Diplomacy delivers a surprise

Diplomacy delivers a surprise

Mahir Ali
The missile launchers on American warships in the Mediterranean had been loaded with Tomahawks and the crews were waiting for the go-ahead from Washington.

Thankfully, it never came.

The build-up had been prompted by the use of chemical weapons in an attack on the outskirts of Damascus. It was widely, albeit by no means universally, assumed that the government of Bashar Al Assad was responsible for an atrocity that claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Barack Obama had declared many months earlier that the Syrian regime would be crossing a red line if it deployed such weapons.

He felt obliged to react. Intervention on the Iraq or Afghanistan scale was, for a variety of reasons, not an option. A “limited” military strike aimed at “degrading” Assad’s military machine was the preferred alternative, although its dimensions were never clarified, with Obama insisting it would be more than a pinprick, even as his Secretary of State, John Kerry, conjured up images of a tiny offensive.

Only two countries, Britain and France, publicly declared their eagerness to participate in the belligerence, but the former dropped out after David Cameron’s plans were unexpectedly rebuffed by the House of Commons, while opinion polls across the Western world indicated that sizeable public majorities clearly opposed the idea of military action.

Most of his aides reportedly disagreed with the U.S. president’s subsequent decision to seek congressional approval for the attack — despite his insistence that it wasn’t a constitutional requirement, and indications that the strikes could go ahead even without legislative backing.

It is now broadly agreed that Obama’s resolution would have been soundly defeated in the House of Representatives, and may even have failed to make it through the Senate, where there is a Democratic majority. Congressional rejection would undoubtedly have been embarrassing for Obama, and it was Russia that came to the rescue.

The escape route came as a blessing for the Obama administration, giving it an excuse to hold off a bout of aggression with unpredictable consequences as well as to suspend its quest for a congressional imprimatur. Once Damascus gave its nod to the idea, a fascinating few days of US-Russian diplomacy in Geneva yielded an agreement whereby Syria is supposed to provide details of its chemical weapons-related stockpiles and facilities within a week, facilitate inspections shortly thereafter, and surrender all such arms by mid-2014.

Meanwhile, a report by U.N. inspectors, released on Sept. 16 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, confirms, as expected, that deadly sarin gas was used in a war crime on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. It does not apportion blame, but its details reinforce the impression that government forces were the perpetrators.

Initial reports about this tragedy indicated that, in its immediate aftermath, Israeli intelligence sources had picked up a conversation in which a local commander was roundly being berated by one of his superiors in Damascus for using chemical weapons at such an inconvenient juncture.

The concurrent presence of U.N. inspectors in the Syrian capital was picked up on by some commentators to suggest that the Assad regime couldn’t possibly have been dumb enough to deploy sarin at that time. However, whereas Assad may strictly be telling the truth when he claims not to have ordered the attack, he can hardly evade responsibility for the horrendous consequences.

There is no way, though, that U.S. missile strikes, presumably against military installations, would have constituted suitable “punishment.” In its self-ordained role as an international policeman, the U.S. has invariably demonstrated its incompetence — often in violation of international law.

Perhaps above all, based even on Obama and Kerry’s own declarations, bringing an end to the incredibly nasty Syrian civil war was not even a part of the latest narrative. Almost everyone agrees that only a negotiated settlement can lead to peace. No one could pinpoint, however, how Western military intervention might advance that objective — just as hardly anyone bothers to point out that it is the Syrian opposition, which has lately begun receiving weapons shipments via the CIA, that has been resisting the lure of the conference table. Needless to say, its jihadi components have little interest in talks, whereas American boots on the ground would inevitably enhance their zeal.

Recent overtures from the government in Tehran, which would have to be involved in any sustainable agreement over Syria, hint at a willingness to engage with the West. The U.S. and Iranian presidents have even corresponded on the matter, and their presence at the U.N. session this month will provide an opportunity for personal contact. It ought not to be wasted.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney