Taking a stand on Syria | Inquirer Opinion

Taking a stand on Syria

/ 10:53 PM September 14, 2013

The government’s diplomatic stance on the Syria crisis is emblematic of the safe, passive, and self-interested track it has taken in the previous crisis in the Middle East.

The overarching and sometimes the only aim of our foreign policy response is to ensure the safe and peaceful evacuation of the country’s overseas contract workers and diplomatic personnel.

Indeed, Filipinos have come to expect very little in terms of the government lending its voice to protest the humanitarian consequences and the violation of international rights and norms that often attend external military interventions.


In the case of Syria, the Philippine government has not raised its voice to join the chorus of concerns from either side of the Syria issue—between those who support or those who reject the plan for limited and targeted missile strikes against groups that harbor and use chemical weapons.


Our silence on the issue inexorably condones the use of military intervention without a solid evidence that points to the real culprits behind the chemical attack in Syria. A passive stance also turns our back on the tragic record of death and destruction from so-called limited and targeted strikes. They are bound to bring catastrophic effects in crowded and compact cities such as those in Syria.

Yet, there are very strong grounds for the Philippines to say and do more because of the likely effects of the Syrian conflict on the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao.

ONE, there are geopolitical implications in aligning ourselves with a superpower that simply opts for unilateral action in the face of global reaction. It can complicate the dynamics of regional rivalries in Southeast Asia if the Philippines is seen as tacitly endorsing the US approach to Syria.

The question is whether the Philippine position in the region, in relation to strategic issues such as the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), is really served by staying silent on this subject. Sensitivity to the positions that will be taken by Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam or Taiwan will be critical in fashioning an effective response and in avoiding the “suckers payoff” if the crisis escalates.

TWO, recent negotiations between the Philippines and the US government to extend the deployment of US troops in Mindanao and to expand the use of Philippine military facilities in the country heighten the risk of a conflict contagion to this part of Southeast Asia, specifically to Mindanao.

There is a clear domestic issue in the sense that unease with US troops in the country and their use of military facilities could be amplified by US actions in Syria. With its silence, the government is opting for a passive foreign policy stance, which risks weakening its domestic position vis-à-vis elements that oppose the presence of US troops.


THREE, an attack on Syria will run parallel to the resurgence of conflict in Mindanao, specifically from the armed combatants of the Moro National Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and others.

A regional conflict in the Middle East that affects Syria, Iran, and Lebanon can ignite tensions among Filipino Muslims in Mindanao—tensions that can be tapped by extremist groups and spoilers of current peace negotiations to advance their agenda.

It is well-known among civil society groups and some in the intelligence community that local Hezbollah-like cells operate in Mindanao, particularly in some cities and towns in the Maguindanao and Lanao provinces. Given the deep involvement of Hezbollah in propping up the pro-Assad forces, the threat of sympathetic and coordinated actions cannot be discounted.

FOUR, a few weeks ago Filipino soldiers operating as a peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights reported the uncertain and insecure situation they faced in the tenuous border between Syria and Israel. They requested to be transferred out of the area. They may be among the first casualties of a counterattack if missile strikes are allowed to rain on Syria.

Thus, a passive stance still requires proactive diplomatic efforts to mitigate potential risks to Filipino peacemakers in Syria—efforts that may be threatened by a perceived neutrality in the face of American missile strikes.

FIVE, an attack on Syria will have repercussions across the region, specifically in Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq. The economic crisis that can be spawned by a hike in oil prices, however limited or short-lived the attack may be, will surely reverberate across Southeast Asian markets and affect Philippine economic growth.

Apart from understanding the position that the Aquino administration is taking, or the lack of it, the other question is whether its current passive stance really protects the geopolitical and domestic security interests of the Philippines.

I argue that a robust foreign policy entails a lot more than buying a few military vessels or signing a Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. It also involves signaling a willingness to be a “responsible member of the international community” by speaking out against, in this case, an armed intervention that is not backed by the UN Security Council.

The message to the government is clear: Beware of being a fence sitter, because the chickens may just come to roost!

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(F. J. Lara is the Philippine country manager of International Alert UK and research associate at Crisis States Research Centre of London School of Economics.)

TAGS: armed conflict, Chemical Weapon, Middle East, Philippines, Syria

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