Vicious cycle of civil war

From the outset, Mr Obama has insisted that Mr Assad ‘must go’. By seeking Mr Assad’s removal as a pre-condition, the US has effectively scuttled any serious attempt at finding a political solution.

In diplomacy, timing is everything. Who would have guessed even a few weeks ago that the Syrian government would agree to get rid of its chemical weapons with such alacrity? After all, concerns about these weapons have been aired since the crisis began over two years ago. Russia’s masterstroke was to seize the fleeting psychological moment opened up by the threat of an American attack to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up the chemical arsenal. Moscow’s move may have arrested the imminent slide towards war, but it is only a reprieve. The underlying problem in Syria — the escalating conflict between the regime and the rebels — continues with undimmed fury. And so long as this is not addressed, the threat of external intervention in Syria and all the attendant consequences for the region remain well alive.
The obsession with chemical weapons has distracted international attention from this fundamental problem. To be sure, the use of chemical weapons by any party is cause for serious concern.
There is a reasonably well-established norm against the use of these weapons and there is a treaty framework to outlaw their use. In the past, this norm, like several other norms in international politics, has been bent to serve the interests of great powers. That said, in the particular context of the Syrian crisis, it is not clear why chemical weapons should be treated as a special danger. The civil war has already claimed over 100,000 lives, most of them innocent civilians. From the point of the view of the victims of war, it hardly matters whether the deaths are caused by chemical weapons or airstrikes or conventional artillery. Dead is dead.
Excessive focus on chemical weapons and the desire to avert an immediate intervention could sap diplomatic energies and turn the focus away from the central problem — ending the civil war in Syria. The short-term success of the Russian initiative could lead to complacency about the longer-term problem, especially amongst countries that opposed US President Barack Obama’s threat of invasion a few days ago.
Consider the current situation. Neither the regime nor the rebels have a clear upper hand in the civil war. The government forces have made some gains in the past months, but they are nowhere close to regaining control of wide swathes of the country. The rebels have notched up some tactical successes, but they understand full well that unless external intervention weakens the regime, they cannot force a military decision, never mind the billions of dollars that have been poured in by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in support of the rebels. Meantime, the death toll continues to rise at a rapid clip. An estimated 200,000 Syrians — about 10 per cent of the country’s population — have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Lebanon, in particular, threatens to be overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee influx.
In such a situation, only a political solution can put a halt to the hostilities and killings. Such a solution would necessarily have to accommodate the interests and demands of all the warring parties. But a political solution remains elusive. The central problem is the US’ insistence that Mr Assad cannot be part of even an interim arrangement that moves towards more durable peace. From the outset, Mr Obama has insisted that Mr Assad “must go”. The fact that Mr Assad’s legitimacy is in tatters is hardly in doubt. But the rebels have no greater claims to legitimacy either. And the brute fact is that the rebels haven’t managed to dislodge Mr Assad. By seeking Mr Assad’s removal as a pre-condition, the US has effectively scuttled any serious attempt at finding a political solution. Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has expended considerable time and energy painting the Russians as the sole patron propping up the Assad regime. Such tactics have only detracted further from the search for a political solution.
A big-tent conference was supposed to be held in Geneva about four months ago to find a political settlement. It was held hostage on the question of whether the Assad government and its key regional ally, Iran, should be part of the deliberation and the nature of a possible political transition in Syria. The US declined to set a clear date, but the US, Russia and the UN are all agreed on the importance of the Geneva Conference. It remains unclear whether the Obama administration is willing to drop its rigid precondition. There is hope yet. For one thing, the US appears to be reaching out to the new government in Iran. For another, Washington’s eagerness to coddle the Egyptian military, which has overthrown an elected government and killed civilians, may lead to a slightly different stance vis-a-vis the Assad regime. Thoroughgoing hypocrisy is not an option even for the sole superpower.
India did well in forthrightly opposing a unilateral intervention in Syria that bypassed the UN Security Council. It needs to do more. In the early stages of the civil war in Syria, India had attempted along with Brazil and South Africa to help find a political solution. Nothing much came out of it, thanks to the attitude taken by the US. It is time New Delhi revived that channel. When interested powers are not impartial, it is essential that the impartial powers get interested. Else there can be no international action.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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