Syrian cauldron bubbles, India fumbles

Since its UN Security Council term ended, the Indian voice is muted. India should have been proactive to ensure the determination of who used the chemical weapons and under whose authority it was done dispassionately and without rising war rhetoric.

The high drama during the Lok Sabha debate on the Food Security Bill on 27 August, followed by Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s illness, distracted from the impact these deliberations may have on the sentiments of the foreign investor and thus on the market and the Indian rupee next morning. India is still reeling from the precipitous fall of both the next two trading days.
Also been ignored are menacing developments in West Asia since the use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta, Syria on 21 August, killing more than 1,000 persons, including children. Demand for United Nations’ inspectors to visit the spot was stonewalled by Syria initially, only allowing access after a five-day delay. The inspectors’ visit to Syria is significant as the United States President Barack Obama had, in the past, laid the “red lines” for intervention if the Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons. Syria is one of seven countries that is not signatory to the chemical weapons convention and is known to possess an undeclared quantity of chemical weapons, including nerve agents like sarin.
It seems strange that the Assad regime would “invite” intervention by the US and its allies or, even worse, condemnation and endorsement of military action by the UN Security Council, when recently it seemed to have stabilised its position despite losing control over large tracts to the opposition forces in the North. Knowing that US intervention would ensue, Syria’s defenders present alternative scenarios, blaming rebels or a rogue unit of the Syrian Army discharging these weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin made the same point to British Prime Minister David Cameron. However, what negates these theories is that the weapons have been used in a vital eastern suburb of the capital Damascus, held by the rebels, who are threatening the last citadel of the Assad regime. Nevertheless, the credibility of the US and its allies is so low after the Iraq WMD fiasco that it would have to be more than conjecture for China and Russia to accept Syrian regime’s complicity. The permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met on 28 August in New York to discuss British draft resolution. Reportedly, there was no consensus. In any case, the UN inspectors will be in Syria till the weekend, and no action is possible till their report is submitted and examined.
In anticipation of the use of military force, the US has notified the Congress, Britain has summoned its Parliament from recess to meet on 30 August and French President François Hollande declared that use of chemical weapons invokes the principle of responsibility to protect civilians. The US said it would release a public version of their assessment. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, however, warned that this looks like a conspiracy to derail the forthcoming Geneva talks and Western intervention would have “catastrophic consequences”. Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has asked the international community to “show prudence”.
It is unlikely that a war-weary US, exiting active combat zones, would plunge into another full-fledged intervention. It is likely to undertake aerial attacks from ships, submarines, the British base in Cyprus and US presence at Incirlik, Turkey. The targeting can be limited to Syrian military formations that committed the atrocity or widened to degrade the military capability of Assad regime. Iran and Russia are likely to resist pummelling of their ally. Iran may, in fact, widen the war by drawing Lebanon-based Hezbollah into it, then sucking Israel into a combat that Israel has long awaited.
Though unlikely, the possibility cannot be ruled out of the conflict spilling over to the Gulf, were Iran to create a distraction to relieve pressure on its ally and to punish anti-Assad members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is why, unlike in the case of Libya, the Arab League is in conflict over what to recommend. The consequences of US military intervention for India would be calamitous when its currency and markets are under selling pressure. The international investor sentiment would turn even more pessimistic by the oil price skyrocketing or, worse, the Gulf being enveloped in a long simmering Shia-Sunni battle.
The detention of an Indian ship carrying crude from Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the pretext of checking pollution and its unwillingness to let it sail shows that decision-making on security matters in Iran has slipped into the military’s hands. It is they who would be determining Iran’s Syria policy.
In all this, since its UN Security Council term ended, the Indian voice is muted. India should have been proactive to ensure the determination of who used the chemical weapons and under whose authority it was done dispassionately and without rising war rhetoric. Assad regime needs to give a cogent explanation for the discharge of rockets carrying chemical weapons so near its seat of power. If it fails then pressure must be mounted on China and Russia to drop their ally. Whether other countries have a responsibility to protect civilians or there is sovereign immunity available even to regimes killing their own people cannot just be a debate between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid should have been en route New York to make Indian presence felt at the UN. A nation does not need a permanent seat at the UN Security Council to be heard. That seat would come unsought were India to show the leadership and statesmanship to halt a fresh tragedy in the making.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

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