September 2013 may well go down in the history books of tomorrow as one of the most historic months in world history. This was the month when international law stared down a challenge from the Wild West style of gunboat diplomacy, and set the Middle East, and thereby the world, on an overdue new path with regard to geopolitical conflict resolution.
All right, perhaps I am putting it a bit too optimistically. But it has certainly been an exciting month for people interested in that hitherto largely toothless tiger international law, not to mention observers of the great geopolitical chess game. And it has been a delightful month for the latter, as they have been watching a Grand Master running circles around an ostentatious rank novice.
The month of September 2013 was not quite the end of American ‘exceptionalism’, but it may well be regarded in the future as the beginning of the end thereof. Their president continued to defiantly speak of “what makes America different” and various phrases to that effect, but in the end – after a face-saving statement about putting the threatened strike on Syria on hold – he had to docilely toe the line as the UN took over the reins. Near-miracles followed, in particular a unanimous resolution by the Security Council concerning Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, and talk from Damascus about a peace conference in the wake of the concession that neither side can probably win militarily.
It was truly a diplomatic coup by Grand Master Putin, who moreover ensured the continuing legitimacy of the al-Assad regime through the UN dealing with that regime as the de jure government of the Syrian Arab Republic. By corollary, Western support for sections of the insurgency is now reduced to the status of a gross violation of international law. Game, set and match to Mr Putin!
The strike on Syria, had there been one, would have been an act of aggression pure and simple. There was a feeble attempt to invoke Article 51 (right of self-defence, which the 2002 National Security Strategy redefined so as to allow pre-emptive strikes), but in the absence of any real threat from Syria that was too pathetic for even the likes of John Kerry to run with for long. And of course there was mention of the ‘R2P’ (‘responsibility to protect’) doctrine, which became fashionable after Kosovo but was badly sullied by Libya 2011 when it became a transparent smokescreen for regime change. The term ‘reprisal’ (which was lawful before 1946) was bandied about a few times by commentators but that wouldn’t have washed, as the chemical weapons attacks had not targeted either Americans or their allies. The term that was gaining currency was ‘punitive strike’ – in the given context, a euphemism for a blatant act of aggression against a sovereign state. And all to ‘punish’ a government they don’t like (i.e. one that won’t kowtow to them) for an act that it has not been proven to have perpetrated (see my previous article of 31 August, ‘Syria chemical weapons attacks – we still don’t know who is responsible’; this situation has not materially changed).
The ‘best scenario’ outcome of all this is that Syria dutifully hands over its chemical weapons for destruction (which they are doing), and UN experts return to the scene of the crime and carry out a proper investigation into who was responsible (which is beginning). There are many possibilities – maverick local army commanders, paramilitary forces loyal to the regime, or any one of a number of militias who collectively make up the fragmented ‘opposition’, including such charmers as al-Qaida and the al-Nusra Front. It will take time and painstaking effort to identify the culprits, but it can and should be done, and a war crimes tribunal can be set up to deal with the offenders alongside many others once the fighting stops..
In the meantime, the violence goes on unabated. But moderate opposition groups are increasingly finding themselves the meat in the sandwich between the extremists and the regime, and the temptation to take Damascus up on offers of talks must be growing by the day.
We have a long way to go, but a light is starting to flicker at the end of a long and dark tunnel. A key to achieving peace and the reestablishment of law and order is for outsiders, particularly the US, to desist from interfering. To quote President al-Assad in an interview last week with the Venezuelan channel TeleSUR,
[F]or decades, the United States has been superseding the Security Council, superseding the UN Charter, superseding the sovereignty of states and superseding all human and moral conventions...
Has Iraq become better with the American presence? Has Afghanistan become better? Is the situation in Libya better? Is the situation in Tunisia better? Is the situation in Syria better? In which country is the situation better? … [T]he world is better when the United States stops interfering … [Obama] said yesterday, “We cannot solve the problems of the whole world” – well, I say that it is better if the United States does not solve the problems of the world. In every place it tried to do something, the situation went from bad to worse. What we want from the United States is for it not to interfere in the affairs of other countries, then the world will certainly be better.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc, BA, BEdSt, MAppSc, PhD lives in Lebanon and is a regular contributor to Breaking Views on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.