Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When You Slaughter Your People, Don’t Use Gas: States’ Interests and the Limits of International Institutions

Below is the script of a presentation I gave last week at a seminar co-sponsored by Ikahan and Indonesia Defense University. Held at Hotel Borobudur, in Jakarta, the seminar was titled "After the Arab Spring: Lessons for the Indonesia-Australia Defence Relationship." Presenters reviewed the Arab Spring, discussed the lessons for multilateralism, and distilled the implications for Australian-Indonesian shared interests. Speakers included Prof. Amin Saikal and Dr. Rodger Shanahan, of the Lowry Institute.

The Arab Spring, which erupted more than two years ago after a fruit seller in Tunisia committed suicide by self-immolation, began with so much promise. People in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, rose and deposed aging autocrats that ruled for years. Many believed, with much enthusiasm, that the region was taking the first steps toward democracy.

While there were initially some holdouts, notably Qaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, at that time the majority of talking heads in the media predicted that these autocrats would soon fall, especially after the international community seemed to prepare to intervene on the side of the people, after the besieged autocrats began to crack down on the rebelling populations.

For instance, in Libya, international intervention managed to tip the scale in favor of the rebelling populace. Qaddafi was overthrown and executed in 2011, thanks to the intervention by the United Kingdom and France, which was supported by the United States and approved by the United Nations Security Council.

In fact, Fareed Zakaria, a respected journalist and scholar on international relations, made an argument that the Libyan case offered a new model of international intervention. We might continue to see a combination of strong demand for outside intervention from locals and regional and international legitimacy that allows a multinational coalition to assemble and to intervene.[1]

Today, however, what many believed as a spring period of blossoming democracies has given way to the Arab Winter. In Egypt, the population went to the street, supporting the return of a military dictatorship that deposed the unpopular yet democratically elected Moslem Brotherhood government. Libya is close to anarchy, with the central government unable to actually rule the entire nation. In Syria, the popular revolt has been hijacked by jihadists and Bashar al-Assad’s regime seems to be regaining strength, even though it will take a lot of time and resources before the rebellion is quashed. In the meantime, the international community stays silent, even though the death toll in Syria has passed over 100,000 and is still growing.

So what went wrong? Why is the international community suddenly impotent in light of the Arab Winter? Why isn't there an international coalition to help the beleaguered rebels in Syria?

Here we see the limitations of international institutions. International institutions only work when the power-holders in the institution are in accord on what to do and what not to do. In Libya, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were able to convince both Russia and China that the intervention on Libya was only limited, solely to protect civilians. At the same time, Libya was not that critical to the interests of both Russia and China. Granted that Libya has oil, but Libya only produces two percent of global oil production.

Syria, however, is different, even though Syria is not an oil-producing country. It is geo-strategically important for both Iran and Russia. For Iran, Syria provides a link to its Hezbollah client in Lebanon that allows Iran to project its power to entire Middle East and threaten Israel. For Russia, Syria is too close for comfort. Any chaos in Syria could spill into Russia’s restive Caucasian Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. Thus, for Putin, it is much more preferable to strengthen Assad, keeping him in power.

While China doesn't really have a dog in Syria, it watched with dismay as its silence in Libya was seen as a blank check for regime change. As it always opposes any international intervention in foreign states' domestic affairs, fearing that it would create a precedent that would pave the way for international interference in its restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, China then ganged up with Russia to prevent direct international military intervention in Syria.

Moreover, in Libya the risk-averse Obama could rely on both the United Kingdom and France to supply the muscle, while the United States, due to domestic opposition to international interventions, provided support, such as 75% of aerial refueling flights, 70% of intelligence and surveillance flights, and munitions. In Syria, however there is no state willing to provide the necessary military power for such an intervention.

Furthermore, in Libya, the rebels managed to unite, perhaps only temporarily, but long enough to create a united front called Transitional National Council; meantime, in Syria, the rebels don’t speak with one voice. In fact, there are many internal fights, squabbles, and not to mention, infiltration by al-Qaeda linked international jihadists that actually reduce the international support to the rebellion. In fact, in the United States, Senator Ted Cruz, in his opposition to any intervention by the United States in Syria, acidly declared that the United States “is not Al Qaeda’s air force.”

It is only after Assad (most likely his underlings) used chemical weapons on the civilians that the world and Obama finally, half-heartedly, reacted, leading to Nicholas Kristof’s observation on Twitter that, basically, the message to dictators is “when you slaughter your people, don’t use gas.”

While the Arab League was united in supporting the rebellion by awarding Syria’s seats to a coalition of Syrian opposition, and both Saudi and Qatar have gave military and financial contributions to the rebels, the assistance remains limited, as none of the Gulf States are willing to intervene directly. They share the same dilemma the United States faces, as they are unsure who they loathe more: the rebels, who are partially comprised of members of the Moslem Brotherhood and jihadists, or Assad, who is backed by Iran, and thus a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security interests.

What are the lessons for ASEAN, beyond not using gas to kill civilians?

First, it has to be noted that both ASEAN and the Arab League shares many common characteristics, notably in their lack of enthusiasm for a much closer union similar to the European Union. Both ASEAN and Arab League nations are fiercely independent, unwilling to have other states interfere in their domestic affairs.

As a result, similar to the Arab League, it is very difficult for ASEAN members to create a strong united front when there is no common interest in responding to threats.

Second, international organizations are seldom prepared for unexpected and yet predictable challenges to the status quo (which is often termed as "known unknowns"). Granted, the timing of Arab Spring was unexpected. Yet there had been a lot of indications that beneath the calm imposed by the authoritarian governments, the people were restive and dissatisfied with status quo.

This brings me to a third lesson: location matters. Both Egypt and Syria's strategic locations prevented forceful international interventions due to competing interests from their powerful neighbors. Libya, on the other hand, is not surrounded by powerful states with clear goals and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and that allowed the international community to intervene once they were able to agree on at least some sort of goals and course of actions.

Fourth, international organizations are only as important as how its strongest members want it to be. The lack of action from the United Nations in Syria was due to the inability of the Big Five in the Security Council to reach an accord. Saudi fears of Iran prevented Riyadh from using the Arab League to pursue stronger military options in Syria, even though Saudi Arabia didn't have qualms about intervening strongly, militarily in Bahrain.

In ASEAN, the most important state is Indonesia, which has a vested interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region and preventing neighboring powers from intervening in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Indonesia needs to show its leadership and start asking the question: what does it want with ASEAN?

[1]Fareed Zakaria, “How the Lessons of Iraq Paid Off in Libya,” Time Magazine (September 5, 2011)

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