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Russia may yet offer US a Syrian lifeline

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international -- i.e. Russian -- supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria's civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.

President Barack Obama's delineation of the "red line" that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs.

But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from "degrading" the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change.

At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad's regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist.

The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism.

The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the "great unbeliever" again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries.

The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel.

The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front -- a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda -- would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army.

This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually.

At least with Russia now offering to "safeguard" Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions - the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s "great Satan".

Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.

Pause for thought on Syrian chemical attacks -- and reprisals

As the United States and its allies -- including Australia -- move closer to intervening in the Syrian civil war, more questions are emerging over the chemical weapons attack which is the pretext for that intervention. Challenging questions are being asked about the motive behind the attack, as well as the consequences of a response to it.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, yet drawn a "red line" which, if crossed, would trigger an intervention. The question now being asked is why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would unnecessarily provoke the US into a response?

Assad knew that, once publicly committed, the US could not back down from its threat to intervene. For US President Barack Obama to make such a threat and then not carry it through would weaken its international status and prompt further possible tests of its strategic resolve.

The evidence, too, is that despite the huge cost in civilian lives, the Assad regime is at least holding its own in the civil war and has made recent gains. These gains have been largely due to logistical support from Russia, China and Iran, and the intervention of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.

This, then, begs the questions of why it would resort to using chemical weapons when there is no pressing need to do so, and especially knowing it would engender an external military response?

The Assad regime being evil is a morally satisfying but intellectually bereft answer to this question that does not transcend reasonable -- and growing -- doubt. It is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that is the extent of the facts.

It is possible that the order for Assad regime forces to use its chemical weapons did not come from Assad himself. A rogue commander could have used the weapons, for reasons that can only be guessed at.

But looking at who has most to gain from such an attack, suspicion falls less on the Assad regime and more on the faltering anti-Assad rebellion. External intervention could, at least initially, tip the balance of power in Syria’s civil war in favour of the anti-Assad forces.

The Assad regime's reluctance and delay in allowing in UN weapons inspectors has not helped allay suspicion that the chemical weapons attach was a deliberate act. However, had a local commander given the order, Assad would have been aware of the likely consequences and thus attempted to delay formal investigations in order to allow signs of the chemicals to dissipate.

Of the two main opposition groupings, the more secular (and Western-supported) Free Syrian Army has struggled and has the most to gain from external intervention. The Saudi and Qatar-backed and Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, though, would also benefit from external intervention. If intervention helped topple the Assad regime, it would ease the way towards them establishing an Islamist state.

While there is no evidence that either of these two somewhat disparate groupings are responsible for the chemical attack, one is clearly desperate and the other has, during the civil war, demonstrated its own lack of moral compunction. The hard evidence, then, beyond the simple fact of an attack, remains ambiguous.

Apart from the formal legality of a direct external intervention, careful consideration is being given to how much evidence will be needed to launch a US-led attack. There appears little ulterior reason for the US to want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, given that it is only likely to further stir up the hornets’ nest.

The US is being drawn into the Syrian civil war in a seemingly mechanistic way. Yet there remains no hard evidence as to who was the perpetrator of the chemical attack. This level of uncertainty has echoes similar to that of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", and the continuing disaster that remains what is left of the Iraqi state.

Why is China interested in helping war-torn Mali?

In a move that has raised as many questions about its wider intent, China has announced it will send between 500 and 600 troops to Mali under a post-French UN peacekeeping mission. While the move is being welcomed in Mali as an international contribution to helping control Islamist fighters holed up in the exposed mountains in the north of the country, some external observers are viewing the contribution with a more jaundiced eye.

Mali is due to hold elections in late July, following a coup against its elected government last year.

Despite opposing the use of peacekeepers as international interference when it joined the UN in 1971, since the early 1990s China has deployed troops to 13 internationally sanctioned theatres, including to East Timor and a non-combat mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It currently has more than 2000 troops deployed in UN peacekeeping operations.

China does not have any direct economic or diplomatic interests in Mali. But it has been increasingly making its presence felt in Africa as it continues to search for more resources to help fuel its growing economy. China currently has investments across Africa estimated at more than US$100 billion.

China’s main involvement in Africa is in Sudan, Algeria, Zambia and South Africa, with lesser investments in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria and eight other countries. China’s trade with Africa began to take off around 2003, jumping ahead around 2007, corresponding to the establishment of the private equity China-Africa Development Fund. According to the China Development Bank:

"CADFund works differently from economic aid to Africa in that it is not allocated by nation but independently operated and based on market economy principles, the Fund invests in projects and requires investment benefits."

Last Saturday, the chairman of China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Zhang Dejiang, said China was willing to work with African countries to "advance the China-Africa new-type strategic partnership to a higher level". Chinese President Xi Jinping's visited Africa in March to promote the "strategic partnership".

