2 May 2013

Can new US-Russian entente affect Syria policy?

Britain’s Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond is visiting Washington to meet his new American counterpart Chuck Hagel.

This information will barely disrupt your beautiful spring day. But over a cup of watery coffee and in the company of other journalists at the British ambassador’s residence a few interesting things became apparent over the Gordian knot that is Syria.

Asked about the recent use of chemical weapons, allegedly by the regime, Mr. Hammond came up with a fabulous new piece of bureaucratese: “we are still looking for evidential quality proof”, he said. I think he meant evidence.

Much of this caution naturally stems from the Iraq War where the quality of the proof about WMD, was, well, somewhat less evidential. They don’t want to make the same mistake again, one assumes.

Then there is the matter of what military action in Syria would actually make a difference and to whom.

Although the Saudis and Qataris are piling arms into rebel held areas, they are not sending the kind of weaponry that turned the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.

Mr Hammond confirmed there is a real fear that serious weapons could end up in the wrong hands. The longer the civil war grinds on, the more Islamic insurgents like the al-Nusra Front establish themselves, the more this calculation becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

So back to chemical weapons. The defence secretary tacitly admitted that the recent incident that has led to discussions of red lines,is, by itself, not enough to become Mr Obama’s famous game changer, even if there is “evidential quality proof”.

Furthermore, the longer we wait for a chain of evidence to establish who was behind the attack, the more that evidence gets depleted.

If, however, the regime launches more attacks like it and can be proven to do so, the situation clearly changes.

Then there is the power of TV pictures. Mr Hammond was quite open about the fact that a large scale attack with its aftermath captured on TV – with enough credible evidence to back up who was responsible – could sway public opinion in the UK, the US and elsewhere which is still very tepid about any form of Western military intervention.

In the absence of public demand for military action and enough “evidential quality proof”, the focus is still on persuading the Russians to try and force Assad’s hand.

So far this has failed. But one of the unintended consequences of the Boston Marathon bombing is that Messrs Putin and Obama suddenly have something to talk about and something to agree on: the threat of Chechen-grown Islamic extremism.

A benign line of conversation has been opened up after years of acrimony. Moscow has helped Washington and Washington has said a big public thank you. The same conversations have apparently been used to talk about Syria.

President Obama has reminded President Putin that he too has called the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime a red line which must not be crossed. But whether the diplomacy can even work at this stage is, let’s face it, highly unlikely.

In the quicksand of the Middle East, Syria is as important to Russia as Israel is to the United States. Moscow will only force Assad’s hand if they calculate that he has lost definitely.

It is also possible that the Assad regime dipped its toes into the forbidden waters of chemical warfare to gauge the international response. They have now been warned and if they back off, they may well just continue to pound their people with jets, artillery and conventional weapons of mass destruction. And get away with it.

The point is that even a cautious administration looking for “evidential quality proof” is dealing with a complex set of moving parts that include military calculations, the Balkanization of Syria, public appetite for military intervention, Russian anger and American money.

In other words the red line is about as straight and fixed as a Conga line.

And can we just agree that from now on that we will take the English language to its next level and call “evidential quality proof”, as opposed to any other kind of proof, EQP for short. Because WMD without EQF just isn’t AOK anymore.

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