A Cheap Political Trick
BEIRUT — The Houla massacre has whipped up a new wave of outrage at the claimed brutality of Syria’s government. Syrian envoys were kicked out of some Western capitals and more financial sanctions slapped on the regime in Damascus, more furious demands are being made for a regime change toppling Bashar al-Assad, and more calls for military intervention are being issued.
The civilized world kicking out Syrian diplomats was to be the thin reed of straw that would certainly break the camel’s back in Damascus’s Presidential Palace.
However, expelling Syrian diplomats, who no one is even suggesting had anything to do with the massacre at Houla, constitutes a politically cheap feel-good knee-jerk reaction to the horrific images from the slaughter at Houla. Certainly the images of chopped bodies and that of a precious baby with a pacifier in its mouth and a bullet hole in its temple reminded many of us of the My Lai, Sabra-Shatila, Srebrenica, and Rwanda massacres to note just a few. Encouraging a global reaction, some in Washington vowed that the Obama doctrine and the right to protect (R2P) could not allow the Syrian regime to remain in power and Houla was to be the game changer.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 signed by 186 countries constructed a frame for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enables diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion, harassment, or politically motivated expulsions by the host country. Its articles are a cornerstone of modern international relations.
While Article 9 does grant the host nation the right to declare a particular member of the diplomatic staff to be persona non grata, the understanding of the drafters of the Vienna Convention and the trauvaux preparatoire make plan that the provision is to be used solely for high crimes and under no circumstances to embarrass or trivialize the sending government or its diplomatic mission. The US action with respect to expelling Syrian diplomats does both.
As diplomacy is the practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements, it is difficult to take seriously White House and NATO claims of a preference for diplomacy rather than war with Syria while they lead the campaign to expel the very Syrian diplomats necessary for dialogue and negotiations.
The idea to have American allies summarily expel Syrian diplomats was hatched, according to a US congressional source, in the fertile office of outgoing US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, rumored to be on his way to New York to become—unimaginably one might be forgiven for thinking—the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs. The Feltman appointment by Ban Ki-moon is thought by two staffers on John Kerry’s US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be a quid pro quo for American support for Ban’s re-election as UN Secretary-General and Feltman’s support for Senator Kerry’s being appointed Secretary of State in Obama’s second administration.
Feltman has had an enduring love affair with the UN, especially the Security Council, which he reportedly views as a true and tested sharp arrow in the quiver of the US-Israel foreign policy apparatus. His tenure at the State Department, when he “leaves” his current post as expected in June, will remain substantially unchanged, preserving his de facto ambassadorships to five countries in the Middle East, despite these posts being pro forma occupied by his personally approved “potted plants,” no disrespect intended to the current occupants at those diplomatic posts.
Feldman’s office also produced UN Security Council Resolution 1757, setting up a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) targeting Syria and Hezbollah for the 2005 Rafiq Hariri assassination, and earlier, in September of 2004, UN Resolution 1559, which, he has written, was designed in his office to disarm the National Lebanese Resistance and expel Syrian troops from Lebanon. Resolution 1757, setting up the STL, was passed on a 10-0 with 5 abstentions under Feltman’s favorite section of the UN Charter, being Chapter Seven, with its potential for using unlimited military force to enforce Security Council decisions. So far in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman has initiated no fewer than a dozen “Welch Club” projects between 2005 and the present in order to guarantee “Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty, and freedom from foreign interference”—in no way to be confused with Undersecretary Feltman’s own activities here.
The premises of the US diplomatic mission in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi came under attack during the night of June 5. The US embassy in Damascus had been closed earlier in the crisis, and the US Embassy in Beirut is on near lock-down status, with plans to close and evacuate staff on one hour’s’ notice if deemed prudent. These events highlight the importance of respecting the 1961 Vienna Convention and not expelling diplomats as political gamesmanship because the rash expulsions may not only generate unintended consequences, but inevitably invite retaliatory expulsions. Hence the Syrian government declared 17 US and Western diplomats persona non grata earlier this week. Syria’s much respected Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Makdad told the media in Damascus that, “We waited for so long for the other side to correct their policies and offer the needed support to Annan’s plan and the observers’ mission. But we regret that we had to take this measure because they do not want this mission to succeed.”
The gratuitous chest thumping political theater led by Washington also undermines international treaty law while eroding respect for the nearly universally agreed to protections of diplomats, envoys, embassies, and consulates.
Hopefully, the White House and its allies will act immediately to contain this latest provocation and lift their diplomatic expulsion edicts against Syria. The Obama administration ought also to engage in dialogue to resolve its differences with the Syrian government mindful of Kofi Annan’s just announced revised 6-point peace proposal and on a basis of “principles of equality and mutual respect”.