Caricom and the Syrian crisis

Once one is aware of the long-held collective Caribbean Community (Caricom) position on the use of force in the settlement of disputes and disagreements, then last weekend’s statement frowning on the very idea of the use of external force in Syria appears altogether predictable.

In the first instance, the statement articulates what the region would doubtless regard as its own best interests, bearing in mind that there are some Caricom member states, including (and some might say particularly) Guyana, whose peculiar circumstances compel the unequivocal rejection of the use of military force to settle differences.

In assuming the posture that it has, Caricom countries have set their collective face against the position taken by the Obama administration that what it says was the lethal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in the current conflict warrants at least a limited intervention designed to “degrade” the capacity of the Assad administration to repeat the use of such weapons.

In a sense, Caricom is in good company, bearing in mind, first, that the British House of Commons has voted against the UK becoming involved in the use of force in Syria. The European Union too, while pointing fingers at the Assad regime in the matter of the use of chemical weapons, has opted to wait for the report of the UN investigating team before deciding on the way forward. The US, of course, has already dropped a broad hint that it might go it alone, bearing in mind what it says are its own unique national security concerns and its concerns for the implications of the continuing conflict for Middle East security.

Foreign policy, we need to remind ourselves, is a matter of self interest. The first thing to note about the Caricom position on the use of force in Syria is that its pronouncement queues up behind the position taken by the United Nations Secretary General that the situation should be addressed through  dialogue rather than through resort to force. Secondly, and while condemning the use of chemical weapons which it correctly describes as “a gross contravention of international law,” the Caricom statement declines to go the way of the EU pronouncement in that it proffers no opinion on the matter of whether it was the Syrian military or the opposition fighters that deployed the chemical weapons.

Caution and equivocation will frequently be reflected in foreign policy positions taken by Caricom states – whether collectively or individually – in cases where the positions that they take are likely to displease the United States. That, simply put, is a function of the vital importance of the US as an economic and strategic ally of the region and the mindfulness of Caricom to minimize both the frequency and the extent to which they rub Washington the wrong way.  It is one of those realities of international relations of which small countries – groups of countries in the case of Caricom – are perpetually aware. That is what, frequently, makes foreign policy formulation such a challenging assignment for weak states.

In its statement on Syria, Caricom says too that “the report of the UN Investigative Committee should be awaited in order to determine beyond a shadow of doubt the veracity of the use of chemical weapons.” What Caricom is in effect saying here is that the United Nations and not the United States should be required to make the final call on the issue of the use of chemical weapons though it does not provide a road map for what is to happen once the UN makes its pronouncement.

It was the issue of which side used chemical weapons rather than whether or not such weapons were used that formed basis of the decision by President Obama that the situation in Syria warranted external intervention. That is a matter that is studiously avoided by Caricom in its statement for the obvious reason that it is mindful of the complications of addressing that matter since it might give the appearance of taking sides in the issue.

Nor is the eventual pronouncement by the United Nations on the chemical weapons issue likely to provide conclusive answers (or perhaps any answers at all) on which side actually used them,  which would mean that what the UN says is unlikely to have a bearing on whether or not the US intervenes militarily in Syria any way. Caricom would have made that assessment and would have concluded that much the safest thing to do would be to stay on the side of the UN.

All of this, of course, does not gainsay the fact that the situation in Syria is complex, growing worse and seemingly drifting further and further away from the likelihood of dialogue which  Caricom purportedly seeks, which is why Washington may well argue that to sit snugly behind a position that eschews the use of military force to “degrade” the capacity of a regime which it says is using chemical weapons against its own people, is to be unmindful of the incremental suffering that is unfolding in Syria. Others may contend that however mindful a small and weak region like Caricom might be about Syria’s tragedy, its concern must be, in the first instance, with its own self interest. Such are the complexities and imponderables of foreign policy decision-making.

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