The failure of the G-20 meet at St. Petersburg to effectively address the Syrian crisis indicates that it is now headed for its short-term denouement in the form of an American military attack in the coming days. Leaving aside its allies, the United States’s plan was met with scepticism at St. Petersburg: Russia was openly hostile, with President Putin actually accusing the U.S. Secretary of State of lying to the U.S. Congress.
The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, felt compelled to urge the U.S. to seek the approval of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The EU’s response was mixed with Britain, France and Germany pulling in different directions. China was against any military strike, and preferred to keep quiet on the issue, while India made it clear that there should be no action without U.N. authorisation.
The division was reflected by a joint statement issued on the margins of the summit by America’s allies who constituted 10 of the 20 members of G-20. In the statement, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. condemned the Syrian government for the chemical weapons attack of August 21, bluntly blaming the Syrian government for breaching “the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.” It demanded a tough response from the world community, observing that the U.N. Security Council “remains paralyzed as it has been for two and a half years.”
At the formal level, the G-20 was set up to deal with economic issues in the wake of the 2008-2009 economic crisis. But like its predecessor, the G-8, it was also expected to be a global high table where the political issues could also be resolved in a collegial manner. Its failure on Syria reveals the persistent failure of the international system to create an effective mechanism for global governance. In such circumstances, we are back to old-fashioned power politics where the rules of the game are set by the global hegemon, in this case, the U.S.
The U.S. plan to attack Syria is rooted in imperial hubris. When you are the sole superpower, you are expected to take the lead. Battered by Afghanistan, befuddled by Egypt and pressed by the rise of China, the U.S. feels that it needs to assert its global leadership. The breaching of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) taboo is an opportune pretext. This is the time to make an example out of a country, to prevent the next one from crossing the threshold. The subtext is the Iranian nuclear programme which affects key American allies like Israel, the Gulf sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia. So, President Barack Obama finds himself bound by his own declared red line of August 2012 when he explicitly warned Syria against the use of chemical and biological weapons. There are several problems with the U.S.’s position. First, we know that chemical weapons were used, but it is not at all clear as to who employed them. The U.N. inspectors returned from Syria a week ago, but it will be some more time before their report is made available to the public. However, their mandate is to merely report on whether or not chemical weapons were used; not who employed them or why.
In May in Switzerland, a U.N. human rights investigator, Carla del Ponte, revealed that testimony made available to U.N. investigators in an earlier investigation, had revealed that Syrian rebels had used chemical weapons, specifically the deadly sarin gas. It is no secret that some of the caches of Syrian chemical weapons are under the control of rebel forces. It would be counter-intuitive to suggest that the Syrian government forces used them now, because in recent months the tide of the civil war was turning distinctly in their favour. This is the argument being made by the Russians as well who, insofar as Syria is concerned, also have good intelligence sources there.
Second, like it or not, the manner in which the U.S. and the U.K. fudged the evidence to wage war against Iraq in 2003 has undermined the credibility of their intelligence services. This was not just a matter of one report being misused or misinterpreted, but a pattern of deception which went all the way up from the bottom to the highest levels of the two governments.
The third and not unimportant issue has to do with legality. Under the U.N. Charter, the use of force against another State in almost all circumstances must be authorised by the UNSC. Given Russia’s stated position on the issue, the U.N. is unlikely to authorise any action against Syria. Another route could be the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) resolution of the U.N. General Assembly of 2005 which enjoins states to protect their populations from mass-killings and ethnic cleansing, but its enforcement mechanism against states who shirk this responsibility rests with the U.N., specifically its Security Council.
Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the use of poison gases, but the treaty is relevant to interstate conflict, and does not expressly prohibit their use during civil war. There is another treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which bars the stockpiling, production and use of chemical weapons; 189 countries have signed the CWC, but Syria, along with Angola, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan, has not signed it. The prominent Arab holdouts — Egypt and Syria — argue that they have signed the NPT as non-nuclear states, but Israel has not and is believed to possess nuclear weapons. So, they would not sign up to the CWC.
Therefore, from the legal point of view, the U.S. cupboard is bare. It could have, as in the case of 9/11 invoked the doctrine of self-defence as in the case of Afghanistan, but it would be a tough sell to claim that it has been attacked by Syria. Even in Afghanistan, the U.S. did get U.N. authorisation two months after it launched Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
As far as India is concerned there are several issues that we need to take into account. Legality is certainly one of them, though we need not get our knickers in a twist over them. When push comes to shove, regional powers like India have shown little inclination to heed the U.N. India has intervened in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, without U.N. authorisation. On the other hand though, paradoxically, as a weak global actor, it is in India’s interest to emphasise the importance of the U.N. when it comes to the use of military force internationally.
As a global actor it is in our interest to prevent the use of WMD by any party against anyone. But in this case, there seems to be a genuine problem as to whether the issue can be untangled from the geopolitics of the region. Equally important for India are worries that the conflict could spiral out of control and disrupt oil supply lines from the Persian Gulf. This is a serious matter as it could have a devastating impact on our economy which is already reeling from the effects of an economic slowdown.
The one big lesson of every war is that it is easy to start it, but very difficult to predict the course or consequences. But the main lesson from the sorry events in Syria is that the taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction was breached, and the world community has been found wanting in providing a tough, but legal response to it.
The Hindu September 10, 2013