China’s troops in Mali are not expected to be on the front line fighting the Islamist insurgents who, until France’s intervention in January this year, had seized the north of the country and threatened to overthrow Mali’s government. However, the move is being seen as a further illustration of China’s increasingly proactive, indeed assertive, international policy.

As with its "assistance" elsewhere, after the troops’ deployment, China is expected to ask for a reciprocal favour. Mali is the world’s third largest producer of gold, and one of the poorest countries, with a per capita income of $1.25 a day.

Killings in West Papua by Australian-backed anti-terror police

Violence has again broken out in Indonesia’s troubled province of West Papua, with the Australian-supported counter-terrorism police squad Densus 88 leading the attack. In the latest violence, there are unverified but fairly detailed reports of 10 West Papuans being killed during flag-raising ceremonies at three locations across West Papua. Dozens have also been arrested in these otherwise peaceful ceremonies.

Densus 88 has been the subject of a number of critical reports, notably for being used to suppress political dissent and not in its primary counter-terrorism role.

The West Papua National Freedom Army (TPN-PB) -- the armed wing of the Free Papua Organisation (OPM) -- organised flag-raising ceremonies on May 1 across the province to mark West Papua's incorporation into Indonesia. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said in response to the violence:

"These latest incidents are unfortunate examples of the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression and excessive use of force in Papua. I urge the government of Indonesia to allow peaceful protest and hold accountable those involved in abuses."

West Papua Legislative Council deputy speaker Demianus Jimmy Idjie condemned the use of violence by the police as a group of West Papuans attempted to hoist the Morning Star flag. "Seeing these people’s wounds, the shooters were not trying to disperse the rally, they were actually aiming at the protesters," he said.

According to several reports, two protesters were shot dead in Sorong, on the tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, with another three wounded and many more arrested. It is understood that four people were also killed and a further 20 arrested in the mining town of Timika, south of the central Maoke Mountain Range, and a further four shot dead in Biak, on Suipori Island, just north of the mainland, again with many more arrests.

The attacks against the protests were said to be led by Densus 88 officers, supported by conventional soldiers. Densus 88 officers arrested a further 22 activists on Saturday.

In response to this latest round of violence, a TPB-PB spokesman has called on the Indonesian government to enter into talks aimed at a peaceful resolution to West Papua's outstanding claims.

A police spokesperson, Senior Commander I Gede Sumerta Jaya, denies allegations that Densus 88 officers shot two men during the Sorong protest. However, he says the police will investigate the allegations. "It’s a hasty conclusion to condemn the police or the military as responsible for the deaths," he said, as no bodies had been found by police. Unconfirmed photos of what appear to be the bodies have been made available.

According to the UN's Pilay:

"Since May 2012, we have received 26 reports concerning alleged human rights violations, including 45 killings and cases of torture involving 27 people. While many incidents relate to communal violence, serious allegations of human rights abuses by law enforcement officials persist."

"There has not been sufficient transparency in addressing human rights violations in Papua. I urge Indonesia to allow international journalists into Papua and to facilitate visits by the Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council."

It's just not cricket that Sri Lanka keeps playing

The government of Sri Lanka has been embarrassed over its human rights record by a call for a boycott campaign being run by respected Australian sports writer Trevor Grant. Grant has been using the Sri Lanka cricket team’s current tour of Australia to highlight what the UN believes were war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009 and a subsequent campaign of human rights abuse against the country’s Tamil minority.

The campaign is the first politically driven proposed boycott of sports in Australia since the anti-apartheid boycotts of South African sporting teams in the 1970s and '80s.

While touring Australia, the Sri Lankan cricket team, self-proclaimed ambassadors for their country, have been touting a holiday resort on their country's north-east coast. Grant says the military built-and-run resort is situated at the site where some 40,000 Tamil non-combatant men, women and children died at the hands of the Sri Lanka military.

East Timor left to fend for itself with challenges ahead

Australia's draw-down of its remaining military force in East Timor, and the conclusion of the United Nations mission on December 31, has signalled that this sometimes troubled tiny country is now responsible for its own future. The stark realisation that the security blanket provided by the international community is being taken away has left some in East Timor feeling vulnerable. Some observers, too, have suggested that the withdrawal is still too soon and that East Timor still has the potential to slide back into internal conflict. The country’s leaders, however, have been making clear they are not only ready to take full responsibility for their own affairs but are demanding to do so. In this, Australia's continuing military presence is regarded by some East Timorese as neo-colonial, and the UN as of marginal competence or value.

On any Sunday

Culture, civil society and development

 
The United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) Doha forum held on 2-4 May 2011 in Doha, Qatar was a unique opportunity to gauge how civil society organizations view the challenges of and opportunities for achieving intercultural understanding and social inclusion.

Overall, the discussions have highlighted the critical importance of the concept of ‘culture’ as a key dimension of not only intercultural relations but also human development in a very broad sense.

In particular, the workshops which were guided thematically by the plenary sessions, enabled us to appreciate and debate specific models of practice in the area of cultural diversity and intercultural relations situated within various local contexts.

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