Around 4am Damascus time on the 14th of April, 2018 a coalition of 3 countries, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, proceeded to launch airstrikes into Syria against a background of allegations that Assad’s government had persisted “along a pattern” of using chemical weapons against “his own people”. On the same day of the strikes, a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was to begin its investigations in Douma, the site of the alleged attack, so as to establish if indeed chemical weapons had been used and what type of substances they were. As of 14th of April 2018 after an emergency meeting called by Russia at the UNSC, the chemical attack had not yet been independently established by the United Nations.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, would then make a speech stating that all diplomatic options had been exhausted and that the international community (a coalition of just 3 UNSC permanent members) had to send a message to Assad and his government as well as to Russia that norms governing the use of chemical weapons would be maintained in the international order. Prior to this, at other UNSC meetings, Russia and the United States had frustrated each other with vetoes and counter-resolutions, effectively preventing the council from arriving at a decision. Because of this, three of the five mightiest militaries decided to take it upon themselves, without UN investigation or the authorization of the use of force by UNSC. Additionally, there was no imminent attack to those countries from Syria.
Back in their own countries, Theresa May would avoid putting the matter to a vote in the House of Commons parting with a precedent started by Anthony Blair in the run up to the tragic Iraq intervention which also started on unverified claims. Donald Trump would use a combination of “secret authorities told to him by the Department of Justice” as well as the authorization for military action granted to George Bush Jr for the war against terror which Barack Obama also used extensively. On that basis, at risk of escalating with another nuclear superpower in Syria (Russia), the three countries launched their attacks. Syria, the nation in question and a member of the United Nations, had no avenues for recourse whatsoever to stop this attack by three very powerful countries which also happen to be permanent UNSC members. And this is what I find most troubling as a citizen of a small, barely-armed southern African state.
To a country like Malawi without much leverage in the international system and without heavy arms, the United Nations ideally represents a forum where its legitimate interests can be raised and especially where it can be protected from the aggression of larger nations: to this effect the United Nations has to enable full access and representation to ensure that countries without the capacity to protect themselves are adequately heard and protected prior to any UN decisions or outside the UN system. The United Nations structure of governance however is very archaic, reflecting a post-1945 world that no longer exists. Reforms to the UN structure have been collectively resisted by all permanent security council members for years as repeatedly mentioned by the presidents of Angola (who described the process as extremely frustrating) and South Africa
To this effect, the Syrian attacks (and I do characterize them as such) reflect a grim reality in which powerful nations are saying to weaker nations that the security council is only optional: that they reserve the right to act outside the UN system under the auspices of moral superiority, self-righteousness, humanitarian intervention and especially because of their mere ability to do so. For Malawi, this is very distressing because it means once accused as Syria has been, rogue coalitions can be formed to attack her without investigation and with impunity. Pictures on television showing children suffering from alleged chemical poisoning are deeply disturbing: Unfortunately the suffering of children has become an ingredient for fomenting support towards the military objectives of the different sides. When Russia bombed Aleppo, the West revealed the suffering of the children there; when the West bombed Mosul, Russia revealed that other place’s suffering children; and so on. It is decadent and so pathetically appalling.
But for regional powers with some ability to project their influence into neighboring states – or even those states with sufficient economic and/or military power to repel attacks such as North Korea, Turkey, South Africa, Iran, Syria and other such states, this tendency to form so-called international coalitions, which really only mean Western coalitions, will provide strong incentives for them to bulk up on their military capabilities to reach a minimum threshold for repelling attacks while pursuing national interests in their regional orbits. Countries like Russia and China which have an interest in breaking Western hegemony will also do their best to help arm and develop the military capacities of these smaller regional powers towards that threshold. China for example actively does this in Africa – it consolidates the internal security apparatus of weak states and provides military armaments as part of its development partnership.
The goal here is simple: if many countries are weak, then the western hegemony is sustainable – but if more and more countries acquire a minimum threshold of military power, then the West will find itself stretched thin trying to police the entire world wherever individual states or groups of states act in pursuit of their interests. In the long run, the world system built on the premise that only Western nations have the right to attack other nations by merely accusing them, along with the UN itself, will start crumbling while incidences of violence rise as the West is discredited, made to appear inept and haphazard as it struggles to maintain dominance. This is the lesson of the Syrian intervention without UN authorization, without evidence and targeting only those countries whose dictators happen to be the enemies of those UNSC coalitions such as Syria or Libya, and never Saudi Arabia (with all the horrors of Yemen) or Qatar.
Just a caveat. Russia’s strategy, from my Malawian perspective, has never been about confronting the United States militarily. Russia is not strong enough economically or conventionally to wage such a conflict. Additionally the risk of escalation to nuclear war and genocide is too high: both nations and others would be destroyed. Therefore Russia’s non-response in Syria as missiles flew into it is not proof that Russia has been taught a lesson, whatever that lesson might be. The Russian doctrine is a patient, sustained, long-term slog aimed at supporting as many non-hostile nations as possible with capabilities which would enable them to repel a cheap, low-personnel, low military asset attack from any major power particularly the US so as to gradually raise the human, political and economic costs of potential war for America in more and more regions of the world. As the US begins to hesitate due to this, the dormant national interest impulses that all nations tend to have will be activated and emboldened. Over time, the hegemonic system which Putin and Russia’s leadership including that of China repeatedly complain about will begin to crack as the world unglues itself out of the outdated-post 1945 UN system.
For me, it is better to reform the UN now so that it reflects today’s reality towards preserving stability going forward. Finally, reformation of the UN would especially undo colonial patterns of power which continue to deny a large portion of the world’s population credible representation at the United Nations even though they tend to be the most directly affected by UNSC decisions.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia