Policy Alert: Asian Powers Respond to Potential Military Action in Syria
Following alleged chemical attacks on Syrians last month, U.S. President Barack Obama has called for punitive military strikes against Syria, generating enormous debate in both the United States and the international community on how to respond. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea on the implications of possible U.S. military action against Syria.
Opposing U.S. military strikes against Syria without UN approval, the Russian government urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control, stressing the need for a diplomatic, political solution. Commentators generally supported the government’s decision to seek a diplomatic solution, but were at odds over whether negotiations will succeed.
- President Vladimir Putin argued that American policy makers “are basically trying to legitimize aggression,” adding that “only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of force against a sovereign state” and all other reasons that “would justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state” would be unacceptable.
- President Putin remained optimistic about his proposal to Syria, stating that he hopes the Syrians “will agree to have their chemical weapons placed under international control, moreover, that they will agree to have it disposed of and will join the international chemical weapons convention.”
- Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said U.S.-Russia cooperation “may bring about a breakthrough in settling the Syrian crisis,” as “it is up to Russian and U.S. specialists to put Syrian chemical warfare agents under control, because the United Nations’ ‘blue helmets’ do not have such experience.”
- General Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s strategic missile force staff, expressed reservations about Russia’s proposal, predicting “the chance of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control is fifty-fifty.” President Assad “cannot ignore this proposal from Russia—its sole influential ally,” but “he is afraid of losing his sole potential weapon against the potential aggressors—the United States and Turkey.”
- A Moscow Times op-ed by Andrei Tsygankov, professor of international relations and political science, noted that disagreements between the United States and Russia stem from “a disagreement between national elites over the emerging world order.” Whereas the Kremlin focuses “on the West’s limited ability to project global power,” Washington still believes that it is “institutionally superior to Russia and rising powers.” Tsygankov predicted that the gap in perceptions “will shape disagreements for years to come.”
- In light of this divide between Russia and the West, Alexander Shumilin, director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Russian Academy of Sciences, declared farewell to the “irrelevant” UN Security Council. He wrote, “The UN Charter requires concrete action [in Syria], but, as happened in 2003, the Security Council is paralyzed and doomed to inaction.” Therefore, “it is once again necessary to bypass the increasingly irrelevant Security Council and form a ‘coalition of the willing.’”
Voicing concerns that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through a political solution, China backed Russia’s plan to avoid punitive U.S. air strikes by placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
- The state-run Xinhua criticized President Obama’s push for military action against Syria, arguing that Obama administration “ought to realize that it was not his military threat” but rather “the diplomatic efforts by countries like Russia and China that made the Syrian government willing to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.”
- The China Daily concluded that U.S. military action “lacks a legal basis” without UN authorization, adding, “The United States’ unilateralism and defiance of international law are really weakening its claims to global leadership.”
- The Global Times likened the U.S. response to Syria as a replay of the Libyan case—“aiding the opposition in the name of democracy, and using air strikes to help them wrest away political power.” Critiquing this strategy as a means to “get rid of Washington’s geopolitical enemies,” the Global Times urged China to condemn Washington’s “misdeeds.”
On August 31st, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid stated that India will not support military action against Syria without UN approval. Indian media remained silent on India’s potential role in the crisis, but a wide spectrum of opinion supported the government’s calls for a political and diplomatic solution.
- The Hindu, criticizing U.S. air strikes as “an attempt to fulfill President Barack Obama’s vain promise to punish the Assad regime,” argued that “the alleged use of WMDs in Syria must not be made a pretext for illegal intervention.”
- In an editorial titled “Delay is good,” The Indian Express wrote, “Obama gains some time before embarking on a no-win military venture in Syria…He must use it to explore diplomatic options.”
- The Times of India also called for a diplomatic solution, predicting that U.S.-led military action cannot “garner UN sanction nor the approval of the Arab street.”
At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to cooperate with President Barack Obama over Syria. Despite this development, many Japanese newspapers questioned Washington’s justification for military action, while taking different views on the chemical attack itself.
- The liberal-leaning Mainichi Shimbun noted that it “remains to be seen” whether the UN will obtain conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by government forces, adding that “it is desirable to settle the conflict through diplomacy.”
- The Asahi Shimbun shared similar concerns with Mainichi and predicted that “it is unlikely that the situation in Syria can be resolved with a punitive strike by the United States.”
- The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun disagreed, arguing that if conclusive evidence of chemical weapons use is presented by Washington, “Japan would not be able to remain aloof, as it faces the threat of weapons of mass destruction from North Korea.”
- The Sankei Shimbun expressed an even firmer view by calling on the Japanese government to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance by expanding its role in Syria by providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian refugees.
Worried that impunity for Assad might embolden North Korea, Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin pushed U.S. counterpart Chuck Hagel to take sanctions against Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
- Korean newspapers shared Defense Minister Kim’s concerns. The Joongang Daily opined that Obama’s “too-discreet attitude” over Syria has put “U.S. credibility on the line,” and has “serious implications for South Korea, which relies heavily on the U.S. security commitment.”
- The Hankyoreh, noted that “with the U.S. focused on the question of military intervention in Syria, no real debate on North Korean policy is happening at the moment,” urging a restart of the Six-Party talks to solve resolve nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula.