An air strike on Damascus and other strongholds of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, led by the U.S, U.K. and France, seems imminent. In the days and weeks to come, we will be duly informed by pundits that Syria is not Iraq - and hence not a shambolic intervention - what with its proven arsenal of weapon of mass destruction (WMDs). This military assault, we will be told, will be quick and decisive, and intended only to deter Mr. Assad and other war criminals from using chemical weapons. Above all, the familiar refrain of the United Nations’ “inability to act” on Syria will be sold as the primary motivation behind this illegal intervention.
For starters, the claim that a Western air strike will be short-lived – according to a Washington Post report, lasting for all of two days – is absurd. It is ludicrous to suggest a “drive-by” attack will somehow make the Syrian government think twice before using chemical weapons, if it has not already done so. On the contrary, Bashar al-Assad made it clear last year he will resort to them if Syria is attacked from outside. History too bears adversely on such claims. In 1998, the US and UK bombed Iraq without UN Security Council sanction, with the goal of taking out its WMD manufacturing facilities. Operation Desert Fox, which lasted for four days, not only went well beyond its mandate of targeting WMD-specific installations in Iraq, but also set back UN efforts at disarming the regime. In its aftermath, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously said, “I would be amazed if a three-day campaign made a decisive difference, or if we can even precisely define what we meant by WMDs that we were going after […].” The fog of war that persisted after this bombing allowed the Western military-industrial complex in 2003 to invade Iraq, on the pretext of destroying WMDs.
On the imminent, illegal intervention in Syria, here
A hundred years ago, anthropologists,led by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, began documenting ceremonies that marked transitions in the social status of people or groups. These ceremonies, which van Gennep called “rites of passage”, usually represented the transformation of individuals from one status to another—from adolescent to adult, maiden to mother, or living to dead. In van Gennep’s classification, these rituals had three distinct phases: separation, transition and incorporation. First, the individual would break away from her group, by shedding its collective psychosocial characteristics. Then, a series of elaborate rituals would test her “worthiness” to join the destination-group. The final cycle of rites would completely assimilate her identity with that of a new and distinct collective.
Van Gennep’s rites of passage offer a useful analogy to understand the significance of India’s two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, which comes to an end this month. Between 1992, when India last served as a non-permanent member of the Council, and the beginning of the present term in 2011, the country’s rise as an influential voice in international politics presented an opportunity to break with the past.
My essay for Caravan Magazine, evaluating India’s tenure in the UNSC, is here.
[Update: I’ve linked to the results of a WaPo-Pew survey that finds a sizeable section of Americans to have approved of Obama’s drawdown plan]
When NATO began its military offensive in Libya, the question, it seemed, was not whether Muammar el-Qaddafi would step down from power. To the crusaders of humanitarian intervention, it was only a matter of time before the Colonel relented to NATO’s military might. On Sunday, 100 days would have passed since Odyssey Dawned over Libyan skies, and the same question is being asked again, only now with a hint of desperation: when will Qaddafi relinquish his hold?
Soon, say Western diplomats and policy makers. But for all the foregone conclusions of his exit, the eccentric dictator has shown little signs of budging. Amidst air strikes and heavy bombardments, Qaddafi has still managed to make appearances in public and on television – the latest of which shows him engaged in a game of chess with the president of the World Chess Federation. Although the media’s narrative continues to be that of a fugitive on the run, it is clear that NATO operations have only strengthened Qaddafi’s resolve to dig his heels in.
Meanwhile, the military operation is itself unraveling, troubled by a series of cracks within the coalition. Norway was among the first members to contemplate a sharp reduction in forces. The massive influx of refugees and the irrevocable damage caused to its economic links with Libya have prompted Italy to call for a ceasefire. While the request has been spurned by NATO, there are few who doubt that the coalition is struggling to find consensus.
Not the least of NATO’s problems is the American attitude towards operations in Libya. The United States has chosen to stay behind the scenes, showing no enthusiasm to contribute more resources than it already has. Yet, there has been no dearth of lectures from Washington, which Europe finds increasingly unpalatable. Outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned of a “dim” and “dismal” future for NATO, if its European members were not willing to loosen their purse strings for professed commitments. Not surprisingly, these remarks were met with condemnation in Paris, diagnosed by President Sarkozy as “stemming from a bit of bitterness”.
