By Jehangir Khattak
As President Barack Obama weighs his options on Syria in the face of significant international opposition to his plans to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s government for using what many Western leaders believe were chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus suburbs on August 21.
The United Nations is currently investigating the chemical weapons use by examining the evidence its inspectors collected in recent days. But Obama Administration seems to be interested more in building consensus at home then at the United Nations. United States has ordered its diplomatic staff to leave Lebanon in what is being billed as preparations for “limited” use of force.
Caught in a difficult situation, President Obama played his cards smartly by throwing the final decision about attack on Syria in Congress’ court. Liberal Democrats and Republicans are showing increasing resistance to the administration’s efforts to win a vote for a House resolution authorizing use of force.
Mainstream American media is largely in support of Obama’s inclination towards punishing the Assad regime for crossing his much publicized “red-line” in its conduct in the ongoing civil war.
The debate over merits and demerits of the anticipated US-lead military action against Syria is not confined to the US, Western countries and their Arab allies.
Media in South Asia, one of the most volatile regions in the world that could see some indirect implications of a military action in Syria as well, is also spiritedly commenting on the situation. Here is a roundup of media debate on possible US action in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The media in the nuclear-armed South Asian country is largely against a US military strike. From former diplomats to newspaper editors, opinion-makers are warning that a US strike, with all its good intentions and limited scope, may spiral out of control.
“The prospect of military action raises troubling questions about the legality, evidential basis, wisdom and consequences of a military attack on Syria,” said Dr Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, in an article published in leading English language daily The News International.
Lodhi said the stance regards the use of force as the option of first resort, “when a range of coercive measures are available as a response once UN investigators have ascertained that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian authorities. But still, she said, under international law only the Security Council can impose penalties.
‘Punishment’ cannot be inflicted unilaterally by individual states…
President Obama has himself acknowledged military strikes will do nothing to resolve Syria’s underlying problem. That makes it necessary to instead seek a political solution through the UN-backed Geneva II process. This was framed earlier this year as a joint US-Russian peace proposal to bring Syria’s warring sides to the negotiating table. Renewed diplomatic efforts to convene this much-postponed conference and negotiate a ceasefire should take precedence over any resort to force. Military action will destroy, not improve, the chances of a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis.
Sherry Rehman, who resigned as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US after May 11 general elections in that country, is in agreement with Lodhi. In an article in The Express Tribune, Sherry says UN should be better leveraged and its support “still carries a patina of legitimacy”.
In the Syrian case, the charter does not permit military action, even if the R2P (Right to Protect) argument is used. The worry is that even if evidence of the sarin gas is found, as this is likely not an intel debacle like Iraq and its alleged WMD redux, the UN’s limits in making moral choices may still obstruct action because its Security Council will be guided by strategic rivalries. But the UN is also the best hope where a compromise between human rights, sovereignty and intervention can be thrashed out. In this process, the priority in Syria, if morality is the stated motive for military action, can be redefined as the long, tough, expensive haul needed to protect populations.
Sometimes it causes less harm to say we can’t lead the world in ways that reshape it. The sarin gas monsters prompt action. Yet states, especially superpowers, must act in ways that don’t intensify the ruinous course already set for another. For Syria now, the first priority must be to slow down a tailspin triggered by its own rulers. Not to take action that will spawn more horrors.
Najmuddin Sheikh, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, in an article in Dawn newspaper, called the situation over Syria as difficult for President Obama and blamed none else but the president for it.
Obama’s current uncomfortable position follows essentially from the mistake he made of labeling the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” without thinking through the actions he would have to take to maintain credibility in case Assad did cross the “red line”.
In an editorial The Nation advocated wait for UN inspectors report.
The UN awaits results of the investigation to assess who is to blame, but the US and its allies do not see the need to wait for the answers, claiming they have their own. Seeing as how they have not always been right about information such as this, they will forgive us if we do not immediately subscribe to their ‘sound’ judgment.
The reaction of commentators in turbulent Afghanistan reflected its own history of being battleground of proxy wars of its neighbors and big powers. In an article published in Outlook Afghanistan, one such commentator, Hujjatullah Zia, demanded an end to outside interference in the Syrian civil war to stop bloodshed.
Sometimes, I believe that Syria is more a ground for political maneuver of the other countries than a civil war between Syria government and its people. That is why they are arming rebels; fueling sectarian violence, etc. and therefore, none of them want to lose even in the worst-case scenario, jockeying to become the hero. So, losing this game does not necessarily belong to Syria but also to many more countries, which are supporting the players.
It is believed that international community is highly responsible for playing the role of a viewer rather than taking serious action to cease the crisis or at least to prevent the interference of the outsiders in the issue. Still it is not too late for the international community to play its role actively so as to stop the outsiders’ involvement and further bloodshed.
Fear of bloodshed made another Afghan writer skeptical about the possible US strikes. Also writing in the Outlook Afghanistan, Masood Korosh has no doubt about the use of chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs. However he is not very confident that the US will get a UN mandate for intervention.
It is not 2001 and 2003 that the world live under fear of terrorism and its supporters. The US waged two wars, both of them large and expansive…
It does not have the global opinion support to wage another war that also because of mere US standing…
If it does not attack, countries like Iran, for example, will get bolder pushing for its nuclear programs because the inactivity of USA may be interpreted as the weakness of the country. Unfortunately, American officials have not provided any other justifications for possible upcoming military action.
