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.
One has to marvel at the speed of all this. Already today there is a joint “Framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons” at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/09/214247.htm which the rest of us have scarcely had time to read, let alone write. To a Middle East watcher like me the most exciting point of all in the article by Blitz is at the end: US/Russian cooperation on the chemical weapons problem may be the basis for the US and Russia to seek a solution to end the civil war.
Like you I don’t believe in Kerry’s “off-the-cuff gaffe”. But it doesn’t follow that it was part of a plan agreed between Washington and Moscow. These things go wrong. The coordinated Libyan/US/British announcements in 2003 that Qadhafi had agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction nearly came unstuck at the last minute, I believe, not for any really important reason but because there was jockeying over who should announce what first. I would go further in this case and speculate that, far from it all being meticulously planned between Washington and Moscow, it probably wasn’t even agreed between the White House and the State Department. History provides plenty of precedents for the Secretary of State being left out, if not actually hung out to dry, while the President negotiates through back channels. How else to explain the very sharp divergences of language between Kerry “only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen – and the Assad regime did it” and Obama’s far greater caution and restraint?
Brian writes: Thank you for this exceptionally interesting comment. I suppose we’ll never know to what extent it was all meticulously pre-planned; all I can say is that the known facts, such as they are, fit well with careful planning, except that I suspect Obama had to wait longer than he had expected and had to go further than he wanted towards a military strike against Syria, or at any rate towards highly unpredictable Congressional votes, while he waited for confirmation from Putin or Lavrov that Assad had been dragged kicking and screaming onside, and the great initiative was ready to launch.
I do however agree that Obama probably let very few others in on this secret planning, and that even Kerry may not have known in any detail what was going to happen or how far anything definite had been agreed. Obama was no doubt happy to let Kerry make hawkish noises about Assad’s guilt while he himself avoided saying anything that might cause Putin to pull out. Yet it was Kerry who was tasked with uttering the historic words that launched the initiative! I wonder what unmentionable back channel Putin and Obama were using. Obama probably knew that if State knew, it would leak, and the whole thing would sink before it could be launched.
I entirely agree about the encouraging prospect that if the chemical disarmament project succeeds (admittedly a big if), US-Russian collaboration may turn to the much more difficult target of a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict itself (see the last sentence of the paragraph in my post beginning “The great difference with Syria 2013…”). As I see it, that would require the Americans, the Syrian opposition groups, and probably their principal allies, to accept that Assad or his representatives will have to participate in the negotiations between the parties to the conflict that will have to take place at some stage, with the implication that Assad’s participation in some kind of eventual power-sharing settlement could not be excluded at the outset as a condition of negotiations taking place. That will be a big mouthful for the Syrian opposition and for the Americans to swallow. It will surely be a Russian requirement and also a requirement of the reality on the ground. But we’re a long way from that problem just now.
I have posted a link to this on Diplotaxis, for the education of would-be Spanish diplomats.
Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. I see you have also posted a link to it on Facebook. Much appreciated. I hope the would-be Spanish diplomats will also read Oliver Miles’s comment above and my response to it.
The Blitz article in last Friday’s FT was certainly a fascinating read. A Focus feature in today’s Sunday Times is along similar lines. Common ground seems to be that: (a) the idea of getting Assad to put his chemical weapons under international control was first mooted by Obama and Putin at a G20 summit in Mexico in 2012 but came to nothing because of American suspicion of Russian motives; that (b) Putin revived the idea at a 20-minute private conversation with Obama towards the end of the recent G20 in St Petersburg; that (c) Secretary of State Kerry, in some curiously worded answers at a subsequent press conference in London, suggested that Assad could avert a US military strike by handing over all his chemical weapons “in the next week”, only (on the face of it) to dismiss the suggestion as a non-starter by adding “but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously”; and that (d) within a matter of hours, despite Kerry’s dismissive tone, Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov had picked up on the suggestion and, before the day was out, Obama too had responded favourably, suspending his proposed missile strike and agreeing to hold negotiations with Moscow.
