Another 'Coalition Of The Willing'? Why The West Would Bypass UN On Syria War

USS John C. Stennis before its deployment last year to the Middle East
USS John C. Stennis before its deployment last year to the Middle East
Natalie Nougayrède

PARIS – Syria appears to be moving closer by the day toward the end of Assad’s regime. In Western countries, the debate on a military intervention to secure the country’s "hot zones" is gaining momentum.

Until now, Western leaders have said that they would only support a military intervention if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Unfortunately, if the use of weapons of mass destruction is the only reason for intervention, people are going to make unhappy parallels with the recent past.

"The reason why such statements are risky," says one Paris-based diplomat, "is that you are exposing yourself to criticism – if you use the same reasons that led to the Iraqi war, people will be suspicious."

The fact is that neither the US nor the UK nor France have explicitly said that a military intervention to secure Syrian chemical stocks would be contingent on a United Nations Security Council vote. Given the seriousness of the situation, these countries seem willing to bypass the UN. This is exactly what the Bush administration did in 2003. After being denied the Security Council’s authorization, they decided that resolution 1441, voted on Nov. 8, 2002, was sufficient for them to go ahead. This text threatened Saddam Hussein of "heavy consequences" if he didn’t come clear on his weapons’ programs. The American approach was strongly contested by the French and the Russians.

The Iraqi and Syrian situations are completely different. Nobody wants to launch a large ground operation in Syria. The Western countries and their Arab allies would rather see the regime fall at the hands of the rebels or from the palace itself in Damascus. As opposed to Iraq, no one denies the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Syria.

It may seem paradoxical for Barack Obama – who always wanted to distance himself from his predecessor’s foreign policy – to even consider bypassing the UN in order to carry out a military intervention. On the other hand, that would follow the U.S. tradition for multilateralism. Obama certainly didn’t break from this line of conduct when he ordered intensive drone strikes without the UN’s approval.

For French President François Hollande, who claimed in late August that he would "stay true to international laws" and only participate in "operations to protect the population – with a Security Council mandate," bypassing the UN would be a tad more difficult.

Diplomats are scrambling to find a solution. In case of an impasse at the UN with Russian and Chinese vetoes, the last plausible reason for an intervention would be to claim self-defense. The right to use military power in case of legitimate defense is indeed mentioned in article 51 of the UN Charter: "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security."

Could this be used against Syria? It might, but only if one of Assad’s chemical rocket crossed the border over to another country.

A long history of bypassing the Security Council

This has led NATO – as a safety measure – to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey. However the current situation points to Bashar Al-Assad’s government using his chemical weapons inside his country, meaning against rebels and civilians. The self-defense argument wouldn’t stick in that case.

Unless…. Unless the international community recognizes the Syrian National coalition as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian people." The U.S., the Gulf states, France, Turkey and the UK already led the way on Dec. 12. Indeed, if the coalition should, as a recognized political entity of the Syrian sovereignty, call out for exterior military help, the question of interference would not apply.

In truth, when the subject of international law is brought up, the political usually prevails over the juridical. The countries, France included, which say they need the UN’s approval to get involved, have already managed to bypass international laws in the past.

This is the core of a long-standing debate that is still relevant today: did NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – which was executed without explicit authorization from the Security Council – violate international law? The West had argued that the texts previously voted by the UN, added to the failed negotiations with Belgrade were enough to confer legal legitimacy to the operation. This was contested by Moscow, and since then, Russia’s position has stayed the same – they condemn the sanctions taken against Iran, which they consider illegal because they were decided without the UN’s approval.

In the end, the prevailing policy will always be the most "legitimate" over the most "legal." In the case of Syria, the West is trying to bypass the amorphous Security Council by drawing on the condemnation of Assad’s regime by regional organizations (the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU) as well as the UN General Assembly and the ad hoc group of the "Friends of the Syrian people." The Russians, however, could – and they would be in their legal right to – protest that this is not enough and that no one is allowed to openly interfere in a civil war.

But Moscow’s arguments are often misleading – including when it questioned the Western interpretation of resolution 1973 that authorized armed force to be used in Libya. The Russian diplomats couldn’t have ignored paragraph four of the resolution, which stipulated that "all necessary measures" to "protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attacks," had to be implemented in order to hasten the fall of the regime. The word "threat" was enough for Western countries to argue that Gaddafi remaining at the helm of Libya represented a constant "threat," and that his forces were thus a legitimate target.

Russia’s self-proclaimed title as keeper of UN dogma is actually more political than it is legal. It’s interpretation of international law tends to be much more flexible when it comes to safeguarding its "vested interests" in neighboring countries.

This was the case when it invaded Georgia during the summer of 2008, and then unilaterally changed its borders. The Russians drew on the UN "duty to protect" to hide what was – in the eyes of international law – a crime of aggression. They conveniently "forgot" that just saying they needed to "protect" Russians living in Georgia did not constitute a free pass to intervene in such manner – without the Security Council’s authorization. An authorization that it never asked for, of course.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionnable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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