28 Dec 2013

Kerry and Lavrov: picking up the baton for peace in Syria

Far be it from me to nominate two middle-aged white men as my choice for the most influential people of 2013 but I have no choice.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pulled us back from war. Their method? Old-fashioned diplomacy. Watching it unfold in Geneva in September, I felt we were back in the cold war, with the Americans and Soviets holding the fate of the world in their hands.

On 21 August, Syrian government forces fired the nerve agent sarin into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The images that emerged are seared on my brain: children choking to death, men and women collapsing, rows of tiny shrouds. The Americans say that 1,429 were killed, 426 of them children. We still don’t know how many will suffer the after-effects for life.

President Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons was a red line – once it was crossed he would have to intervene, presumably with airstrikes, to punish President Bashar al-Assad. But after the British parliament voted not to participate, he decided to consult Congress, which seemed unwilling to act.

Obama faced the possibility of his red line being exposed as a fiction, or having to launch airstrikes in the teeth of congressional disapproval.

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov smile following their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali

Enter the diplomats. Asked by a journalist in London if there was anything Assad could do to avert an American-led attack, John Kerry said: “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to.”

It was, it seemed, an off-the-cuff remark, but in Moscow Sergei Lavrov picked up the baton, saying he had given the proposal to the Syrian foreign minister and was “counting on a fast and, I hope, positive response”. He got it. Suddenly the world wasn’t talking about war, but a deal in which Assad would surrender his chemical weapons.

Lavrov is the diplomat who grumbled loudest when smoking was banned at UN headquarters in New York – Russian ambassador to the UN at the time, he was famous not only for being the toughest negotiator on the security council, but also a chain smoker. Kerry, the losing candidate in the 2004 US presidential elections, is a Vietnam veteran who later turned against the war and has years of experience as the head of the US Senate foreign relations committee. Tall, confident men, both well over six foot, they were a match for each other.

I went to Geneva to follow the negotiations. We analysed the body language – they slapped each other on the back and even laughed at each other’s jokes. A camera caught them in intense discussions over breakfast. And they did it. They found a formula by which the Syrians would have to abandon their chemical weapons by the end of the year.

As I write now, the weapons have been gathered for destruction. Never before has such a programme been carried out in such haste, let alone in a war zone. That is still problematic – more than 200 container-loads have to be transported along a disputed road to the port of Latakia. There’s no guarantee that one of Syria’s myriad rebel factions won’t try to attack. But there’s still optimism that these weapons will be exported and destroyed, even if the end of 2013 deadline is too optimistic.

Kerry and Lavrov pulled the world back from the brink of a wider war that could have pulled in many countries in the region. But the war in Syria, of course, goes on. Eight million Syrians have fled their homes, scores die every week – I’ve just returned from Damascus, where I witnessed how stray mortars kill anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I will never forget the young Armenian mother telling me about her seven-year-old son, killed by a mortar that landed where he was standing at a bus-stop. “He would never keep still,” she told me, “He hated to sleep. I can’t believe that he’s sleeping now.”

In January Kerry and Lavrov will be back in Geneva for talks aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in Syria. It’s hard to be optimistic – the government continues its cruel campaign against its own people, jihadis among the rebels are imposing unwelcome sharia punishments on an unwilling populace, Iran and Saudi Arabia are conducting a proxy war in Syria. I believe it will be years before this war comes to an end.

But then, I didn’t believe that Kerry and Lavrov could do a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal in 2013. Maybe they can achieve even more next year.

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