A dropped catch in the search for peace in Syria (not about Mr Corbyn)

According to today’s Guardian, the statesman and Nobel peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari has revealed what looks like a spectacular failure in Washington, London and Paris to respond to a Russian proposal in 2012 for a peace settlement in Syria that would have included an undertaking by President Assad to step down.  Since a major obstacle to a settlement has long been, and apparently remains, the west’s stubborn and misguided insistence that any settlement must include the removal of Assad from the presidency, our apparent rejection of the Russian offer looks like the biggest and most expensive western foreign policy blunder since the attack on Iraq.


Martti Ahtisaari

Martti Ahtisaari, the veteran UN peace negotiator and conciliator, and former President of Finland, is one of a small handful of truly great peace-makers of our time, having played key roles in, for example, Namibia, Aceh, Kosovo and Iraq.  I was privileged to witness him at work during the negotiations leading to Namibian independence and have been an ardent admirer ever since.  On one occasion I delivered some documents to him in his hotel bedroom in London soon after his arrival there on a flying visit, and well remember a fascinating and informal conversation with him, myself perched on the side of his bed and Ahtisaari squeezing his considerable bulk into the only arm-chair.  I was a relatively junior British diplomat at the time but he listened to my tentative views and suggestions as intently as if I had been the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  His extraordinary successes in helping to resolve some of the most difficult issues in international affairs since WW2 have depended largely on his manifest integrity and the willingness of the most suspicious parties to violent disputes to trust him accordingly.  He will have thought long and hard before going public now with his extraordinary revelation of the rejected Russian offer over Syria and I have no doubt at all about the complete accuracy of his account.

According to the Guardian report, which should be read in full, the Russian proposal contained three elements:

[Vitaly Churkin, the then Russian ambassador to the UN,] said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

Churkin declined to comment on what he said had been a “private conversation” with Ahtisaari. The Finnish former president, however, was adamant about the nature of the discussion.

“There was no question because I went back and asked him a second time,” he said, noting that Churkin had just returned from a trip to Moscow and there seemed little doubt he was raising the proposal on behalf of the Kremlin.

On the face of it, this is yet another example of disaster costing lives and treasure as a result of western attempts to exclude Russia from negotiations on great international issues, or to sideline her, even where there are legitimate Russian interests at stake, as there are in Syria.  Prime examples have been Kosovo, Iraq and of course Ukraine, as well as Syria.  In most of these cases Russia has behaved more or less badly, but Russian misbehaviour has been aggravated by the west’s consistent failure to pay due regard to Russian interests or to include Russia in planning for settlements.  No-one can know whether the three-point Churkin plan, including Assad’s removal from the presidency, would have provided the basis for an eventual settlement, and an end to the anti-Assad insurgency which instead led to the emergence of the monstrous Islamic State (ISIS), the loss so far of around 220,000 lives (the UN estimate in early 2015), the exile from their homes of millions of Syrians and the enormous refugee problem now confronting Europe.  If Ahtisaari is right in his belief that the three western permanent members of the UN Security Council chose to ignore or to reject the Russian initiative, those who made that choice bear a heavy responsibility.


3 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I agree.

    In the House of Lords on 7 September two former British ambassadors to Syria, Patrick Wright and Andrew Green, made the point: there can be no political solution to the Syrian civil war without the involvement of the regime in Damascus. We should be telling our allies that there are more important priorities than regime change in Damascus, and that both the Russians and the Iranians can play an important part. But the insistence on removing Assad as a precondition for any political settlement is carved in stone for the Americans because of some incautious remarks by President Obama four years ago. Our government concentrate on the refugee problem, as for example in another unreported debate in the House of Lords yesterday. One problem at a time seems to be enough, but of course ending the war in Syria is the only way to get at the root of the refugee problem.

