Back Syria’s people, not Assad regime
Will history repeat itself at the United Nations Security Council? The last time India was called to vote on a resolution on Syria, October 4, 2011, it chose to abstain, with South Africa and Brazil. By doing so, the Indian government empowered Russia and China to veto a draft resolution designed to pressure the Syrian government into ending the violence against its own people. The civilian toll in Syria was, according to the UN, close to 2,700 dead, including many children and women.
Four months later, the death toll has more than doubled — the latest UN report was 5,400 dead, but as the country descends into chaos, with increasing violence by armed groups, the UN said it could not keep track of the deaths anymore. We’ll never know how events might have unfolded and how many lives might have been spared had the Security Council sent a strong, united message in October. It is still not too late for the council to speak out on this crisis.
Once again, Russia has taken the lead in blocking Security Council action on Syria. This time, Moscow is opposing a strong resolution tabled by Morocco in support of an Arab League initiative aimed at ending the violence. The draft resolution does not mention sanctions, nor any reference to the use of force, yet Moscow is stoking fears that this would lead to a Libya-style intervention. Russia knows this resonates with India, which has invoked the spectre of the use of force in Syria and warned of “hidden agendas”.
But Russia might have its own “hidden agendas” in Syria. It seems bent on protecting its alliance with the government, long a trading partner in the region. Last week, a Russian newspaper revealed that Moscow had just signed a $500m dollar contract to deliver
36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria. Earlier, a Russian ship allegedly full of ammunition made a dash for Syria after lying about its destination to Cypriot officials trying to enforce an EU arms embargo against Damascus. The ship reached Tartus in Syria, Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet empire, providing a tangible sign of Russia’s support for the Syrian government.
Russia, which often claims in the Security Council to take its cues from regional organisations, has consistently undermined the efforts of the Arab League to end the violence in Syria. When the league suspended Syria in November for reneging on its promise to stop the killing, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the move “incorrect” and “pre-planned”. He criticised the Arab League this past weekend over the decision to suspend its monitoring mission in Syria.
India has argued that the West misused the Libya UN resolution, going beyond its purpose of protecting civilians to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and says it fears similar overreach in Syria. Yet the resolution at the Security Council provides absolutely no authorisation for military intervention in Syria. It is also concerned about abuses by the resistance. India should not let the people of Syria be held hostage to global politics. It should instead take the lead to ensure civilian protection.
If Indian diplomats are suspicious of spin, they could listen to Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, who denounced the “ruthless repression” threatening to “plunge Syria into civil war” when she urged the Security Council to take action in December. She said that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria and pleaded with the international community to take “urgent, effective measures in a collective and decisive manner to protect Syrians.” Pillay warned that “inaction by the international community will embolden Syrian authorities.” She was right.
India did not listen so it is once again faced with a historic choice. Will it hide in the shadow of Russia, which is arming and supporting the Assad repression machine? Or will it join the efforts of the Arab League and democratic countries trying to peacefully end the bloodshed? We can only hope India will do the right thing this time, and support Security Council efforts to protect the Syrian people. Let’s not wait for the death toll to double again.
The writer is the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch