Dictators’ Delight

Murari Sharma

 Syria is in a deep crisis. More than 100,000 people, over 1,400 of them from chemical weapons, have already lost their lives and more are losing. The West has failed to stop the carnage. It has serious implications for the rest of the world, including Nepal.

 Started in January 2011 at the tail end of the Arab Spring that toppled several Arab dictators, the crisis manifests the quest of the suppressed and angry majority for equality and justice. The Assad family, from the Alawite Shia minority, has ruled Syria since 1971. The Alawites constitute only 11 percent of the population, while Sunnis make up 74 percent. The majority had hoped that, when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he would introduce democratic reforms. But he continued his father’s despotic rule.

 To suppress his opponents, the young Assad unleashed a reign of terror. He has murdered people indiscriminately, in cold blood, from land and from air. On 21 August 2013, his forces used chemical weapons, killing innocent people, including children and old. Though the Assad regime has blamed that the rebels used the poison gas to prompt Western intervention, the UN inspectors found otherwise.

 The conflict is truly sectarian and complex. Within the region, the Shias – Iran, militant Hezbollah, and others — have supported Assad. Al-Qaida, other Sunni militant groups and Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, have sided with the rebels. From outside, Western countries have provided arms and humanitarian assistance to the opposition, while Russia has backed Assad with arms and China with a soft corner. The conflict reminds of Cold War.

 It has generated a staggering humanitarian disaster. Apart from the colossal loss of life, more than 6.5 million people have fled Syria or been internally displaced. What is more, this spark could put the volatile Middle East on fire, stifle oil supply, and hurt the global economy that is still in a fragile recovery.    

 Western countries have imposed sanctions on Damascus. US President Barak Obama has repeatedly asked Assad to quit. He had declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be the red line triggering US military action. By using poison gas against his people, Assad has crossed the red line.   

 This has put the US and other Western countries in a quandary. If they attack Assad from air or put boots on the ground, they would be fighting alongside Al-Qaida, their archenemy, and other jihadists. If they do not, Assad would continue killing Sunnis and Christians. Yet hawks at home and allies abroad put pressure on Obama to keep his word. Consequently, Obama settled for limited air strikes to avoid long entanglement in yet another sticky situation in a difficult region.

 Among the allies, David Cameron, the Conservative British prime minister, pushed Obama hardest for the strikes. He is facing an incipient challenge to his leadership in his party and robust competition from French President Francois Hollande for close friendship with Obama. He wanted action against Damascus as much to preserve his standing as to end the humanitarian disaster. But he lost the parliamentary vote for Britain’s participation in the Syrian operation.  

Under the UN Charter, no country can be attacked without Security Council authorization. Russia and China were opposed to such mandate against Syria to protect their strategic interests in the Middle East and humiliate the USA, the hegemon in the region. The British vote ruled out the possibility to form a coalition of the willing to bypass the Council, as in Iraq. It also deprived America of the chance to support Britain and France from behind, the template used to remove Col. M. Gaddafi of Libya.

His back against the wall, Obama sought Congress’s approval for military action. It was a smart move. If Congress approved, Obama could attack Syria without earning the moniker of a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner warmonger, without Security Council mandate, and without facing a funding problem at a time when the Republicans have refused to pass a budget and increase the debt ceiling, threatening a government shutdown. Besides, Obama could share with the Republicans any negative fallout from the attack.   

 Congress wavered. Eager to prove Obama, an African-American Democrat, a failure to capture the White House next time, the Republicans have not only denied him a full budget for the last four years. They have also voted 40 times to repeal his signature health care law, insisted on deep cuts in spending to hurt the middle class, and resisted any tax increase. The Democrats have made jobs and economic recovery their priority. As surveys show, tired of prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people do not support US involvement in Syria.

 As Obama’s ship was sinking in Congress, Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly threw a lifeboat for him. He proposed to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control so Assad could not use them. Obama in his speech on 10 September 2013 repositioned himself. He nearly ruled out the goal of regime change, and concentrated on increasing humanitarian assistance to Assad’s victims and on putting chemical weapons under international control.

 To make his case directly to the American people, Putin published an article on 12 September 2013 in The New York Times. He argued that any attack on Syria needed Security Council mandate; that rebels, not Assad, used chemical weapons; and that Syrian chemical weapons should be brought under international control to prevent Islamic terrorists getting hold of them. Subsequently, America and Russia have agreed in Geneva to strip Syria of these UN-banned weapons. But the agreement does not guarantee peace.

 Ironically, now Washington will have to negotiate peace with Assad, a man Obama has asked to go, with uncertain outcomes. The Assad regime has claimed victory. In contrast, majority Syrians whose blood and sweat might have been shed in vein and their sympathizers have expressed a profound disappointment.  

 All this has sent a clear message to the rest of the world: American appetite and capacity to punish its foes and reward its friends has declined. It has made the friends unhappy and the foes happy. Particularly, the existing and aspiring dictators have become the happiest. They are delighted that they now have a carte blanche to smash and kill their opponents mercilessly without any external fear.  

Essentially, the classic dilemma between sovereignty and morality has raised its head again. The UN Charter not only stipulates Security Council authorization for attacking a member state. The world body also recognizes the global community’s responsibility to protect peoples from brutal rulers and ruthless non-state actors. This dilemma has acute relevance to Nepal as well.  

 Although the Nepali people would like to believe that their country is democratic and will remain so in the future, the evidence offers no room for confidence. Democracy is yet to be part of habit and culture of the ruling elites. It could be easily hijacked, notably by the extreme left or right. The extreme leftists have not abandoned their dictatorial ambitions and the extreme rightists their monarchical goal. The Syrian episode has emboldened them both to pursue their pet aims.

 People in the middle who believe in democracy, civil liberties and human rights and reject dictatorships of any sort are terribly frightened. As the Western foreign policy priority shifts, they will have to unite to protect and expand the middle ground on their own.

 But the international community has this moral question to answer: Do you protect the right of ordinary people to life and liberty or the freedom of dictators to take that right away?

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