Grasping an opportunity
In international politics as in other spheres of life, necessity can be the mother of invention. Within one week the prospect of United States-led military intervention in the Syrian civil war has been transformed by creative diplomacy between the US and Russia into a deal that could see the Syrian state voluntarily giving up the chemical weapons whose use against civilians on August 21st triggered this latest episode in the crisis. The successful initiative now raises the possibility of making political progress in another deep-seated and closely related standoff, that between the US and Iran, as President Barack Obama confirms he may meet the new reformist Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.
Mr Obama’s alacrity in taking up Russia’s proposal to join forces on Syria’s chemical weapons was driven as much by domestic as international politics. Recognising there is no stomach in American public or political opinion for another military engagement in the Middle East, and knowing a similar scepticism exists in Britain and France, he was willing to try this alternative route. And seeing it work has encouraged him to open up what he describes as “a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue”, the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel and regional stability. Iran is closely allied to Syria and to the Hizbullah movement in Lebanon as part of its struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, expressed in growing sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam.
Mr Rouhani also needs to respond to his own public opinion which gave him an electoral mandate for a more pragmatic approach to the nuclear issue, in the hope of easing economic sanctions hitting Iranians hard. Were he to find a way to cooperate with Russia and the US on Syria it could open up diplomatic space to negotiate on the nuclear issue. Saudi Arabia and Turkey would need to be drawn into such a dynamic if it is to bear fruit. That this is not wishful thinking is evidenced by the presence of both states at talks in Paris yesterday attended by US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. There is now a more realistic prospect of reactivating the Geneva peace talks on Syria, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia.
At some stage an end to the civil war will have to be negotiated, taking account of the balance of forces in the country and the international context. The outcome of such talks would be messy and unsatisfactory for all concerned, but surely better than the present dreadful impasse – and capable of opening up a political process that would be far preferable to continuing fighting. By looking beyond Syria towards the wider regional setting Mr Obama has signalled his record could eventually be judged by his ability to grasp this opportunity creatively.