The Obama administration is on a sticky wicket back home, where the President’s refusal to seek authorization for Libyan efforts under the War Powers Resolution has strained relations with the US Congress. Last Friday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a resolution that sought to support the mission. The vote was largely symbolic, but the displeasure expressed along bipartisan lines was a strong indicator of war-weariness among the American people.
To top it all, the NATO operation in Libya has been a complete public relations disaster from its inception. Egged on by evangelists of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, the coalition went into Libya with the high and noble aim of “protecting innocent people”. Broadening the scope of the mission “to include regime change would be a mistake”, said President Obama. Months later, with little to show for their progress, the United States and its allies openly espoused regime overthrow. Driven to desperation, the coalition increased the intensity of air strikes while Qaddafi’s compound and installations in Tripoli were heavily bombarded.
Equally embarrassing has been the number of civilian casualties caused by NATO operations – increasing in frequency of late - described often as “accidents” without remorse or apology. All pretence of gradualism has been abandoned and NATO is now locked almost in an existential struggle to prove its relevance in Libya.
The rebels, or the Transitional National Council as they are called, have not been able to make much headway in this battle. Cities have continued to change hands, like the oil-rich region of Ras Lanuf, or remained under siege, like Misurata. Under the present circumstances, Libya is looking down the barrel towards a long, drawn out civil war. Moreover, the military intervention and ensuing bloodshed has only entrenched positions on both sides, leaving little scope for a diplomatic solution.
The coalition’s failure to achieve its “humanitarian” ends in Libya runs the risk of turning the discourse from air-strikes to troops on the ground. It can be easy to forget that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 intended to protect civilians by establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. NATO has gone well beyond the Resolution’s mandate, taking refuge under its widely drafted provisions. Venturing further in such a quagmire will only prove to reinforce the painful lessons of Odyssey Dawn.
A panel discussion at the Alliance Française here on Thursday threw into sharp relief the complexities of ‘humanitarian intervention’, which has come to be embodied in the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). The panel, which featured familiar faces from India’s strategic community, differed in its views on R2P and its application to the ongoing crisis in Libya.
“Let me congratulate France for acting boldly to lead the Libyan intervention and saving Europe from irrelevance,” began C. Rajamohan of the Centre for Policy Research. According to him, humanitarian interventions had to be seen through the prisms of “consistency, [the] neutrality of interveners and [their] pursuit of maximalist goals”. Dr. Rajamohan was candid in his embrace of the same, asserting that ‘some regimes just had to go’, but predicted the fate of R2P would ultimately be determined by “success” in Libya.
His self-professedly ‘realist’ take, however, found little favour among other panelists. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a writer and member of Raqs Media Collective, condemned the Libyan “aggression”, and claimed that its sponsors were hardly the torchbearers of humanitarianism, “as they made it out to be”. Mr. Sengupta referred to the Mucyo Commission’s report, which indicted the present French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe for lending active support to genocidal forces in Rwanda.
The discussants also highlighted India’s role in moulding the character of humanitarian interventions. K.C. Singh, a retired diplomat, said that India’s “explanation” for abstaining from the Security Council vote on Libya was “weak” and suggested it should have joined hands with the West in supporting the UN resolution. “If India wishes to be a permanent member of the UNSC, then it should behave like one”, he said.
The discord among NATO members in fleshing out the contours of a “poorly conceived” intervention likely pointed to an entrenched civil war in Libya, argued Siddharth Varadarajan, Strategic Affairs Editor of The Hindu. The need for a cautious approach to R2P was also endorsed by Dr. Radha Kumar, who heads the Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Jamia Millia Islamia. Dr. Kumar, who said that preventive steps were as important as missions to protect, advocated more attention being paid to the post-intervention situation.
The discussion was introduced by French Ambassador to India, Jerome Bonnafont, who said that France had a “stake in the debate on R2P”, adding that his country attached importance to what “India thought of the issue”.