Lessons in statecraft from the UN high table

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Within hours of the time of writing, the United Nations Security Council will pass a resolution that not only paves the way for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons but also sets its crisis on track for a politically mediated settlement. For all intents and purposes, this will be the first time the Council would adopt substantive measures to tackle Syria, since conflict first broke out two years ago. The Council’s permanent members have signed off on the draft resolution, and its contents were discussed at a full-house meeting of all UNSC members on Thursday night. The UNSC draft resolution, which will be cleared without amendment, represents an unmitigated victory for Russian diplomacy: Moscow has extracted every pound of flesh from its bargain with the United States to destroy Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and more.

On UNSCR 2118, which represents a major victory for Russia, here

Endgame in Syria, for now

The United States and its Western allies have temporarily shelved their plan to attack Syria. On Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his request to “postpone” a Congressional vote on authorising military force. His decision came after a day of intense diplomatic activity, triggered by Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international inspection and control.

Moscow’s initiative — engineered by its astute Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov — was eagerly accepted by the White House after it had become clear that U.S. legislators were going to turn down Mr. Obama’s request to bomb Syria. Mr. Lavrov’s masterstroke not only thwarted an imminent attack, but also allowed the Obama administration to wriggle out of the knot it had tied itself into. For its part, the Bashar al-Assad regime has shown approval of this proposal and has even promised to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires state parties to stop producing and gradually destroy their toxic munitions.

On the Russian checkmate in the Syrian chessboard, here

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

India’s UNGA vote and initial thoughts

The draft that Saudi Arabia introduced on the floor of the UN General Assembly today is here. The voting record - 133 Y, 12 N, 31 A. India abstained.

The UN’s Webcast of GA proceedings is here. India’s EoV, offered by Hardeep Puri begins at 1:00:41. The resolution adopted by the Arab League on 22 July 2012 - the UNGA draft’s reference to which is cited by India as the primary reason for abstaining - is here

This is essentially a throwback to India’s position circa February 2012, when the first draft on Syria this year was presented at the UN Security Council. Props to our Mission for negotiating a watered down draft - going by reports, the initial text explicitly endorsed regime change and sanctions, which invariably would have led to Ch. VII measures under Art. 42 at the Council.

That said, the Indian position now has become quite fuzzy, to put it mildly. I’m not sure what we were gunning for when endorsing the last UNSC draft; that resolution backed Article 41 measures which may include the severance of diplomatic relations. Yet, in the GA India claimed today that “unilateral” actions which call for cutting off such ties are not warranted.

Rather than restating its known position at the GA, India should have invested its time in explaining this abstention specifically.

I’m on the fly now, more on this in detail later.

EoV of the Day goes to Guyana (A) -  ”primary responsibility falls on Syrian authorities for cessation of violence and attacks against civilians […] but the international community cannot turn a blind eye to armed attacks by opposition groups and terrorist elements […]” this resolution raises the concern of “undue partiality to an amorphous and unknown opposition.”

The Hindu debate and some quick responses to Amb. Gharekhan

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, the PM’s former MidEast Envoy, and I debated the Indian response to the Syrian crisis in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. I thank Amb. Gharekhan for taking the time and effort to respond to my assertions. Here are my thoughts on his rejoinder and queries posed therein. 

Both Arun Mohan Sukumar and I agree that India’s vote was correct, but we seem to disagree on the rationale for the vote.

True. More importantly, our differing interpretations lead us to vastly divergent policy prescriptions. Amb. Gharekhan espoused a policy of non/dual alignment with Iran and Saudi Arabia, which at the end of the day, is no different from India’s traditional posture. I suggested India take a more active role to steer the crisis back to where it should be resolved, the UN. 

He believes that in voting for the resolution, India set aside its geopolitical interests; I believe it is precisely these interests which dictated India’s vote, though it feels good to justify a vote as support for some principles.

Amb. Gharekhan is correct. Perhaps I should’ve rephrased to say “India set aside its established position”. That said, negotiating with BRICS to get a mandate for Syria at the UN is only going to strengthen India’s claim to a permanent seat. It reflects India’s commitment towards making the UN work, on which aspersions have been cast lately. Voting with the West may satisfy the sponsors of this Resolution, but other nations should be convinced as well that India has the temerity (if you will) to engage a crisis of this magnitude. I think Amb. Gharekhan is too quick to dismiss my argument as based solely on a moral or principled standpoint. It is not true to say that acting on the basis of moral conviction, as in the case of Syria, will yield little in terms of India’s national interest. 

He talks of a Syrian-led transition. Is there such a thing? Is the negotiating process with the Taliban an Afghan-led process? Was the Libyan transition?

Both examples cited by Amb. Gharekhan are ones where military intervention was the first choice. Naturally, Afghanistan and Libya neither have the capability nor political will to broker a solution among internal stakeholders. This is exactly where Syria is headed. Supply of arms spills over to military intervention and there will be little scope for an organic transition.

The UN resolution - endorsing the Arab League proposal - tried to prevent this. As I’ve written, the backdoor for regime change was left open, and while that is no panacea to Syria’s crisis, it would’ve set the stage for what Nasr has called “Assadism without Assad”.

Sukumar does not seem to approve of the “Friends of Syria” forum. Does this mean that if India decides to join it, he would disapprove? 

Yes, of course. In fact, reports from the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis seem to suggest India has a representative in attendance. This is disappointing news. Having many nations in its corner may make Friends of Syria multilateral in letter, but not in spirit. The concept is no different from Bush’s invocation of a “coalition of the willing.” India’s acquiescence sends out the signal that it is willing to let other nations undercut the UN for crisis resolution when there is no consensus at the Security Council. If New Delhi had the muscle to pull it off, sure, this could be attractive. But not for a nation that aspires to permanence in the same entity it is sidestepping now.

I am not at all persuaded that if the Security Council resolution had been allowed to pass with abstentions by Russia and China, it would have acted like a magic wand and prevented sectarian violence.

Suppose that the Resolution had been passed. Given that Russia and China - two of Syria’s primary arms exporters - were on board (or atleast not standing in the way) Assad would have had to eschew violence or step down. The violence in Syria is reactionary - the Free Syrian Army is not on the offensive, but trying to consolidate its strength. Sectarian discontent would likely be prevalent even if Assad steps down, but it is difficult to foresee the present scale of violence had the Resolution come through.