Big powers over the years have targeted specific regimes by arming rebel groups with lethal weapons, thereby destabilizing some states and contributing to the rise of dangerous extremists and terrorists. The destabilization of Ukraine, Syria and Libya, among other states, is a result of such continuing geopolitical games.
It is the local people who get maimed, killed and uprooted by the interventions of major powers and their regional proxies. Yet those who play such games assume a moral posture to rationalize their interventionist policies and evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They paint their actions as aimed at fighting the “bad” guys.
Take the blame-game over the downing of flight MH17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) allegedly fired by eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, a number of whom have clearly been trained and armed by Russia. Russia’s aid to the separatists and Washington’s security assistance to the government in Kiev, including providing vital intelligence and sending U.S. military advisers to Ukraine, is redolent of the pattern that prevailed during the Cold War, when the two opposing blocs waged proxy battles in countries elsewhere. Today, with the Ukrainian military shelling rebel-held cities and Russia massing heavy weapons and troops along the frontier, the crisis threatens to escalate to a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, especially if Moscow directly intervenes in eastern Ukraine.
After the MH17 crash, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to hold Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion over the downing and to spotlight Russian aid to the separatists. Through sanctions and diplomacy, Obama has ratcheted up pressure on Putin to stop assisting the rebels. Yet Obama has had no compunction in destabilizing Syria through continuing covert aid to “moderate” militants there, channeled through the Central Intelligence Agency and the jihad-bankrolling oil sheikhdoms.
Obama set out on the mission of regime change in Syria by seizing the opportunity that opened up in 2011, when popular protests broke out in some cities against President Bashar Assad’s autocratic rule. The detention and torture of a group of schoolchildren, who had been caught scribbling anti-government graffiti in Deraa, led to protests and demands for political reforms and a series of events that triggered an armed insurrection with external aid. From bases in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels — with the covert assistance of the U.S., Britain and France — established a Free Syrian Army, launching attacks on government forces. Washington and its allies mounted an intense information war demonizing Assad and encouraging officers and soldiers to desert the Syrian military and join the Free Syrian Army.
It took just three years for their regime-change strategy to backfire: Not only has the strategy failed to oust Assad, it has turned Syria into a failed state and led to the rise of ISIS — a brutal, medieval organization seeking to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. With radical jihadists now dominating the scene, the Free Syrian Army has become a marginal force.
Had Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande not embarked on this strategy — which helped instill the spirit of jihad against the Assad regime and armed Syrian militants with petrodollar-financed weapons — would murderous Islamists be in control of much of northern Syria today? It was this control that served as the staging ground for the rapid advance into ISIL. This group now is in a position to use water as a weapon through its control of the upstream areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq, including dams.
By inadvertently turning Syria into another Afghanistan — and a threat to regional and international security — the interveners failed to heed the lessons from the CIA’s funneling of arms to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. The funneling of arms — partly financed by Saudi Arabia and some other oil sheikhdoms — was a multibillion-dollar operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan that gave rise to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. It ranked as the largest covert operation in CIA’s history.
Now consider a different case where a regime-change strategy spearheaded by the U.S., Britain and France succeeded — Libya. The ouster of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s government through U.S.-led aerial bombardment in 2011, however, ended up fomenting endless conflict, bloodletting and chaos in Libya.
The virtual crumbling of the Libyan state, more ominously, has had major international implications — from the cross-border leakage of shoulder-fired SAMs from the Gadhafi-built arsenal, including to Syrian jihadists, to the flow of other Libyan weapons to al-Qaida-linked groups in the arid Sahel region, to the south of the Sahara desert. Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists have also tapped the Libyan arms bazaar.
The weapons that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates shipped to Libyan rebels with U.S. approval, including machine guns, automatic rifles and ammunition, have not only destabilized Libya but also undermined security in Mali, Niger and Chad. These weapons had been handed out like candy to foment the uprising against Gadhafi.
There cannot be better proof of how the toppling of Gadhafi has boomeranged than the fact that the U.S., whose ambassador was killed in a 2012 militant attack in Benghazi, the supposed capital of the Libyan “revolution,” has now shut its embassy in Tripoli, citing increasing lawlessness. The predawn evacuation of its entire embassy staff to Tunisia, with U.S. warplanes providing air cover, represented a public admission of defeat.
The plain truth is that it is easier for outside forces to topple or undermine a regime than to build stability and security in the targeted country. With neighborhoods becoming battlefields, Iraq, Syria and Libya are coming undone. Another disintegrating state is Afghanistan.
Yet such is the United Nations’ marginalization in international relations that it is becoming irrelevant to the raging conflicts. To make matters worse, the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, although tasked by the U.N. Charter to preserve global peace and security, have helped spark or fuel regional conflicts and aided the rise of insurgent groups through their interventionist and arms-transfer policies.
These five powers account for more than 80 percent of the world’s official exports of weapons and most of the unofficial transfers. Chinese arms, for example, have proliferated to a number of insurgent groups active in Africa and Asia. The only mechanism to enforce international law is the Security Council. Yet its permanent members have demonstrated that great powers use, not respect, international law. They have a history of ignoring international rules when these conflict with their plans. In other words, the international-law enforcers are the leading law breakers. In this light, it is scarcely a surprise that, despite the rhetoric of a rules-based order, the world is witnessing the triumph of brute force in the 21st century.
If the UNSC is to act more responsibly, its permanent members must look honestly at what they are doing to undermine world peace and security. This can happen only if the council’s permanent membership is enlarged and the veto power abolished to make decision-making in that body truly democratic.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.