11 Sep 2013

Syria's lesson is that exhaustive diplomacy must precede force

The idea of Syria handing its chemical weapons over to international control is so obvious that one wonders why it wasn’t proposed before.

In fact it was discussed by Russian and American officials as far back as May, but it took the gas attacks of 21 August, then opposition in America and Britain to air strikes, and Russian opposition as well, before anybody took the idea seriously.

What is astonishing about this idea surfacing so late in the day is that it is just the latest example of American, British, French and Russian diplomats failing to exhaust all diplomatic avenues to avoid conflict, which you would have thought was their job.

First, we saw the British steamrolled by the Americans into an over-hasty parliamentary vote as a prelude to military action, David Cameron eventually conceding that there should be an attempt at a UN resolution and that UN inspectors should be allowed to report first. Then the G20 St Petersburg summit, at which Putin and Obama met for 20 minutes – just enough time to discuss Syria possibly handing over its chemical stockpile, when surely the topic should have been thoroughly thrashed through by then.

It took European foreign ministers, meeting at the weekend, to float the idea publicly for the first time, and then John Kerry to float it again in London on Monday, before the Russians picked up the baton and started running with it.

What I find most remarkable about this is that the Americans and the British, who claim to be sensitive to the messy memory of the Iraq war, seem to have made so little public effort to learn from past mistakes. Even if you don’t think joined-up diplomacy is going to work, particularly at the UN Security Council, even if you think the Russians and Syrians are just playing for time, you have to be seen to be giving diplomacy your very best shot.

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov attends a news conference after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart al-Moualem in Moscow

Instead, diplomacy has been thrust upon Obama and Cameron by public opinion, which keeps sending the same message: “You haven’t tried hard enough to avoid military action.” And in this, the public is surely right.

Another example of diplomatic failure was France‘s version of a UN resolution, circulating last night, clearly linking failure by Syria to hand over its weapons to retaliatory use of force. That was never going to wash with Moscow, as the French, British and Americans must have known. So why set up a confrontational resolution, other than to expose the Russian proposal as unworkable? Why not work with the Russians, as opposed to against them?

This, presumably, is what John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov (pictured above) will try to do when they meet in Geneva tomorrow. The only way to reach agreement may be by decoupling any threat of force from a UN resolution, but requiring the matter to be re-referred urgently to the security council if the Syrians fail to begin surrendering chemical stockpiles within a period of perhaps 30 days.

As the UN Security Council has failed to agree a single resolution on Syria since 2011, diplomacy will probably fail, aside from the practical difficulties of securing a chemical arsenal in the midst of a civil war. But surely the lesson of the last few weeks – if not from 2003 – is that exhaustive diplomacy must precede the use of force.

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