UNGA’s Big Day and the Syria Conflict

October 1, 2015

Julian Borger of the Guardian called the United Nations’ 70th General Assembly (UNGA) “the greatest political show on earth”. He said:
“The drama will be greater than ever this year… within the space of two hours on Monday morning, Presidents Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and François Hollande will take their turn to speak. Each will try to anticipate and respond to the other, seeking rhetorical advantage and one-upmanship in their claims to global leadership…”

Indeed, September 28, 2015 was a remarkable day for diplomacy. World’s attention understandably focused on what Presidents Obama and Putin had to say, above everything else on Syria. Mr. Obama’s remarks were consistent with the worldview contained in his earlier major speeches. He paid particular attention to remaining on the moral high ground. Perhaps his remarks also had a presidential legacy dimension. President Putin’s remarks were just as consonant with what he had said in the past and they reflected greater pragmatism. Both engaged in some self-criticism. President Obama was more generous in this respect. Following the two leaders’ remarks on the UNGA rostrum, many analysts referred to their competing, clashing visions on Syria and their exchange of blunt criticism. Of course there is much truth in that. They disagreed not only on Syria but also Ukraine and the parameters of transition in the broad Middle East. But equally important is where they appeared to agree.

Both leaders acknowledged the shortcomings of the United Nations but reiterated their commitment to it. President Obama put the emphasis on the ideals enshrined in the UN Charter, democratic principles and human rights whereas President Putin stressed the need to respect nations’ sovereignty, UN mechanisms and procedures. Both, in different ways, underlined the need for multilateral diplomacy/action.

President Obama stated that the US is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran to resolve the Syria conflict. He said that this work will take time and there are no easy solutions in Syria and no simple answers to the changes that are taking place in much of the Middle East and North Africa. President Putin spoke of Russia’s intention, as the current President of the UN Security Council, to convene a ministerial meeting to engage in a comprehensive analysis of the threats in the Middle East. One specific purpose of such a meeting would be to explore the possibility of a resolution that would help coordinate efforts to oppose the Islamic State (ISIL) and other terrorist groups.

Both leaders underlined the need to combat ISIL. In harmony with recent Russian military build-up in Syria President Putin used much stronger language, perhaps giving a signal of the air attacks launched against ISIL a day later. As I said in an earlier spot, President Putin puts the emphasis on fighting ISIL essentially for two reasons. Firstly, he sees ISIL as a real threat to Russia with reportedly thousands of Chechnian fighters in its ranks. And he worries about potential for radicalism in Central Asia. Secondly, he wants the West to give priority to fighting ISIL rather than Assad and thus secure his survival until perhaps a “graceful exit” is worked out.

The two leaders also called upon Muslims to reject those who distort Islam, preach intolerance and promote violence. President Putin specifically called upon Muslim spiritual leaders to offer guidance with a view to ending fratricide. I would say, maybe it is the political leaders who should take the lead.

With regard to political transformation in countries, President Putin said that nations shouldn’t be forced to conform to the same development model that somebody had declared the only appropriate one. But he admitted that political and social problems had been piling up for a long time in the Middle East and North Africa and peoples wanted change. President Obama said: “The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth.”

President Putin acknowledged that when the Soviet Union exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress. He referred to aggressive interventions in Iraq and Libya rashly destroying government institutions and the local ways of life leading to power vacuums only to be filled by extremists and terrorists. President Obama said that in Iraq, the United States had learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave, effective troops, trillions of dollars from US Treasury, cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land. As for Libya, he said that the coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.

In his following remarks President Obama underlined the contrast between democratic governance based on strong institutions and authoritarian rule:
“I realize that in many parts of the world there is a different view — a belief that strong leadership must tolerate no dissent. I hear it not only from America’s adversaries, but privately at least I also hear it from some of our friends. I disagree. I believe a government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.
“That’s why our strongest leaders — from George Washington to Nelson Mandela — have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power. Leaders who amend constitutions to stay in office only acknowledge that they failed to build a successful country for their people — because none of us last forever. It tells us that power is something they cling to for its own sake, rather than for the betterment of those they purport to serve.”

Indeed, building strong institutions is the crux of the matter. According to a report by Pew Research Center entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”, in 31 of the 37 countries where the question was asked at least half of Muslims believe a democratic government, rather than a leader with a strong hand, is best able to address their country’s problems. In Turkey, for example, 67 percent expressed a preference for democracy as opposed to 27 percent for a strong leader (*).

So Presidents Obama and Putin had their UN duel. What should be the conclusion to draw? I am inclined to say “nobody’s record is perfect.” But nations need to talk, try to find common ground and be open compromise. Ending the Syria conflict has become a matter of national interest for many countries and a major test for international diplomacy. I was somehow encouraged by the fact that at least a target had been set for such an endeavor: “Managed transition”. But disagreement over targets Russia chose for its air attacks of yesterday has created further confusion. Remembering recent speculation about rebel advances against the regime in Western Syria may be useful in this connection. Perhaps this is Russia’s way of redressing the balance, making sure everybody understands that there is not going to be a military solution to this conflict and thus force the parties to the table for such transition.

As for the regional countries, the question remains whether they would display a capacity to manage, to help manage or be simply managed by others. The former is challenging; it requires vision and an ability to rise above narrow interests. The latter is the easy way out and allows for blame games later.

(*) Pew Research Center, The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, p.60, April 30, 2013.

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