Saturday, June 18, 2011

True Cost Of Interventionism

Abdel Bari Atwan writes: It is time for Arab nations to come of age and take charge of their own affairs and not rely on foreign powers 

As Syrian President Bashar Al Assad relentlessly pursues his campaign of violence against his own people — of whom an estimated 1,200 have been killed and 10, 000 detained — many question why there has been no military intervention by the western powers who were so quick to stand between Libya's Colonel Gaddafi and those who opposed him.

The answer is complicated and sadly, seems to have more to do with the international community's various economic and political ambitions than humanitarian values and a desire for justice.
When the UN Security Council voted to back a no-fly zone over Libya in mid-March, Russia and China were wrong-footed into abstaining, rather than vetoing Resolution 1973. The Nato intervention has undergone a significant mission creep and is now a blatant bid to force regime change — which is, of course, illegal.

The western coalition was similarly motivated when it invaded Saddam Hussain's Iraq in 2003. Like Iraq, Libya is oil-rich. Syria is not.
China and Russia are increasingly seen as a counterbalance to Washington in the Middle East, at a time when US influence is waning. Both countries have considerable economic interests in Libya which are being devastated by the ongoing conflict. A recent report in Pravda referred to the fiscal fallout for Russia in the event of what it termed a ‘victory of the Western coalition' in the article ‘Libyan War damages Russia's Economic Interests' Anatoly Miranovsky, Pravda, March 24, 2011 — these amounted to several billion dollars in oil exploration licences, road-building and arms deals (alone worth $4 billion [Dh14.68 billion]).

China's Ministry of Trade, meanwhile, has disclosed that in March when the Nato intervention began, 75 Chinese corporations were operating in Libya with $18 billion worth of contracts in place — many of them in the oil-rich east of the country where the protests originated. The International Energy Agency suggests that China's oil consumption will reach 13.1 million barrels per day by 2030, up from 3.5 million bpd in 2006.
If the western-backed rebels succeed in overthrowing Gaddafi and establishing their own government, they are likely to favour those who have enabled their victory in future business deals. Realising that Libya's future is de facto being decided by the West, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev performed something of a U-turn and joined fellow G8 leaders in a statement urging Gaddafi to surrender power (during the Deauville 1 June summit).

‘Four seas' plan
On Syria there is no such flexibility. Both China and Russia are adamant that there will be no intervention against Al Assad and both countries boycotted Saturday's UN Security Council meeting to finalise the wording of a resolution condemning the regime's deadly suppression of peaceful protest.

Syria is key to China's plans for expansion through the Middle East — Al Assad's ‘four seas' plan to make Syria into a regional energy hub dovetails neatly with Beijing's ‘Silk Road' drive westwards in search of energy, raw materials and financial opportunities. China has invested heavily in Syria, as well as in neighbouring Turkey and close ally Iran. China buys a massive 25 per cent of Iran's oil exports and is already a key investor in Iraq's burgeoning oil and gas sector. Beijing is clearly intent on consolidating and expanding a mighty bloc of influence in the Middle East, containing some of Washington's least favourite regimes.
Russia too is heavily committed in Syria. The two countries have had a close military relationship since Cold War days; the fall of the Soviet Union has not impacted Russia's lucrative arms trade with Al Assad's regime — since 2002 Russian companies have sold the Syrians more than $6 billion worth of weaponry.

The western argument that its military intervention in Libya was only to prevent a bloodbath and to champion democracy simply does not ring true when the violence being used against unarmed protesters in Syria is just as extreme.
The truth is that the West does not want to confront Syria and has not sought a mandate to do so through the UN Security Council. The Syrian regime possesses one of the region's most powerful armies, comprising up to half a million men and an impressive arsenal. Not only that, Syria — unlike the globally unpopular Gaddafi — has powerful allies, including Nato-member Turkey and Iran. Tehran would almost certainly join the fray which could prove disastrous at a time when US and Nato forces are already committed to a greater or lesser degree in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya.

Furthermore, Syria and Iran's longstanding enmity towards Israel would put America's key ally in the region at great risk in the event of military escalation as well as destabilising Lebanon where Hezbollah has close relations with both Syria and Iran.
While there is little to gain (and much to lose) from interfering in Syria, the coalition countries, in particular the US, have undeniably benefited — economically and politically — from the rebellion and subsequent military intervention in Libya. Certainly the influence and investments of rival superpowers Russia and China have been greatly damaged by the course of events there.

But this is not what the Arab Spring revolutions are about. They are a clear call from the region's oppressed people for new freedoms and the right to choose their leaders. These brave (mostly) young people who are willing to lose their lives on the streets should not be reduced to pawns in a game played out between energy-hungry superpowers.
The international community should condemn the tyrants' bloody deeds at the top of their voices, and offer every possible practical support to emerging political, legislative and constitutional structures, but victory can only be won by the real combatants in any fight.

 Military intervention — like aid - comes with strings attached. It is time for the Arab nations to come of age and take charge of their own affairs. The innocent blood of the Syrian and Libyan martyrs will, in the end, win freedom for their people.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 18/06/2011
-Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of the daily al-Quds al-Arabi

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