Like the Anna Hazare brand of activism now sweeping India’s political landscape, a similar dynamism is evident in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) under the Indian presidency. India’s approach in UNSC on the Middle East, in general, and Syria, in particular, is moving well beyond its traditional comfort zone of fence-sitting, masterly inactivity and into uncharted, proactive territory. However, like the Hazare movement, the Indian initiative is also likely to fall short of its objective of better managing the global order.
In its first step, India, along with Brazil and South Africa (the so-called Ibsa group), while resisting the pressure of the Western UNSC members to pass an enforceable resolution imposing sanctions, and possibly the use of force, against Syria successfully issued a strongly worded presidential statement. The statement might have caused the Syrian Ba’athist establishment to rethink, had not some Ibsa members stumbled into defending the regime; something that even the uber-status quoist Arab League has shied away from doing. In stark contrast to the Ibsa justification, several Arab League members, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey strongly condemned the Bashar al-Assad regime. Even Russia, which has the biggest strategic stake in the Syrian regime, issued its harshest condemnation of Assad. After some deliberation, the US, the UK, France and Germany predictably called for regime change and imposed sanctions targeted at Syria’s oil and gas industry.
As a second step, and following the failure of the Turkish diplomatic efforts at the highest level, Ibsa dispatched a joint three-member diplomatic delegation to Damascus to engage the regime. In what must be regarded as a remarkable diplomatic feat, the envoys reportedly secured a personal commitment from Assad for multi-party elections and a new constitution by March 2012. However, it is not clear what strategy, if any, Ibsa has to hold the Syrian leader to his promise. Nor was it clear whether they were able to impress upon Assad the immediate need to stop the military action against protesting civilians. Subsequent reports by UN envoys of the “excessive and lethal” use of force and “widespread and systemic attacks” against the civilian population reflect that calls to abjure state violence were ignored.
These steps have key implications for the future of UNSC. First, there is a growing concern at the instinctive “pass resolutions to authorize fly-by regime change and think of a transition later” approach of Western states, notably against regimes considered inimical to their interests. Instead, the democratic Ibsa countries, while supporting the overall aspirations of the Arab populations, are inclined to “plan for a smooth transition and have a clear exit strategy before calling for regime change” approach. This is based on their experience of Iraq and the Libyan stalemate. In the Syrian case any transition from the secular Ba’athist regime would have to guarantee not only greater democracy, but also security and political participation of the 12% minority Christian and 14% minority Alawi Muslim populations as well as other minorities.
Second, the Ibsa initiative has proved that the divide in UNSC is not simply between the “West and the rest”, but also between Ibsa and the West on the one hand and Ibsa, Russia and China on the other. This three-way split in UNSC indicates that the post-Cold War consensus, if it ever operated, will now have to be renegotiated with Ibsa as a key group.
Third, while Ibsa is developing alternative approaches to supporting democratic transitions in the Middle East, it has to be cautious not to endorse the very authoritarian regimes preventing these transitions.
Finally, Ibsa will also have to deliver on its initiatives and promises for political transition, ideally with the backing of UNSC. Failing to do so would both dent their credibility and prospects for permanent membership of UNSC.
WPS Sidhu, Center on International, Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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