I can see how it might be possible and even tempting to interpret all this as a a carefully concocted plan between Washington and Moscow with all the players reading from well-rehearsed scripts. But It seems far more plausible to see it as a series of manoevreings by all parties in response to a fast-changing situation with a large element of “making it up as you go along” (to quote an unnamed British diplomat cited by Blitz). This does not, of course, rule out collusion between Putin and Obama, which has clearly occurred, though exactly who is pulling whose strings is less clear. Obama was in a (largely self-imposed) bind over how to react to events in Syria from which he was desperate to escape, and as Blitz convincingly suggests, Putin was under some pressure too. The key factor there is likely to have been growing reports that the UN inspectors (due to report tomorrow) would find not only that chemical weapons had been deployed but that the Assad regime was culpable, contrary to Putin’s persistent claim that their use was “obviously” an act of provocation by the rebels. How better to pre-empt and take the sting out of any such finding than by getting Assad’s agreement in advance to a chemical weapons hand-over.
On the American side, the evidence for a lack of coordination between the State Department and the White House is surely overwhelming. The alternative is to be asked to believe that Kerry and Obama have been engaged for weeks in a mutually agreed and carefully rehearsed “hard cop, soft cop” routine designed to keep Putin and Assad in a state of uncertainty. Obama’s demeanour and body language have for some time displayed all the symptoms of a man torn by indecision and mental conflict over what policy to pursue on Syria as he has (to borrow Blitz’s phrase) “zigzagged from one initiative to another” . If that has all been feigned, and is all part of some meticuloulsly thought-out diplomatic strategy – then I can only say he is a consummate actor. As for Kerry, it’s hard to know what at all to make of some of his more bizarre pronouncements – for example, his blood-curdling threat that a military strike against Syria would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort”. That must really have put the wind up Damascus and Moscow.
The least charitable explanation, I guess, is that Kerry is none too bright. A more likely explanation is that he and Obama are just not on the same wavelength re Syria and that Kerry has simply been left out of the loop, or, In Oliver Miles’s more vivid phrase, “hung out to dry”, by the White House. There seems to be support for this view among the US commentariat. A “veteran Middle East adviser” (Aaron David Miller – not known to me) is quoted by the ST as suggesting that some of Kerry’s clumsiness can be attributed to his having to defend constantly shifting positions on which he has been inadequately briefed. “I’m not sure [Kerry] knows where the President is at any moment on this”. That does seem to me to fit the available evidence pretty well. I also find quite persuasive the ST’s own overall verdict that “it may be that the very incoherence of Obama’s Syria policy has saved America from being sucked into the civil war”.
It is of course entirely possible that Barder is right and everyone else wrong on all this. Doubtless not for the first time! What all of us must hope is that Russia and the US, supported by its main western allies, can agree to work together to widen the chemical weapons talks out into broader negotiations aimed at bringing the violence in Syria to an end. Getting Assad to the negotiating table may be the easy bit. Getting the rebels to accept that Assad would have be part of any power-sharing scheme seems likely to be much harder, not least given the difficulty of finding any coherent representative group with whom to negotiate among the rebels – ranging as they do from quasi-westernised liberals to jihadist soldiers belonging to one or another al-Qa’eda franchise, many increasingly drawn from outside Syria, who have committed atrocities every bit as ghastly as those perpetrated by the Damascus regime.
Brian writes: Thank you for this. I have just written a long response identifying almost every line of the Sunday Times ‘Focus’ article as ideologically naive and old-fashioned rubbish, efficiently disposed of by Andrew Sullivan in the same issue: but my laptop unaccountably lost the whole thing and I can’t recover it. Suffice it to say that the Sunday Times clearly can’t conceive of a carefully prepared US-Russian joint initiative serving the interests of both Washington and Moscow, and of peace, without one side having scored a triumph at the expense of the other. For the record, Obama wasn’t dithering at any point: he was manifestly pursuing a carefully calibrated strategy culminating in the framework agreement published on Saturday, which must obviously have taken months of negotiation to work out.
Cold war thinking is taking a long time a-dying at the Sunday Times (and elsewhere). The FT article which prompted my post here is in a completely different league. Harry Evans, thou shouldst be editing the Sunday Times at this hour!