating military targets for future attack, as well as detecting vulnerabilities in Syrian defenses that can be exploited in a future attack on the country by NATO and the GCC.
By first forcing regime change in Libya and now Syria, and by promiscously arming disparate groups of Wahabbis and Salafists to achieve this aim, NATO is creating the same instability that Brzezinski-Casey caused in Afghanistan following their arming of extremists against a moribund Soviet Union.
What Syria needs – as did Myanmar – is engagement, and not isolation. What it needs is dialogue and not the arming of rebels.
The world will pay a heavy price for the mistakes being made in the Mideast by the trio of Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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