By Saurabh Mishra
Though long awaited, the formal United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Presidential Statement of August 3, 2011 condemning Syrian authorities for widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians fell short of the demands put forward by the UK and France in their original draft. The statement does not call for UN sanctions or military action against Syria. Moreover, the condemnation of the Syrian regime’s crackdown on its own people in Hama has come only after 12,000 have been detained, at least 1,500 killed and about 3,000 people are reportedly missing.1 The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the Council’s statement, saying it sent a “clear message from the international community” to the Syrian authorities to stop their “brutally shocking” actions.2
The UNSC statement is aimed at clearing doubts about the UN’s efficacy in fulfilling its duties as a moral force and as an overseer of ‘peace and security’ in the world. The approval of the statement by all the member countries except Lebanon, that too given their differences of opinion about UN action in Syria, strengthens the UN’s position as an international moral force. While expressing ‘deep regret for the loss of innocent victims’, Caroline Ziade, Deputy Permanent Representative of Lebanon in the UN Security Council, contended that the statement being discussed in the Council ‘does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria therefore, Lebanon dissociates itself from this presidential statement.’3 While Syria is unlikely to stop its internal crackdown overnight, the statement has sent the signal that any further escalation in violence is against the conscience of the international community.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had earlier said that the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, had lost legitimacy and was ‘not indispensable’. However, as in the case of Libya, the United States is reluctant to take the lead, and has given way to the UK and France. The impasse hitherto over the issue of a UNSC resolution against Syria has been due to the reservations held by China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Lebanon and India, which fear a repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria. Russia and China refused to back a Western-drafted resolution condemning the violence in Syria. India’s relative silence on Syria is obvious and understandable. It doesn’t want to worsen the already fragile situation in West Asia, which is home to a large Indian diaspora. And it also has to factor in the affinities that many in India have towards people in the region. However, despite these factors and Syria seeking Indian help in preventing the UNSC issuing the condemnatory statement, India, as the president of the Council, did not prevent a discussion on the issue or the issuing of the statement.
The powers in the Security Council and other prominent countries and groupings have hesitated to take action against Syria because of its profile and ability to manipulate events in West Asia. The ruling Syrian Shiites have strong ties with Iran which is ranged against Saudi Arabia as well as the US and Israel. Any conflict involving these powers may lead to greater turmoil in the region. Though the Arab league has called for an end to violence, it is hesitant about overt action because of ‘strategic and political considerations’.4 For, Syria can affect events in Lebanon and Israel through its strong connections with the Hezbollah and the Hamas. As Lebanon’s deputy representative noted, “whatever affects Lebanon, affects Syria; whatever affects Syria will also affect Lebanon.”5
Syria is definitely not Libya and moreover there is no armed struggle against the government in Damascus. Given this, the Security Council has indicated its preference for a negotiated solution to the problem. It took note of the “announced commitments by the Syrian authorities to reform” but also regretted “the lack of progress in implementation”.6 At the same time, it also reaffirmed “its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria”7 and stressed that the “only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process” – thus indirectly ruling out military action.8
At the same time, however, the Council’s call that “those responsible for the violence should be held accountable”9 prepares the ground for the exertion of more pressure on Syria if the situation worsens. However, China and Russia, which have extensive economic and military linkages with Syria, are unlikely to allow the imposition of UN sanctions, let alone military action, at least until the situation deteriorates into a full scale civil war.
The Indian position on Syria in the UN has so far been cautious and measured. And this is likely to continue in case of a vote on a resolution providing for action against Syria in future. Here, the Libyan case readily comes to mind. While India voted for Libya’s referral to the International Criminal Court, it abstained on the resolution that provided for military action by stating that there is “relatively little credible information” available about the situation on the ground and that there is no clarity about “details of enforcement measures, including who and with what assets will participate and how these measures will be exactly carried out.” Emphasizing the principles of “respect for sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” India also expressed the concern that “the financial measures that are proposed in the resolution could impact, directly or through indirect routes, ongoing trade and investment activities of a number of member-states.”10
While the Libyan and Syrian cases may be different for the West due to several reasons, the two are more or less similar from the Indian perspective. Like in the case of Libya, India has gone along with other countries to condemn the Syrian crackdown. However, if the scale of violence escalates in Syria and there is a Western attempt to introduce a resolution calling for military intervention, India could well exercise the option of abstention. But before the situation comes to such a pass, Indian diplomacy must make efforts in tandem with other countries to convince the Syrian regime to carry through political reforms and address the aspirations of its people.
1. ‘Syria Seeks India’s Help in Obstructing Western Condemnation’, at http://m.ibtimes.com/syria-india-un-eu-condemnation-mekdad-krishna-assad-191059.html.
2. ‘Syria: Security Council Condemns Rights Abuses and Use of Force against Civilians’, at
3. Security Council Condemns Use of Force Against Civilians in Syria’, at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-08/04/c_131027684.htm.
4. ‘Guide: Syria Crisis’, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13855203.
5. Security Council Condemns Use of Force Against Civilians in Syria’, at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-08/04/c_131027684.htm.
6. The text of the statement, as given at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14396703.
10. India’s Explanation of Vote on the Libyan Resolution in the UN Security Council, delivered by Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri, Deputy Permanent Representative, on March 17, 2011.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/UNSCCondemnsSyrianCrackdown_smishra_170811