Peter Jones: Words, not deeds, could help Syria

Barack Obama spoke at the weekend of possible US action against Syria. Picture: AP
Barack Obama spoke at the weekend of possible US action against Syria. Picture: AP
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Ending the suffering of Syrians may not come quickly through military strikes – negotiation is vital, writes Peter Jones

International efforts to bring an end to Syrian death and suffering now look to be in almost as big a mess as Syria itself. But ending the people’s agonies has to be the priority. The question is how to do that.

In the face of much pride in certain quarters that parliamentary democracy asserted itself last week and stopped the British government from joining America and France in going to war, we need to remember the scale and implications of what is happening there.

The death toll since civil war erupted in Syria is now credibly estimated to be about 100,000, nearly all of them civilians. The number of people who have fled the country to refugee camps is about two million – not far short of the entire population of the Strathclyde region.

Feeding and watering them is putting a huge strain on neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, where about a third of the refugees have gone. Lebanon is a poor country, barely recovered from its own internecine strife. Periodic bombings here are attributed to factional fighting between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, the Shia offshoot to which Syrian president Bashir al-Assad belongs, raising fears that Syria’s civil war could be exported to Lebanon.

A quarter of Syria’s refugees are in Jordan, a burden which threatens its stability. Then there are more than four million Syrians who have left or been forced out of their homes and are displaced, sheltering in other parts of the country. Many of them may join those who have already left the country.

This is a huge human catastrophe, brought about not by famine, but by man-made warfare. Set against that background, the chemical or nerve agent attacks which are estimated to have killed between 450 and 1,300 people are, while horrific, a relatively small part of the disaster.

This doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. But the calamitous background means that whatever action is taken by international forces because of the chemical attacks should be part of an overall effort to end this crisis and create conditions which persuade the refugees that they can return home.

US president Barack Obama has done the chances of attaining this no favours by declaring the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” which would force him to act.

If the evidence which looks likely to be published this week proves that Assad did indeed authorise their use, then he has, in effect, dared Obama to attack him and Obama has blinked. This leaves open the possibility that he might well use them again.

To prevent that happening, the international leaders who are willing to act need to think pretty hard and act fast to produce a credible plan of action. Some of the more bellicose in Britain argue that last week’s refusal by MPs to allow David Cameron to commit British forces to action has greatly diminished Britain’s influence on this process.

I disagree, for this analysis rests on the assumption that it is only by doing something that influence can be exerted. A conscious decision to do nothing can also be influential. In this case, it seems to have forced Obama to pause and to promise to consult Congress before authorising military action.

This could be a good thing, because it may force Obama to produce a much more coherent strategy that is more broadly based.

There were several flaws in the idea that a punitive strike using cruise missiles aimed at Assad and his military assets would deter him from using chemical weapons again.

One was that it might well have provoked him into other responses, which could include firing his Scud missiles at Israel, thus provoking a much bigger and nastier conflict. Another was that it wouldn’t stop Assad using his considerable weaponry to carry on pounding rebel towns and cities, killing tens of thousands more and probably creating millions more refugees.

There was thus every chance that a strike aimed at deterring the use of chemical weapons, while it might have succeeded in that objective, could also have succeeded in spreading the conflict and making peace and a negotiated political settlement an even more distant prospect than it already is.

Such talks only look likely to happen when both sides in this conflict become convinced that they cannot win. That point has yet to be reached, which is why last year’s talks under United Nations auspices, now known as Geneva 1, did not get anywhere.

Though it hasn’t attracted much attention, in May, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, agreed to launch a new political process, Geneva II. The intended format was that Assad’s representatives would be on one side of the table with opposition representatives on the other – and, crucially, both Russian and American advisers would assist both sides.

The Russian involvement is crucial because they are one of the few external powers with leverage over Assad, being his armourers.

The process of getting this under way was expected to be accelerated at next week’s G8 summit in St Petersburg, but then the arrival in Moscow of Edward Norton, an intelligence contractor wanted by the US for leaking documents, got in the way, and Obama cancelled a long-planned meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Such a meeting still should happen, probably at foreign minister level. If it does, then the role of military action by international powers becomes much clearer. It would be taken with the aim of ensuring that neither side has such overwhelming weaponry that it can win. It would be intended, in other words, to cause a stalemate.

America and Russia would have to agree to supply neither side with anything that would give a clear advantage and to use their influence with other suppliers, principally Iran and Saudi Arabia, to get them to agree. Opposition forces would also have to be told that the removal of Assad cannot be a pre-condition for talks, but a question for them.

It would be a novel and ambitious goal, and there are umpteen things that could undo it. But at least it would be a strategy capable of meeting with international approval which, in itself, would put pressure on all the actors in the Syrian tragedy to end it.