September 01, 2014
Saturday, 30 August 2014 | S Rajagopalan | in Oped
A year after shelving plan to airstrike Assad forces, the US faces a similar predicament in Syria after declaring to 'do what is necessary' against the Islamic State in the wake of the gruesome killing of James Foley
Exactly a year ago, President Barack Obama was bracing for a military strike against Syria as America's long-time bete noire Bashar al-Assad crossed the "red line" with his alleged use of chemical weapons. However, after all the sabre-rattling for nearly a fortnight, Mr Obama reversed course when confronted by unexpectedly massive domestic headwinds, both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, with his camp-followers not relishing the sight of an "anti-war President" launching his own war. Much to his relief, Russia, using its clout with Assad, came up with a diplomatic proposal for international control of Syria's chemical weapons, and Mr Obama lost little time to hit the pause/eject button.
A year later, Mr Obama faces a similar predicament in Syria, the only difference being the target this time is not President Assad, who is still sitting pretty, but a ruthless outfit which has been battling for his ouster — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a prelude to possibly taking the battle to ISIS' safe havens in Syria, Mr Obama ordered surveillance flights over Syria earlier this week to gather the requisite intelligence. That came on the heels of the ISIS' cold-blooded execution of American journalist James Foley and posting its savagery online. If the dispatch of spy planes and comments by some top aides triggered speculation of imminent military action, Mr Obama took everyone by surprise by hitting the brakes on Thursday, saying he has no strategy as yet.
For the time being anyway, Mr Obama appears to have beaten yet another hasty retreat on the Syrian front, just days after one of his top aides asserted that the United States would "do what is necessary" against the Islamic State militants in Syria in the wake of the gruesome killing of Foley. "If you come against Americans, we are going to come after you," Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes had declared, adding: "We're actively considering what's going to be necessary to deal with that threat and we're not going to be restricted by borders."
In contrast to the strongly-worded statements by his aides earlier on, Mr Obama is now offering a more sober assessment. As he puts it, "Rooting out a cancer like ISIL (official acronym for the ISIS) will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will." Far from pushing ahead with a unilateral strike, he now speaks of the need for a long-term strategy to deal with the ISIS for which he would be sending his Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to build a coalition of "strong regional partners". For now, the US proposes to confine itself to continuing with the airstrikes against the ISIS within Iraq.
Mr Obama's pause on the Syrian front, pending finalisation of a regional strategy and putting together a coalition of willing, came about just as clutches of lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, began to demand that the President seek Congressional authorisation before expanding the military offensive against the ISIS from Iraq to Syria. It also came on a day when The New York Times cautioned editorially: "There are too many unanswered questions to make that decision now and there has been far too little public discussion for Mr Obama to expect Americans to rally behind what could be another costly military commitment."
There has also been a steady commentary in the American media that the one man who would benefit the utmost from a US crackdown on the ISIS in Syria would be none else than Mr Assad. "It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend," commented Mr Rhodes. And when the question was put to Mr Obama himself at the White House presser, he said dismissively: "I don't think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we've been seeing there. We will continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad."
In its anxiety to distance itself from the narrative of unwittingly helping Mr Assad, the Obama administration has, in recent days, dismissed the Syrian warning that the United States cannot act unilaterally, but only with its approval and cooperation. "Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression," asserted the country's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, only to be countered by the State Department, with spokesperson Jen Psaki retorting: "We're not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime."
If some lawmakers are relieved that President Obama is not plunging the military into Syria, there are others, predominantly on the Republican side, who are inclined to support an offensive against the ISIS. That includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants the president to work with America's allies and develop a strategy. Reacting to the Obama announcement, he commented: "Don't forget, the threat from ISIL is real and it's growing — and it is time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response."
The broad view among experts and military advisers is that the Islamic State militancy cannot be defeated without going after the group inside Syria. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey believes the Islamic State, right now a region threat, would soon be posing a threat to both America and Europe. He believes that the ISIS must be pressured both in Iraq and in Syria.
Ryan Crocker, a former US Ambassador to Syria and Iraq, is a strong proponent of expanding the offensive to Syria. "The rise of the ISIS presents the gravest threat to United States national security since 9/11," he wrote in the NYT, warning Americans: "This Al Qaeda mutant is far better armed, equipped and financed than the original. Unlike any variant of Al Qaeda since 9/11, it controls significant territory where, secure from attack, it has the space and time to plan its next set of operations. Anyone who believes the US is not on that list is delusional."
(The writer is Washington correspondent, The Pioneer)
- India is itself partly responsible for the Hurriyat blowback
Pakistan created an abnormal situation by asking its high commissioner to meet the Hurriyat leaders despite the Indian foreign secretary's "advice" against such a move. Advice like this is not given normally to a foreign envoy unless an issue of high political sensitivity to the host government is involved. But, if given, the expectation is that it will be accepted. A foreign envoy has to maintain a functional relationship with his host government that can be seriously impaired if a confrontational choice is made. After all, the advice to the high commissioner was against meeting a category of Indian citizens on Indian soil — a request that did not abridge his country's sovereignty on its own territory. So, it is aberrant of the Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson to raise the issue of Pakistan's "sovereignty" in this context.
