Where are we on the U.N.’s 70th anniversary?

Eyad Abu Shakra

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Many were looking forward to the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the United Nations earlier this week, as the U.N. celebrates its 70th anniversary. There are many topics that deserve discussion, most of which are extremely serious and have dangerous repercussions.

Definitely the U.N. itself is now in need of rejuvenation after its obvious failure to deal with several cases of international impasse caused primarily by spite, intentional obstruction, and the abject disregard for the “international legitimacy” practiced by major powers through the power of their vetoes. This is ironic, as the U.N. is supposed to embody this “international legitimacy” and entrench it.

Sectarian traps and minefields

While there may have been several problems on the agenda during the Obama–Putin meetings, the Syrian crisis was at the forefront as it has generated other contentious and urgent problems including encouraging the new “Kremlin Tsar” to annex Crimea and interfere in Eastern Ukraine the moment he realized the White House was basically “all talk no action.” Another urgent problem has been the suffering of millions of displaced Syrians, tens of thousands of whom have been driven by despair to take to the seas in the hope of finding refuge in Europe.

As time has proven, the Syrian problem has been inextricably linked to Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, the “sudden” emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the much-touted “New Middle East” project with all its ethnic, religious, and sectarian traps and minefields. However, any observer monitoring Washington’s reactions is left confused as to whether this derives from excessive stupidity or some kind of malignant conspiracy.

I reckon it would be silly to expect any serious shift in Obama’s policy toward Syria, and subsequently Iraq and Lebanon.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Chamberlain, Carter and Gorbachev

Throughout the U.N.’s history, the absence of mutual deterrence among the great powers frequently led to war and immense human suffering. In fact, the U.N. was created at the end of the Second World War which broke out basically because aggression was not deterred. The now infamous paper waved by then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, after returning from a meeting with the Nazi führer Adolf Hitler, has become a symbol of the futility of trusting despots, megalomaniacs, and totalitarian and imperialist dictators. Then, the policy of appeasement adopted by some Western powers in the face of the militarism of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperialist Japan was a perfect recipe for war.

Eventually, 70 years ago, the international community decided to establish a “new world order” represented by a replacement to the defunct League of Nations brought down by the Second World War. After that, mutual deterrence between East and West managed for decades to prevent devastating nuclear confrontations, and gave rise to the Cold War policy of Containment as well as limited regional wars. Thus, just as U.S. President John Kennedy was able to deter the U.S.SR on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Communist camp succeeded through People’s Liberation Wars in scoring historical victories in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

Later, however, balance of terror and deterrence was shaken twice.

First, in the late 1970s when then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter failed to deal decisively with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which strengthened both Muslim and Christian radicalism. Khomeini’s rhetoric, slogans, and attempts to “export” his Shi’ite revolution provoked unease and hostility in the Sunni Muslim world, and revolutionary Iran’s sponsored hostage-taking caused bitter rage and ultra-conservative political reactions that gifted Ronald Reagan, the most hawkish Republican leader, a landslide electoral victory in the 1980 U.S. presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Subsequently, Reagan occupied the White House for eight years throughout which his aggressive policies changed the world.

The second time the balance was shaken came a few years later when U.S.SR leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to play Chamberlain’s role with Hitler; so Gorbachev embarked on an appeasement policy with Reagan, who in 1983 described the U.S.SR as the “Evil Empire.” The outcome of Gorbachev’s policy was catastrophic for the Soviet state and its institutions, which collapsed and gave rise to a new “unipolar” world led by America, in which extremist rightwing and religious parties became the main beneficiaries from the demise of the global Left.

Today, many—rightly or wrongly—believe that Barack Obama represents nothing but an extension of Chamberlain’s naïveté, Carter’s utopianism, and Gorbachev’s mindlessness; while Putin combines the aggressiveness of Khomeini, Hitler, and Reagan, as well as the decisiveness of JFK.

The Russian leader, a former KGB official, is a pragmatic and serious man who knows exactly what he wants, finds his opponents’ weak points and wastes no time in exploiting them. He is now confident that he has a unique opportunity to blackmail an aloof, out of touch, and insincere U.S. president, who has chosen to place all his eggs in the basket of his strategic agreement with Iran, which is an armed, aggressive, and theocratic regional power. Indeed, President Obama, so preoccupied with the U.S.’s long-term relations with Iran, seems uninterested in the geopolitical and humanitarian repercussions of the near future.

Given the above, what Vladimir Putin is doing in Syria today is the logical result of what Barack Obama has refused to do for more than four and a half years. It is the natural outcome of Washington’s meaningless “redlines” that never stopped Bashar Al-Assad’s massacres, the ridiculous promises to arm and train Syrian opposition fighters, and the stubborn and repeated refusal to enforce “safe havens” which are the only means capable of saving the Syrian people and encouraging defections from the regime’s army and security agencies.

Furthermore, following Washington’s inaction against Iran’s blatant military intervention and enforced population exchanges in Syria, unperturbed Russia has now joined the battle on the ground to save the Assad regime after it has lost control of most of the country despite Iranian and Russian support.

Back to New York. I reckon it would be silly to expect any serious shift in Obama’s policy toward Syria, and subsequently Iraq and Lebanon, especially, after Washington’s endorsement of Moscow’s approach that makes “fighting ISIS terror” the top priority there.

Finally, as far as the Friends of Syria are concerned—namely those among them who are rushing to drop the precondition of Assad’s removal for any political settlement—one hopes they do not discover too late that keeping Assad and cooperating with his regional backers were the main sources of despair, spite, and extremism.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 2 2015.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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