Syria stuck between 3 minutes & 40 years

Syria has been simmering since 2011, when the Arab Spring wafted over it from the heartland of the Arab world — Egypt. Meanwhile, the Western nations were preoccupied with Libya, having obtained UN Security Council Resolution 1973 enabling use of force to protect civilians.

The mandate was expanded in practice to provide total air cover, arms, training and intelligence to a rag-tag army of rebels who had raised the banner of revolt from Benghazi, the historical rival to the capital Tripoli. The emerging concept of R2P, or responsibility to protect, was to enable the international community to intervene, even past the veil of national sovereignty, when intra-state violence due to civil war or by a ruthless regime surpassed humanitarian limits. Russia and China, reluctantly on board, felt betrayed as the Western actions, they felt, went beyond the UN Security Council’s mandate and they, as well as many in the developing world, also suspected that this was a new modus operandi to oust regimes selectively. Reticence over Bahrain, where the minority Sunni regime, in active collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was repressing the Shia majority was a case in point. Thus, it was inevitable that the concept was going to be tested the next time it came up for discussion in the UN SC.
As the Syrian situation deteriorated in 2011 and resistance to the regime spread and then intensified, in Russia Vladimir Putin prepared to re-contest for the presidency and in China transfer of power to the fifth generation of leadership in 2012 was anticipated. The Indian permanent representative to the UN, H.S. Puri, with outstanding skill in August 2011, employed a presidential statement to avoid a split in the UNSC on Syria. The truce lasted till October, when a resolution to threaten Syria with sanctions was vetoed by Russia and China. Thus their veto of February 4, 2012, merely reiterated their unwillingness to endorse intervention in what they considered Syria’s internal affairs, which needed to be resolved by dialogue between the Syrian government and their antagonists, without outside interference.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton dubbed it a travesty. US sources also hinted that they would make efforts outside the UN, with “allies and partners”, to find ways to uphold the Syrian people’s right to a better future. The issue could also go to the General Assembly, based on UN General Assembly Resolution 377 of 1950, also called the Uniting for Peace Resolution, which allows a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly to at least morally override a UNSC veto. That, however, can work either way as out of the 192 UN members the number fearful of the R2P dictum may exceed the one third required to defeat it.
How has Syria landed itself in this mess? All through the presidency of Bill Clinton (1992-2000), US-Syria relations were on the mend. President Clinton visited Damascus in 1994 and was convinced that President Hafez al Assad wanted to settle with Israel during his life and recover possession of the Golan Heights. Taylor Branch in his book Clinton Tapes quotes Mr Clinton as saying that neither Hafez nor his wife had confidence that his chosen successor, his son Bashar, the current President, would have the strength to do so. The last meeting between the two Presidents occurred in Geneva in 2000, as the Camp David Accords bringing peace between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had been negotiated. Mr Clinton was keen to also draw in President Hafez al Assad but was disappointed as he saw him retract from earlier positions.
President Bashar al Assad is manifesting the weaknesses of character that his parents feared. His presidency raised hopes of change long before the Arab Spring burst upon Syria. He promised change but only to later disappoint. Till 2003, Saddam Hussein was a buffer separating Iran from the Shias in West Asia. Also, then Iran was not known to be pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme. Finally, Israel’s immediate neighbourhood was stable with two US allies, Egypt and Jordan, at peace with it. Today, the Arab Spring is rewriting the contours of the region. Syria had to choose post 2003 between animosity with Israel, the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and the US on the one hand and collaboration with Iran and the authoritarian suppression of the will of its own people on the other. It finds itself embedded in a Shia crescent controlled by Iran, which runs from the Mediterranean to the borders of Pakistan. It is also in a crossfire between the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and the hegemonic dreams of Iran. The US need to decapitate regimes that give succour to Iran and challenge the security order created by it is immediate. Syria has obviously dithered.
India had choices to make too. However imperfect the doctrine R2P, India is better off working with its proponents to shape it, rather than be in the Russian/Chinese corner. While Russia is trying to resurrect the allies and influence it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China is fearful of focus turning to its repression of its own religious and ethnic minorities. Both may be on the wrong side of history. On February 4, a month before the Russian presidential elections, over 100,000 people gathered in a Moscow square to protest against Mr Putin. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov rushed to Damascus to seek from the Syrian President the same assurance that the Russians vetoed at the UN, i.e. the Arab League proposal for gradual transfer of power from the President preceding dialogue between all parties and free and fair elections.
It may still not be too late for President Bashar and his Baath Party to defang their antagonists in a free election. The Saudi and Qatari funding of Wahabi and Salafist elements in the Opposition is actually driving the minority, Shia, Druze, Christian and Kurds towards whoever promises a centrist programme. President Clinton commented after his 1994 meeting with the late President Hafez al Assad that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations were stuck between three minutes and 40 years. Mr Bashar’s time is running out towards three minutes. Does he have the will and the skill to beat the clock? At least this time, unlike in the case of Libya, the timekeepers in South Block have read the script correctly.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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