Something happened in the Syrian tragedy in the late weeks of summer which seems to have changed the situation in fundamental ways. What have we learnt from it, and who has gained?
Certainly not the Syrian people, for a start. The relief over the avoidance of a US bombing campaign, and the focus that followed on the chemical weapons issue, has shamefully not been matched in media comment and in government action by insistence on steps to ease the pain of civilian victims of conflict, brutality and chaos. UNA-UK lobbied hard to generate fresh momentum for UN action, which appeared in the form of a Security Council Presidential Statement in late September. Distressingly, too, the opposition has attracted growing numbers of foreign fighters whose motives and behaviour are far from serving the vast majority of Syrian nationals.
Nor have Western governments covered themselves with laurels. Prime Minister Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons brought back memories of Tony Blair’s misreading of, or lack of interest in, the British public’s distaste for the use of force in poorly explained circumstances. The on-off threatening of US military punishment – ‘a pinprick, but make no mistake, it will hurt’ – dented President Obama’s credibility, too. The French president found himself beached. Even the Russians, who had a good tactical day when they converted an American hint into a compelling UN-based proposal and produced Assad’s signature on the Chemical Weapons Convention, have been left appearing to protect a mass murderer.
Yet people are talking to each other. After Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya all produced the bombers, it is beginning to sink in that dialogue with antagonists carries fewer risks than loosing off high explosives. Attacking Syria in the teeth of Russian and Iranian opposition – plus plenty of criticism from the democratic world – would inevitably have made the business of delivering Syria from its political mess a huge amount harder. Treating both of them as potential stakeholders in other Middle East solutions, which they could be, will be riddled with awkwardnesses but also full of possibilities. Benyamin Netanyahu, in asking the Israeli delegation to walk out of President Rouhani’s speech at the recent UN General Assembly, all too clearly showed himself on the wrong side of this trend.
Things are rarely what protagonists say they are. Syria is about the confused politics of an artificial territory created a century ago by imperial minds, only controllable by force because the people’s identities and interests are not reflected in the make-up of the state. Iran is about the security arrangements of the Gulf region, over-managed and poorly handled by the West, and about the long-term aspirations of the Iranian people, most of whom would be happy to move on from their clerical oppressors and re-connect with the world economy. Palestine is about injustice and broken promises, with those responsible for them refusing to accept accountability. In each of these inflammable situations, the last few weeks have seen stakeholders pausing to think and reaching for new approaches.
As to what comes next, we will see. The Geneva Conference on Syria scheduled for November has big challenges to face. The record of diplomacy so far in this century has been unimpressive. But if we – and our judgmental media – give leaders a bit of room to change course, and if they start talking to each other seriously, we might find a silver lining from the dark clouds hanging over Syria.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock is Chairman of UNA-UK and former UK Ambassador to the UN.