Pakistan cannot argue that it has a sovereign right to override India's sovereignty on Indian soil, and therefore its envoy can act as he chooses in the exercise of that sovereignty. Pakistan considers Jammu and Kashmir as "disputed" territory and does not recognize India's sovereignty over it. Following this logic, the high commissioner could insist on going to Srinagar and meet the Hurriyat there without the permission of the government. He had the option of protesting against the Indian "advice", drawing attention to the occurrence of such meetings earlier and the political debit for Pakistan in case he failed to meet the Hurriyat before the foreign-secretary-level talks. He could have made his protest public, but he was diplomatically obliged to respect the political advice of the Foreign Office. By failing to adopt this sensible course, the Pakistan high commissioner has grossly violated diplomatic norms. Worse, he escalated matters and graduated from rejecting the Indian advice to showing contempt for it by having a second round of meetings with the separatists. He then decided to be triply offensive by declaring to the press that what he did was helpful to "peace".
Such conduct cannot be overlooked. It is one thing to cancel the foreign-secretary-level talks, but it is another to specifically deal with the violation of diplomatic norms by the Pakistan high commissioner and lay down the rules for the future applicable to other embassies in India too, whose meetings with Hurriyat leaders give the latter political relevance and stature. It is normal for foreign diplomats to meet Opposition leaders, but not secessionists. The fact that the government itself may open channels to them is not a reason for foreign missions to do so. The government does not interfere in its own internal affairs by negotiating with insurgents or separatists, representatives of foreign countries do so by engaging them. A good case, therefore, exists for expelling the Pakistan high commissioner, or, at least, placing curbs on the functioning of the mission. The government may not want to go beyond the cancellation of foreign-secretary-level talks at this stage to avoid being accused of over-reacting — a charge already being levied against the government by those in India who refuse to give up hope of befriending Pakistan through forbearance and generosity. It may not also want to prematurely bury Narendra Modi's ambition to strengthen ties with neighbours and reinvigorate SAARC.
We are ourselves responsible, in part, for the blowback on the Hurriyat issue. The rationale of allowing Pakistanis to hobnob with the secessionists under the nose of our government has not been clear. To believe that this would assist in finding a peaceful solution to the Kashmir issue would have been quixotic. Surely, when Pakistanis talk to the Hurriyat, it is not to encourage them to politically reconcile with Delhi, cease their disruptive activities, participate in the elections to establish their political credentials and seek redress for their grievances through the democratic process. The secessionists no doubt give to the Pakistanis self-serving versions of internal developments in J&K, get closed-door instructions on political strategies to pursue to keep the Valley on the boil, and, no doubt, tie up arrangements for fund transfers. We generously facilitate contacts between ISI operatives in the Pakistani mission and their tools in the Valley.
If there is an obscure purpose in allowing this interaction between Pakistanis bent on making mischief in Kashmir and the Hurriyat equally committed to this goal, is there evidence of that objective being met all these years? The Hurriyat continues to foment anti-Indian sentiments in the Valley and pursue its communal agenda. If keeping these elements in play prevents more radical elements from taking over, and, in that sense, they are a lesser evil to be tolerated, then this strategy has failed.
The Pakistani argument that there was nothing objectionable in the high commissioner entertaining the Hurriyat leadership because such meetings have occurred regularly in the past and India has tolerated them is specious. It is true that India has made only weak noises of disapproval when such meetings have occurred earlier, or even scoffed at them as if they were inconsequential. The Hurriyat, we claimed, had little political standing, with their writ not going beyond their immediate parishes. We even let their leaders travel to Pakistan and to conferences of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with insouciance.
If this was a show of confidence that the internal situation in J&K was completely under our control and the busybody Hurriyat was a minor nuisance, then we were ignoring ground realities — not so much as regards the Hurriyat, but the perturbing change in the religious tenor of the Valley away from Sufism to more radical Sunni ideologies linked to Saudi Arabia. In any case, we are not obliged to perpetuate past errors. Pakistan's contacts with the Hurriyat are not covered by common law, in that as this practice has continued for years it has become a right. It is entirely up to us to decide when we decide not to overlook contacts between an external enemy and an internal one.
Those in India who have criticized the government's decision to cancel foreign-secretary-level talks as an over-reaction to a trivial issue ignore some vital aspects. If meetings with the Hurriyat are so unimportant intrinsically because this group is a declining force, then why should meeting them be so important for the Pakistanis, to the point that meeting them is considered more crucial than having a dialogue with India? The Hurriyat contests India's sovereignty over J&K and wants a solution in consultation with the wishes of the people in accordance with UN resolutions — a traditional Pakistani position now being more forcefully re-asserted by Nawaz Sharif.
By allowing the Kashmiri separatists to meet the Pakistani leaders in New Delhi, we acknowledge that Pakistan has a legitimate political role in the Valley, conceding, in the process, extra-territorial rights to Pakistan in J&K. We also help boost Pakistan's propaganda about resistance to Indian rule in Kashmir embodied by the Hurriyat, undermining, as a consequence, the government and mainstream parties in Kashmir, who are made to appear lacking in popular legitimacy despite periodic elections. That a country deeply involved in terrorism in J&K is also allowed to have political consultations with a section of the Kashmiris is difficult to understand. It is good that this ridiculous state of affairs is sought to be ended now.
The author is former foreign secretary of India email@example.com