Korosh said the only thing that would give legality to punishment of Assad regime is UN mandate, which he said “will not be given.” He fears that an attack on Syria will affect the US war effort in Afghanistan as elements opposed to the US would use the Syria strikes as a propaganda tool.
I am sure intervention will not add to popularity of the US rather will be used as propaganda against it. In addition, what if Syria’s allies do not sit as silent observer. Instead they also take a counter measure which (could) stuck the US into an unwanted mess? Considering such possibilities, Afghanistan may again be marginalized as happened after attack on Iraq.
Media reaction in India was mixed, with most of the opinion writers treading a more careful line while opposing the possible US military intervention.
“Global treaties are worthless without accountability,” declared Gautam Adhikari in an article titled “On the road to Damascus” published in The Times of India. Adhikari was referring to 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 UN ban on the use of chemical weapons, which Assad regime might have violated. He said US needs Security Council’s support to earn legitimacy for its action, where it is unlikely to get the needed support. He blamed the UN structure for repeated violations of UN charter that does not allow use of force, except in self-defense.
It may be time to overhaul the architecture of global governance. The failed League of Nations gave way to the UN. Can’t the UN be redesigned into a truly effective world body? The Hindu, in an editorial, blamed domestic US politics more than the crisis on the ground in Syria for the specter of military action.
The intervention issue is, therefore, less about the plight of Syrians than about U.S. domestic politics; that may also explain Washington’s indifference to post-attack developments. The sting in the tail is that intervention would put Washington on the same side as the extreme Sunni rebel group al-Nusra, and thereby the same side as al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden would have loved it.
And bin Laden’s country of origin, Saudi Arabia, is also part of the debate in India. Writing in Deccan Herald, Saeed Naqvi saw Saudis among countries pressing Washington for strikes against Assad regime.
Completely out of character with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which glides through diplomatic corridors with so much stealth, the frenetic diplomatic style of the intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been something of a vigorous Tandav. He has been darting around from capital to capital like a globule of sodium on water. Sources suggest he has been imploring Washington to give him a month to alter the situation on the ground inside Syria, after which Moscow can be brought into play towards some settlement.
Naqvi says Bander visited Moscow to buy out the Russians, offering them lucrative arms, oil and gas deals; and even assurance to keep Chechen extremists on a tight leash so that the Sochi Olympic Games could be held peacefully.
“We control the Chechen extremists”. All this, and more would be delivered unto Moscow if only Moscow co-operated on Syria and supported Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. And, Bandar added, all that he was laying out on the table had America’s blessing… The distillate from Bandar’s exertions in Moscow are: help us in Damascus and Cairo and we shall give you the keys to paradise.
Why Saudi interest in punishing Assad and strengthening Egypt’s Sisi? Because like Iran, Muslim Brotherhood opposed monarchies, was backed by Qatar and was cozy with Syria? General Sisi turned out to be the game changer by toppling the Morsi government and winning a $12 billion Saudi instant reward.
A very real, regional coalition for change in Syria is about to splinter because of differences over Egypt. A joint military action would be the glue to keep this coalition together. That is why Bandar is counting his worry beads. Obama, Hamlet like, is holding aloft a scroll of the Valiant 34, like Yorick’s skull: “To be or not to be…”
Bangladeshi newspapers also advised caution before punishing the Assad regime. The Daily Star reproduced an article by a noted Thai writer Pornpimol Kanchanalak in which doubts are expressed about the outcome of US military action, no matter how limited it may be.
Writing in the same newspaper, Ashfaqur Rahman, a former senior Bangladeshi ambassador, pleaded for promoting a political settlement to the conflict. He fears even more chemical weapon-related casualties if the US targets the lethal weapon stockpiles located close to population centers. A military action, he cautions, could spiral in any direction.
It is important to remember that Syria is not Iraq or Libya. Assad has powerful friends like Russia and China. Even Iran has close links with him. Any unilateral action by the US could trigger intransigent behavior by these friends of Syria. Each or any one of them could start behaving unilaterally in the future.
Like other South Asian analysts, Rahman blamed President Obama for his predicament over Syria.
At the moment, Obama finds himself in a corner. This is perhaps because he did not consider getting his concept of ‘crossing the red line’ duly endorsed by the major players in Syria. It was a typical Rambo style assertion. In the real world such things can often fall foul of rational behavior. Obama needs to play his cards cleverly and prioritize his available options. Huffing and puffing now is only making him out of breath. It is endangering the fragile international order. A Syria without Assad is only becoming a receding target.
The Sri Lankan media has shown not much interest in the Syrian crisis with very few newspapers and commentators opting to comment on it. However, some of the writings that ViewsWeek came across during research for this article were highly critical of the US Syria policy.
In scathing article titled “Syria Obama’s ‘limited’ attack may set Middle East on fire” in Daily Mirror, Ameen Izzadeen fears a much larger conflict in the Middle East than what Obama Administration is selling to the Congress. He accuses the media of playing a key role in setting “the Middle East on fire.”
Izazdeen fears that the US could be sucked into a wider conflict, despite its intentions for a limited action, which could have implications beyond expectations.
Unless there is a national interest gain, no country with self-respect will endorse a course of action based on dubious intelligence and willfully violate the UN Charter since the Iraq war has taught many countries the lesson that those who blindly followed the US only ended up with their reputation tarnished and their investments in the war bringing only meagre returns. Besides, unlike Iraq, Syria has no oil to plunder.
The writer is a Senior Editor at the voicesofny.org, a news portal of Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York. Tweets @JehangirKhattak. Article published courtesy of ViewsWeek.