Wednesday, May 9, 2012

UN in Syria: Shooting for the stars

Coming from India and being born in the 80’s generation, I take freedom, liberty and democracy for granted. I often forget that I stand on the shoulders of giants for whom sacrifice was a way of life and ‘Swaraj’, a birth right they fought courageously until death for.  Not until you read about Syria’s accounts in the daily newspapers, you realize the worth of your own freedom in a democratic nation like India.

Hearing gory narratives of Syrian people, for the lack of a better word, being butchered by state’s army for the last three months is chilling to the core. The Syrian inhabitants have been growing in conviction that state cannot impose itself against the popular will.  But, the outside world to its shame has not shown such resolve. Dr. Martin Luther King famously remarked, “The silence of a few good men is more dangerous than the brutality of bad men”.  It then raises the question of why the status quo prevails.

Division has taken over international cooperation at a time it was needed the most. As the crisis deepens, those urging armed force are invoking both the tragedy of inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early 1990’s, and the last year’s decisive international intervention which led to triumph in Libya as cases to make their point.

A vote on February 4th, in the UN security council, condemning Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and calling him on to cede powers to his deputy, was defeated however thanks to vetoes from Russia and China. For Mr. Assad, this was his license to kill many more innocent civilian opponents. But many would argue if the international community needs to infringe on nation’s sovereignty? If yes, what are the criteria for such an intervention?

Under the responsibility to protect (R2P) principles that the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed in 2005, coercive military action to stop atrocities should be contemplated only when peaceful means – from diplomatic persuasion to sanctions and threats of criminal prosecution fail to deliver. Clearly, by any metric of judgment, the situation in Syria has reached that threshold.  With 9000 people already killed over the last 3 months and still rising, type and scale of harm to civilians prima facie calls for use of minimal military force in short duration, high intensity and right scale. 

However, it is easier said than done. One of the constraints of doing so is estimating the balance of consequences of international intervention: will military intervention do more harm than good? Will it scale the nascent civil war into a full-blown one? Sectarian differences in Syria are sharp and this seems to be the reason for lack of confidence of international community in the democratic and human-rights credentials of the opposition.  And, with the Arab league divided over the issue, any Western military imposition can prove to be inflammatory in the wider Islamic world.

The people of Syria clearly deserve better. Despite the UNSC belated endorsement of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peacemaking mission in Syria recently, there is skepticism about Bashar al-Assad’s cooperation. With all military options proving to be infeasible at this point of time, the UN is relying on Mr. Kofi Annan’s diplomatic skills to deliver a deal with the Syrian government. As an eternal optimist, I am holding on to my last straw of hope. As the quotable line goes, “I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars”. I pray for a day in Syria when the smoke screen clears in the dark, and children can see the stars and wake up to a new sunrise. Let’s all hope for Syria’s tryst with destiny because that is what most of the international community seems to be holding on to right now.

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