Don’t get distracted by Libya

The civil war in Libya is inching towards its denouement. The tumultuous scenes in Tripoli have led many observers to conclude that the Arab Spring will stretch into winter. Such a conclusion may be hasty. Even as the Libyan crisis seems near an end, the impasse in Syria poses a festering danger. The two crises are linked — not just in their origins but also in their development. Moreover, unlike Libya the crisis in Syria could touch off a wider regional crisis.

India needs to pay attention to the evolving situation, because of its presence on the United Nations Security Council and because of its substantial interests in this part of the world.
According to the UN Commission for Human Rights, over 2,200 people have been killed in Syria since the protests broke out in March. The UNSC, however, is deeply divided on the question of responding to these egregious developments in Syria. The United States and the European members on the council — Britain, France, Germany and Portugal — have pushed for a legally-binding resolution, condemning the violence in Syria and compelling the government to stop it. Their attempts have been strongly contested by other members, including Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon. These countries have expressed concern that a resolution against Syria would be used to impose UN sanctions and perhaps approve the use of force against Syria in the near future.
The precedent of Libya clearly looms large. India’s permanent representative to the UN, Hardeep Puri, observed that several council diplomats felt the Western military coalition in Libya had exceeded its Security Council mandate to protect civilians and had weighed in on one side of the civil war. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, hotly dismissed such views as a “canard”. She was protesting too much. Advocates of the “responsibility to protect” did themselves a grave disservice first by raising the spectre of an impending massacre in Libya and then by shifting the goalpost from protection of non-combatants to regime change. It is hardly surprising that some UNSC members are reluctant to give them the benefit of the doubt again.
The upshot of it all was a UNSC statement calling on “all sides” to end violence and exercise restraint. This was followed by a diplomatic effort by India, Brazil and South Africa to find a way out of the ongoing crisis. A delegation comprising senior officials from each of these countries visited Syria two weeks ago. Meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and foreign minister Walid Muallem, the delegation affirmed the commitment of their countries to the sovereignty and integrity of Syria. But it expressed grave concern over the current situation in Syria, and called for “an immediate end to all violence” and a credible judicial investigation into the violence. The delegation also urged Syria to implement “political reforms with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population”. Mr Assad told them that he would complete constitutional changes and move towards a multi-party democracy by January/February next year.
The US and its allies are not pleased with these developments, which they believe are only a ruse by the Syrian government to buy time. Last week, US President Barack Obama called on Mr Assad to step down — a call that was echoed by other European leaders. Mr Assad seems in no mood to oblige.
More worryingly, the Syrian crisis is in the danger of becoming the focal point for two axes of regional rivalries. First, Iran has remained steadfast in its support for the Syrian government. Earlier this year, it had sent 1,000 Republican Guards to help put down the uprising in Dara’a. It has also pressured its other allies in the region, such as Hamas, to come out in support of the embattled Assad government. Responding to Iran’s activism, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries have grown sharply critical of Mr Assad. Second, there is the danger of renewed fighting between Hamas and Israel. The attack in Israel last week, which left eight dead, could trigger an escalatory process of violence and retaliation. This could also draw in Syria’s (and Iran’s) Lebanese protégé, Hezbollah, and so set the stage for a wider conflagration.
India must stay ahead of the curve on these potential developments. Increased turmoil in West Asia will place our regional interests at risk.
After all, the region accounts for 63 per cent of our crude imports, $93 billion of trade, and comprises six million Indian expatriate workers who remit over $35 billion every year. The Indian government has done well in taking a proactive stance for defusing the Syrian crisis. But it has its work cut out for it in the months ahead.

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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