As the G-20 group of countries meet in St Petersburg, Russia, an 18th century town also known as the Venice of the north, the normal agenda of the conclave which revolves around global economics has taken a back seat as debate rages over the on-going crisis in Syria. As US President Barack Obama arrived, he met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the porch of the venue and a sombre, cold and forced handshake ensued for the waiting press.
Over the past two weeks, President Obama has advised the world, including the US Congress, to take action against the regime of Syria’s President, Bashar Al-Assad, after his army allegedly used chemical weapons (Sarin gas, according to many accounts) in which hundreds died, including according to some estimates, around 300 children.
Britain, America’s closest ally, which has gone to war with Washington to Afghanistan, Iraq and lead the task force against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya to install a no-fly zone over the country from the forefront along with the French, lost a vote in its parliament on whether Britain should participate in military action against Assad’s regime or not. This was a big blow to Obama, who subtly made his discontent towards British Prime Minister David Cameron losing the vote publicly known.
Barack Obama has cited violation of international treaties on the ban of chemical weapons (the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention) as the ideologue to take action against the Syrian government. Obama said the global community would only be hiding behind “lip service” if it actually did not take action against use of such weapons and the disregard for international conventions. The US President is also worried that letting Syria get away with this, may embolden other states in the future, who may use such weapons, as history would narrate that no one acted against such an attack in Syria.
On the other side of the street where US currently stands, Russia and China have vehemently gone against any military action against Syria. Russia, in particular, has made it clear that it will not support any military action, whether within the workings of the United Nations, or outside of it. This status quo has created a new confrontational paradigm reminiscent of the Cold War era with the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and ‘Western Bloc’ locking horns with each other. Moscow has blocked any chance of a United Nations resolution for Syria, which would have enabled Obama to launch a strike on the regime within the UN and related legal frameworks, thus limiting America’s exposure to scrutiny and culpability.
These diplomatic transgressions between US and Russia have not just been fought via statements and talks. Washington has moved around six battle ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles not far from the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, Russia has also launched submarines and ships in the region. Moscow also operates a navy base in Syria, from where it has been supplying Assad’s army with weapons.
With these tic-tac-toe games being played over Syria, a crucial question on what the end game in Syria would be, has been asked by many experts, academics and even some voices in Moscow. In short, after the proposed air strikes by the US, “what then?”
The Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) headed by Ahmad Al-Jabra, has been in constant consultations with the West on how it may play out if Assad is dislodged from his Presidential throne.
However, the SNC only represents about 10 per cent (if not less) of the opposition fighting Assad. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a highly fragmented entity, comprising of many small groups of anti-Assad mercenaries, jihadists, fighters sponsored by neighbouring states, gunmen from around the world, including Europe, Canada, and other groups which do not necessarily share the vision of a post-Assad Syria that the SNC and the West may be working towards. In fact, syria’s Ambassador to India in a recent interview even suggested that “Indian Jihadis” were fighting with the opposition in the country as well.
However, the confrontation over Syria between the US and Russia is not just about Assad, Syria or the use of chemical weapons. Russia sees Syria as an important ally in the region, and Moscow still at some level under Putin’s leadership, connects with the Assad family’s regime which has been ruling over the country for more than 50 years (some more background available here). Syria is a big arms buyer from Moscow, and Russia sees any more American intervention in the little pockets of Middle East which are somewhat free of US influence, as a threat to its national security. Russia also views Central Asia with a similar strategic eye.
Other than these reasons, there may be another issue that is possibly playing up deep under the politics of the Kremlin. Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and natural gas, and much of the country’s bread and butter comes through via these two commodities. Moscow may also be of the opinion that a pro-West installed government in Damascus may give countries such as gas rich Qatar easier access to continental Europe’s gas requirements. Russia provides Europe with crucial gas supplies, specifically during the winters, which is used to heat homes and business across the continent. In the past, Russia has played hard-ball with its gas supplies over payments. It switched off supplies to Belarus in the middle of its harsh winters due to delayed payments. Any reduction in selling oil and gas could be catastrophic to the Russian economy.
Nonetheless, Russia has actually raised some genuinely interesting questions for Washington to answer. It has asked the US to table all evidence that it may have to prove that the Assad regime in fact used chemical weapons. Russia has also asked US on what the future of Syria would be after the planned air-strikes.
The “now what?” conundrum is a serious question that the US needs to address before undertaking any military action in Syria. Considering the fragmentation of the FSA and fears of Al Qaeda elements in the country, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra over-running a post-Assad Syria, US air strikes may only solve (if so) a very small portion of a much larger and deeper problem. And this problem has only magnified due to non-intervention over the past three years.
For example, what guarantees could Washington give, that arming FSA rebels and aiding them via air strikes would not lead to a massacre of the minority Aliwite sect to which Assad and much of his surrounding leadership belongs to? The New York Times journalist C J Chivers recently published an extensive account of the brutal ways in which some sections of the Syrian rebels operate. Chivers wrote about how the rebels gather and execute Syrian Army members in cold blood. Questions over the Syrian opposition have been raised since France became one of the first to officially recognise the FSA months back. These kinds of elements within the rebel forces are keeping the Western leaders awake at night, again thinking about that elusive question, “what then?”
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been making his case to the US Congress on two scenarios, military action via the UN and unilateral American military action. Other countries like France, Turkey, Japan and South Korea have offered assistance to a campaign by the US in Syria. However, in most discussions that were televised live and beamed across the world, Kerry seemed to have made unconvincing arguments in trying to sell Obama’s military plans to US lawmakers.
It is also interesting to note that President Obama actually does not need US Congress’s approval to orchestrate a strike on Syria. However, in an attempt to protect his own legacy perhaps, he sought these approvals. In all likeliness, he may get it as well, as some suggest that the White House has been providing US Congress members with intel not available to the public to make their case stronger.
In the past 24 hours, voices in the United Nations, the European Union and even the Pope have reinitiated a call for a political solution on Syria, instead of a military one. With Britain almost out of the foray (even though it has stationed Tornado fighter jets at a base in Cyprus), the powerhouse of Europe, Germany, refusing to provide any military support, US for now has much less global pull for a coalition of sorts.
Amidst all this, the biggest loss in Syria, like any conflict in history, comes with the death of innocent civilians. More than 130,000 people are known to have died in the past two years. The number, of course, in reality may well be much higher. Journalists reporting from Syria have been telling grim stories of death and survival in these tough conditions. Today, more than three million Syrian refugees have collected in neighbouring Jordon creating another humanitarian challenge.
Non-action by the international community seems to be as bad a crime at the moment as Assad’s alleged use of poisonous gas on his own population. However, any action needs a proper long-term plan so as to initiate a smooth transfer of power in an event when and if Bashar Al-Assad is dethroned or flees.
The US has to remember that there is nothing ‘civil’ about a civil war.