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The next world war

The war in Syria has been going on for two years,a civil war with proxy participation from outsiders.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published: September 8, 2013 2:56:45 am

When Kingsley Martin,the famous editor of The New Statesman and a life-long friend of India,met Mahatma Gandhi days before his assassination,he was surprised to find that Gandhiji approved wholeheartedly of India’s war with Pakistan on Kashmir. But he also recruited soldiers during the First World War since he believed that the British Empire had justice on its side in the war.

We are not so lucky. Few wars are clean or just. The war in Syria has been going on for two years,a civil war with proxy participation from outsiders. The war has claimed more than a lakh lives and made refugees out of 70 lakh people. Bashar al-Assad,whose only claim to being the ruler is dynastic and not democratic,is tenaciously holding on to power with the help of the Hezbollah. On the opposite side are some “moderate” Sunni forces and Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

The Western countries have condemned the war and supported the opposition but only from a distance. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have financed the supply of arms to the opposition. It is a civil war but also a Shia-Sunni war. The war is,however,spilling over into Lebanon,thanks to the Hezbollah,into Turkey and Jordan where millions of refugees have gone,and of course Iran as a Shia country is supporting Syria. Analogies are never exact but this could be like the Spanish Civil War,which was a prelude to WW II. We could soon be in a general war across the Middle East,with Iran,Iraq and Syria on one side along with the Hezbollah and the Sunni nations and the Islamists on the other.

If such a war breaks out,there is no prospect of its prevention. The International Order which was created during the 1940s with the UN at its centre has had its problems. The Security Council has seldom agreed on a common plan of action. Through the Cold War,the UN had hardly functioned. After 1991,the Western nations began to intervene to enforce human rights across the world—a policy called liberal interventionism. It worked in Yugoslavia where horrendous human rights violations occurred. But it got into trouble with Iraq where it overreached itself.

Now faced with the use of chemical weapons by Syrian authorities (which seems the most plausible cause),the guardians of the Order are faced with a tough choice. The convention against the use of chemical weapons ought to be enforced. We know that the UN Security Council will not approve,thanks to the veto system. The UK Parliament has already rejected the interventionist option. Obama has now sought Congressional approval although technically he does not need it. It looks very likely that the Congress will not give approval for intervention.

No doubt many people will rejoice at this decision. It is obvious that the old powers—the US,UK and France—have neither the will nor the strength to police the Order they set up. Many in India and indeed the non-Western world firmly believe that a sovereign nation has the ultimate right to murder,torture and bomb its own population. That is not the way it is put but any international interference is resented. But then,if we have no one to enforce any common norms,what will the global order look like?

The question to ask is: Do all nations believe in a common set of values which they are willing to abide by in their own backyards and to urge their neighbours do the same? There are frequent charges that human rights are just a Western fashion and not universal. Fair enough. Then,do we approve of Saddam Hussein attacking his population in Halabja or the people of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war with chemical weapons? Should we not have an International Criminal Court to hold monsters like Radovan Karadzic to account?

Maybe not. Maybe the old Order is dead. It was born after the Second World War and perhaps the coming war in the Middle East will give birth to a new order. But after how many more deaths?

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