Syria: the US and Russia (remember Kosovo?)
For a fascinating account of the events leading up to this morning’s US-Russian framework agreement on Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, please see the excellent fact-based article in today’s Financial Times (14/15 September) by James Blitz and others: the FT makes it difficult to quote a URL but if you click on this: A long week: Putin’s diplomatic gambit and then exit from the invitation to sign up for some kind of subscription to the FT, you should get the article (but nb: the heading given to the article gets it perversely wrong). It shows that only four hours elapsed between what some commentators obstinately continue to call Kerry’s ‘off-the-cuff gaffe’, suggesting that Assad could avert a military strike by turning over his chemical weapons to international control, and Lavrov’s public embrace of that proposal. It’s obvious, to me anyway, that Russia could not have announced its support for this idea without having forcefully pressured Assad into submitting to it first; and even the Russians would have needed more than four hours to do that. In fact the idea seems to have had its genesis in US-Russian off-piste exchanges at the G20 summit in Mexico in June 2012, and to have been firmed up between Obama and Putin in St Petersburg at the G20 this year, on 5 and 6 September. I think even Blitz’s article probably underestimates the amount of detailed work on it that both sides would have done during that time, before Russia discreetly gave the green light to Washingtom: “Mission accomplished: we have squared Assad: go ahead and make the proposal, as casually as you like, and we’ll grab it, as agreed.” (I’m guessing, of course, but….) Did the Americans insist that the proposal must appear to have come from them in the first place, and not from the Russians? Perhaps it did, anyway.
I even wonder whether Obama’s otherwise strange decision to seek Congressional approval for a strike against Syria might have been designed to buy just enough extra time for the Russians to complete the softening up of Assad so that the agreed joint exercise could go ahead. Perhaps he’s had a strategy all along after all. He’s unlikely simply to have been copying Cameron, especially when Cameron’s ploy in the British parliament had turned into such a disaster — for Cameron, anyway, if not for peace.
So unless it all goes horribly wrong (and I doubt if either Putin or Obama can allow it to do that), we have a near repetition of the events of 1999 when Blair was cheer-leading NATO to bomb the hell out of Yugoslavia to bring the Serbs to heel, and getting nowhere: a shrewder US President (Clinton) eventually realised that only Russia had the necessary hold over Milosevic and that accordingly the west would have to give up trying to exclude Russia from the exercise. Clinton accordingly told Yeltsin that Russian participation was indispensable (as confirmed in Clinton’s memoirs), and sent a joint US-Russian-Finnish delegation to Milisovic to present completely new settlement proposals and to tell him that the game was up. Result: a largely peaceful negotiated settlement under UN auspices; end, and utter failure, of NATO bombing.
The great difference with Syria 2013 is that Obama was quicker than Clinton to realise that the key to success was to work with, not against, the Russians, thus opening up the possibility of a peaceful settlement approved by the UN before, not after, the air bombardment had begun. And it was heartening to hear Kerry and Lavrov at their press conference this morning (14 Sept.) expressing the hope that their collaboration over the international destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons might pave the way to continuing collaboration in the search for an eventual diplomatic and political solution to the overall Syrian conflict, not a military one.
Under pressure from a questioner, Kerry was forced to repeat the American myth that any US President has the right to order the use of military force to protect United States interests even if necessary without the approval of the UN (he was referring of course to the US Constitution, not the UN Charter or international law). But his emphasis throughout was on the need for diplomatic/political solutions, not military ones, and for all problems over compliance or delays to be referred, under the new agreement, to the United Nations Security Council for decisions on what to do about them, specifically under Chapter VII of the Charter. Apart from anything else, this development gives the lie to the parrot-cry of the Stupid Tendency: “If you’re opposed to the use of military force to deter further chemical weapon attacks, you’re saying we must stand idly by and do nothing.”
It’s just rather sad that in both cases the prime minister in office in Britain at the time – Blair then, Cameron now — was still rattling his rusty old sabre long after the Americans had seen the light and quietly organised a deal with the Russians to do the job peacefully. The Russians had legitimate interests in the Balkans, especially Serbia, then, and in the Mediterranean, especially Syria, now. Russian and western interests in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria and in an eventual settlement of the conflict broadly coincide, despite some important differences. There’s ample common ground to permit a fruitful collaboration in search of mutually agreed peaceful solutions, however difficult the Russians may often be as partners. We need to grow up and recognise that the cold war’s over. Let us hope that the Labour party leadership has learned the right lessons from these events, even if the Tories have not.