Nepal Views: Syria, World Power and International Law

Anil Sigdel

International Relations Research Fellow Vienna University

The US's hesitation to unilaterally attack Syria, while over a hundred thousand people are being killed and over a thousand being gassed, compels one to ask if the world is still dominated by only one super-power as it was presumed at the end of the Soviet era; or if Russia has come a long way from there and is now an effective deterrence against the US military might? It looks like it would be too soon to judge that though.

When the Senate and the Congress in Washington sat down to seriously consider the President Barack Obama's appeal for a need to attack Syria even without a UN mandate, Syria and Russia immediately said yes to a new diplomatic initiative which would bring the chemical weapons in Syria under international supervision and the weapons would eventually be destroyed. So much so that Syria that had denied having any chemical weapons for the last 2 years, accepted this proposal in two days.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin even went on to write an op-ed column in the New York Times, outraging many, to appeal to the Americans to not to go to war in Syria and informed about the possible repercussions of war for the region. Putin's gesture to this extent reinforces the unchallenged military might of the US and reveals how badly Syria and Russia need to prevent the US attack. Some alternative explanations to what Putin did could be: this is either his delaying tactic or his wish to be a global diplomatic hero. Russian papers are putting it as Putin's diplomatic success but this won't please many given his records of suppression of dissent at home.

With regard to the diplomatic initiative, France is said to have floated it initially and the US Secretary of State John Kerry used the argument while responding to a journalist. Russia seemed extremely quick to pick up the words. While Washington's strong ally Britain is backing away from engaging, France's President Francois Holland has surprised many by uncharacteristically allying with the US and outspokenly favoring the option of attack on Syria. To recall, he also had thrilled the world by immediately sending French troops to Mali even without the consent of his European counterparts. Washington's and Paris's diplomatic honeymoon seems to have begun even though Mr. Holland was expected to be the opposite of his predecessor President Nikolas Sarkozy in this regard.

In any event, as the diplomatic maneuvering continues against the backdrop of around thousand people being killed by the poisonous gas sarin, in the meantime more fighting and conventional attacks in Syria have already killed several hundred people.  Nobody is giving any answer to the question that though the international community is acting as per the international norms of the non-use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), how about the conventional weapon attacks which have already killed more than a hundred thousand people, including women and children, and still continue unabated?

One part of the story is, while the US had got entangled into Iraq and Afghanistan quagmire, several other states, particularly China, emerged as new economic power houses. The US and the EU on the other hand got into a huge economic crisis. The US does not find it wise to make decisions over Syria unilaterally. Russia has huge stake in the region, so does Iran, thus any kind of retaliation remains a possibility. Had it been a case where the strategic stakes were not that high, the US would have launched its missiles over Syria long ago. For instance, in Libya, Russia and China abstained from the voting at the United Nations Security Council resolution but did not block the action. France and Britain led the attack under NATO.

Furthermore, the domestic opinion in the US shows the fear of political and economic consequences of such wars, not least the loss of lives. For similar reasons, the European allies are hesitating to back the US. British PM David Cameron asked the parliament which blocked him to go to war. The US president himself, despite his veto power, instead resorted to the congress.

Given the trillions of dollars being evaporated and hundreds of American lives along with others being lost in Iraq and Afghanistan where the killings are still rampant, logically he could not decide on his own.  So he opted for a safe way, that is, to ask the legislature. When the Senate and the Congress say either yes or no, in both the cases President Obama will not be the sole target of criticism. President Obama's move at the same time exposed the Republican Party, which had been incessantly criticizing and blocking his almost every program, by leaving the Grand Old Party divided over Syria.

However, will it save the image of the US before the world which is carefully watching? President Putin has apparently played on that fault line. Even the Syrian President Baschar al-Assad claims that the US must put the attack option off the table to make Syria comply with the international initiative.

The allies in the Middle East are already quite disappointed with the Obama administration for the way it has handled the Iran nuclear issue and the delay in effectively responding to Syrian crisis. The credibility of the US as a security guarantor elsewhere is possibly being damaged to a large extent. The failure to attack, as it seems likely to remain so, will encourage Assad or other unruly regimes around the world to resort to violence or defy international laws and norms with impunity.

As the UN is concerned, the difficulty to produce hard evidence of the chemical weapons used and by whom they were used, though the international norm has clearly been broken, it is unable to sanction any military intervention. If the US attacks whatsoever, that would be setting yet another precedent of bypassing the international law which might backfire in the future.

It has been said the attack will be limited, and there will not be any boots on the ground, but nobody seems sure enough where this war could turn. The lack of clear objective given the absence of a reliable opponent political force, and speculations about different forces with different motives being involved in the war, not least the Jihadists and the Al Qaedas, will the intervention do any good or will rather harm is another critical question.

The Assad regime already has the upper hand as the US clearly said that the option of toppling Assad is not on the table. The son-Assad, whose father Hafez al-Assad had killed around twenty thousand Syrians already back in 1982, seems pretty composed while talking to the American TV journalist from CBS. Assad’s Baath party that has ruled Syria continuously for 50 years still seems to be in the driving seat.

At the end of the day, fearing the possible change of order in the region due to this civil war, the big powers' interests are at stake. The American allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are eyeing for the domination of the region given Assad goes, while Russia and Iran might go to any extent to save him to retain the status quo ante; so argue many observers. Though in the world of liberalism the humanity is supposed to remain on the top not the regime, the power game and strategic imperatives have made the innocent men, women and children suffer another human catastrophe in the contemporary world.

Since one war could bring more wars and more killings, the best answer to Syria type dilemma would be a much stronger international regime, law etc. The challenge is to not only protect one state's sovereignty from another as the international law already anticipates, but to protect the citizens of a sovereign state from its own unruly authorities and groups. This in fact leads to the same idea of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) or the humanitarian intervention, but again this ends up at the Security Council in order to sanction any use of force.

Due to the long-standing tug-of-war between the law and the interest at the Security Council, all in all this takes us back to square one: either no-action or a unilateral action. This leaves the US and Russia with only one available tactic and that is to fight a proxy war, which allegedly has been happening in Syria already. To make it worse, neither does the proxy war seem to end nor does any negotiated settlement seem likely any time soon, meanwhile the innocent people have been bearing the brunt.

To conclude, the US is still by far the most powerful military force in the world. Even more so for being engaged for a long time in Iraq and Afghanistan; no other country can match the confidence of the US to go to a war. Despite all that however, the Middle-Eastern world seems definitely NOT dominated by one super-power.

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