A breakthrough on Syria?
Syria’s acceptance of a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control offers a way to prevent their use in the Syrian civil war by political diplomacy rather than the military strike being canvassed this week by the Obama administration. This potential breakthrough was signalled in the haste with which the Russian foreign minister took up US secretary of state John Kerry’s suggestion of a week’s deadline for their handover. If followed up effectively the proposal could get Mr Obama off the hooks of a hostile public opinion and probable congressional vote against military action.
It is a welcome, though regrettably belated, development in the Syrian crisis. The recent rush to military action by western powers after chemical weapons were used in Damascus is badly conceived, ill-advised and open to many dangerous unintended consequences for the rapidly changing and conflicted Middle East. Presented as the only way to punish an undoubted war crime, limited military strikes have raised many more questions than answers about targets, civilian casualties, retaliations, deepening involvements and escalations of the conflict. This is all the more serious given the lack of intensive political efforts to tackle the many domestic and international fissures running through the Syrian civil war for the last two years, and the colossal humanitarian costs of that delay.
Thankfully, a more sceptical public opinion in the US, Britain and France, together with policy elites more divided on the advisability and feasibility of military intervention and a consequently more questioning media, have combined to bring out these shortcomings and criticisms of unilateral western action. That would be illegal without assent of the United Nations Security Council. The International Criminal Court is the appropriate forum to judge such a war crime.
The proposal to bring the chemical weapons under international control and destroy them is doubly significant in that Syria has not signed the treaty banning them and is now accepting it. That opens up difficulties in monitoring and implementing a control regime in the middle of a war, with competing international powers involved, each fearful of being misled or outwitted. But such problems are the stuff of international diplomacy in crises like these. They can be overcome if there is a will to tackle the bigger questions underlying the civil war, international involvement and the awful human suffering. Co-operation between Russia and the US on chemical weapons opens up the possibility they can agree to work on these wider questions by drawing in other states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran and convincing them it is in their interests to seek an end to the fighting.