Thursday, September 12, 2013

India’s Position on Syria is Correct and Justified

Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

The G 20 meeting in St Petersburg has further exposed and deepened international divisions on Syria. President Barack Obama believes that the Syrian government is responsible for last month’s chemical weapon attack in Damascus, whereas as the Russian President is convinced that the rebels staged this attack to discredit the Syrian government.

Today, chemical weapons use by any government would be considered unpardonable because of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention(CWC) that outlaws their production and use and enjoins destruction of exisiting stocks. That Syria is not a signatory shields it technically from an infringment, but, given the evolution of international humanitarian law, a pre-meditated use of such weapons by a state even within its own territory would not be internationally tolerated.

Which is why the facts on the ground must first be established impartially in the Syrian case. Only then can a consensus be built on steps to punish and deter those responsible. Only on-site inspection by a UN team and its report can provide an objective basis to proceed.


America’s Syria policy, as well as those of its close allies, has been one-sided from the start. They have sought a regime change in Syria by providing the rebels with funds and arms. They have made public statements repeatedly that President Assad’s days are numbered. Syrian opposition leaders have been officially received and given political recognition. The western media has generously purveyed unverified stories of human right violations in Syria sourced from rebel outfits. The Syrian President has been demonized incessantly. The good faith of the US and others when they liberally accuse Syria of humanitarian misdeeds lies eroded as a result.

Unfortunately, even before the UN inspectors could begin their work, the US and its key allies determined that the Syrian regime was guilty. Such alacrity in reaching this conclusion without physical presence and investigation on the ground puzzles. Evidence from partisan rebel sources can hardly be considered reliable. Are the powerful technical means at US’s disposal sufficient to reach definitive conclusions so quickly in a highly murky situation? And if its evidence is so unimpeachable, why cannot it be fully shared with others?

After all, the stakes involved are consequential in terms of state sovereignty, UN’s role and authority, peace and stability in a volatile region and the humanitarian consequences of external military intervention as Libya and Iraq showed. Russia has found the evidence presented by the US unconvincing and queries the standard US response that more cannot be shared as the intelligence is “classified”. US claims to possess irrefutable evidence is contested by others because in Iraq’s case the same intelligence sources purveyed pumped-up information to make the case for intervention. The Russians, in turn, have presented a detailed report which finger-points at the rebels for the chemical weapons attack.

Growing Opposition

To make the UN report irrelevant to their decision to “punish” President Assad, the US announced even before the team could begin its work that its mandate was to determine if chemical weapons were used, not who used them, besides alleging that the team was not given access to the site for five days, and that constant bombardment of the area by the Syrian military was intended to destroy all evidence. Failing to make a case for intervention at St. Petersburg, the US and others are now willing to wait till the UN report is submitted, but they have effectively untied their hands already.

President Obama’s declared willingness to strike at Syria even without UN approval confirms this. He is seeking US Congressional approval as if that can replace UN approval and legitimize US action against a third country with which the US is not at war and which has not committed any act of aggression against it. President Putin has declared that such Congress-approved US action would constitute aggression and that US unilateralism will fuel insecurity globally.

President Obama claims that the “international community” wants action against Syria seems to exclude Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and many others from its ambit. To their credit, NATO, the EU and major countries like Germany do not support military action. The Pope is opposed; the UN Secretary General has cautioned that action without UN approval would be against international law.

Popular opinion even in the US, UK and France is against military action, with the UK parliament restraining the Cameron government from joining the US and many senior French politicians opposing military intervention and pressing the government to seek parliamentary approval.

India’s Position

Too much focus on the US-Russia spat over Syria is distorting perceptions about the merits of the Syrian situation. To argue that Russia is responsible for the blockage in the UN Security Council because it is either protecting its selfish interests or its position is morally skewed begs the question whether the disinterested US stand is fired with a superior moral purpose alone, in which Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, the Hezbollah, the Shia-Sunni conflict are non-existent factors.

The argument that if Assad goes unpunished, other dictators would use chemical weapons and US interests and security are therefore threatened is exaggerated. While Myanmar and Israel have not ratified the CWC, only Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan and Syria have not signed it. Unlike Syria, none of these countries is in the throes of a civil war and the danger from North Korea is nuclear.

India’s position at St. Petersburg was correct: the use of chemical weapons in Syria is deplorable if true, the responsibility for it should be determined without bias and any action should be taken only with UN approval.

Rendering justice is important but who has committed the crime should also be clear.

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