    The military situation is alarming. The fight against Isis is being conducted on the ground by the Syrian and Iraqi governments, by Shia militia and Peshmerga Kurdish forces in Iraq, by disparate Syrian opposition groups including one which is attached to Al Qaeda, and by special forces and trainers from Iran, the US, the UK and elsewhere. From the air we have the Syrian and Iraqi air forces, the US-led coalition including several Arab air forces, several NATO air forces including Turkey, and others, including the Australians, and from time to time Israel. Most recently we have Russia (US officials identified four Russian helicopter gunships yesterday). Far from being coordinated these forces are hostile to one another in many cases. John Kerry said yesterday that Washington was considering how to respond to a Russian proposal for military talks about Syria – so far he has been talking to the White House and the Pentagon.

    In Afghanistan we learnt about blue on blue and blue on green. We will need a much wider palette for Syria. It is a racing certainty that some of these forces will collide with each other before long, and the outcome will be a lot worse than the Egyptians incinerating a few Mexican tourists. Let’s just hope it’s not America against Russia or Israel against Saudi Arabia.

  2. Brian says:

    Brian writes: I am greatly heartened by this informative endorsement by a middle east expert with extensive experience of the region. The complex web of warring factions in Syria, each with its external backers, is indeed an alarming spectacle, fraught with danger. However despotic and repressive President Assad may have been (and be), it’s hard to dissent from the apparent Russian view that any likely replacement for him seems likely to be even worse, and that western support for the opposition groups which have been trying for so long to overthrow him, which has led directly to the grisly phenomenon of Islamic State (ISIS), was badly misconceived. It’s true that the Russians have a major interest in preserving their Mediterranean naval station at Tartus on the Syrian coast, “the Russian Navy’s only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits” (Wikipedia), and a consequent interest in maintaining Assad in power, but as matters have developed there is now a joint Russian-western interest in stemming the advance of ISIS and eventually either defeating it or just conceivably coming to terms with it. The joint US-Russian exercise to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons under UN auspices, which enabled President Obama to side-step mounting pressure to mount a serious punitive bombing assault on Assad’s forces, demonstrated that diplomatic collaboration with Russia in Syria in a common cause and under UN auspices is not at all impossible, and the Russian offer of military talks on Sytria holds out the possibility of a US-Russian led coalition of anti-ISIS forces, including necessarily Assad’s, to be followed if and when the ISIS threat has been dealt with by a UN conference to agree a final settlement — which, again, would necessarily include a role for the Assad régime. It would be tragic, indeed criminal, if the western (read American and British) fixation with bringing down Assad, and reluctance to work with Moscow even in a common interest, were again to be allowed to stand in the way of a concerted assault on ISIS and a subsequent settlement that could at least partially satisfy the interests of all the remaining players. Meanwhile the veteran UN mediator in the Syrian conflict, Staffan de Mistura (who among many other good works had an active role in the international relief effort to combat the great Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, as I well remember) continues to struggle for agreement to truces and safe zones in Syria, against the odds until and unless the Americans drop their impossible preconditions and agree to look for common ground and joint action with the Russians. It’s hard to be optimistic.

  3. Charlie says:

    Part of the problem is the naivety of British politicians and most of the governing classes. The days when a large percentage of the governing classes had worked overseas be it in the Armed Forces, ICS, colonial service , mining, engineering , tea/rubber/coffee  plantations , banking, forestry, Merchant Navy, etc, etc who understood the complexities and how disagreements  could rapidly lead to violence, are long gone.

    In many situations, the best situation is the  one that produces the least slaughter.  There is a saying ” Never try to catch a falling knife”.  Once slaughter has commenced , I do not think it can stop until a   a sufficiently large or influential proportion  of the populations decides they have had enough.  Those who use violence tend to decide to stop when they realise they cannot win and start looking for a way to stop without losing to much face. I do not think anyone can accuse Putin of being naive.

    I cannot understand why Britain and USA are not pushing for safe ones.  Safe ones protected by artillery and aircraft would be relatively easy to defend by the International Community. ISIS  have hardly any armour or artillery: those they have could be quickly destroyed by helicopters or planes as the country is open, free of trees  and any vehicle movement often produces dust clouds.

    The construction of Camp Bastian in Afghanistan demonstrated how military engineers can very quickly  build  large settlements.