Michael Williams: Painful lessons – and Assad is still there

The Kerry-Lavrov accord is welcome. Now our leaders must make up for a series of blunders and tactical errors, and make diplomacy work

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When David Cameron appeared before the Liaison Committee in Parliament last Tuesday, his compassion, humanity and anger over the anguish and suffering of the Syrian people, now in its third year, was plain to see. No one can doubt his commitment to the United Kingdom playing its role in trying to bring this tragedy to a close.

In this he is not alone. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s eviscerating commentary on the 21 August poison gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, the day after the British government’s lost vote on Syria in the House of Commons, was driven by an emotional strength and anger that was visible. It was also armed with a detail not present in the briefing given to both Houses of Parliament. At the start, Kerry, in the first of several observations not present in the Prime Minister’s statement, recorded the number of deaths in the 21 August slaughter: 1,429 men, women and children.

There was other detail about the area where the attack was made which might have had an impact on the MPs and peers. At the least, the coordination between London and Washington on presentation left something to be desired. This impression only increased with President Obama’s announcement on 31 August that he was going to refer the question of a military attack on Syria to Congress, a move which was not only uncoordinated with London and Paris but of which Secretary Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were reportedly not informed.

Since the gas attack in Ghouta, the West has struggled to find an adequate response. The UK government’s defeat on 29 August has long been overshadowed by a series of blunders and tactical errors which has left Russia, as The Economist, reports this weekend “behind the steering wheel”.

Only last week, the Prime Minister spoke of the need for an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to be under international control and backed by a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter with the clear threat of armed force. But as with the debate in the Commons, the votes are not there. Indeed, there was never any likelihood of such a resolution being passed. To imply that there was is almost flat earth territory.

Already at the Lough Erne G8 summit in July, President Putin’s obduracy was clear. By the time of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg in the first week of September he was in an even stronger position. First, he was on home ground, but more importantly,with the 20 most powerful countries listening, Putin was able to exploit the fact that the West did not command an evident majority. Even Germany’s support for its three Western allies has, at best, been halting and lukewarm.

As for the Security Council itself, the most junior diplomat knows that a Chapter VII resolution would be opposed by Russia and China, both permanent members, as well as by other influential members such as Pakistan and Argentina.

After three days of talks in Geneva, Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed an accord that would allow for international inspection and control of Syria’s chemical weapons, as well as their destruction by mid-2014. But the cost has been considerable. White House officials were briefing on Friday night that the resolution before the Security Council will not be under Chapter VII. At the press conference, Secretary Kerry was keen to point out that if Syria did not comply there could be a resort to Chapter VII, but this would require a new resolution, which Russia would find difficult.

An international accord on Syria’s chemical weapons is hugely welcome. But its effect on the war is likely to be negligible, as less than 2 per cent of deaths are attributable to chemical weapons. The strategic balance within that war will remain grossly unequal given the regime’s arsenal of heavy armour, aircraft and missiles. Rightly, there has been international indignation at the use of chemical weapons, but almost no comment on the first known use of ballistic missiles by a government against its own people.

The time for real diplomacy on Syria is now, and the United Nations General Assembly meeting shortly in New York provides an opportune moment. The Foreign Secretary William Hague’s willingness to meet with his Iranian counterpart is a welcome first step. Some painful lessons have to be learnt from the past few weeks. It seems clear that in both the UK and US there is little public appetite for military action. The ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan will, I suspect, haunt Western governments for a long time. Diplomacy’s hour on Syria’s war will only come if it is tightly coordinated and inclusive.

In Geneva in 1954 and in Paris in 1973, wars in Indochina were brought to a close by China’s acquiescence, and it was Henry Kissinger’s extraordinary diplomacy which made that possible. And it is worth remembering that before the disastrous Iraq war of 2003 there was a war in 1991 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Before Operation Desert Storm, the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, toured the globe to ensure support for an Allied military operation that included a Syrian division dispatched by Bashar al-Assad’s father. Subsequently, UN investigators did an excellent job in exposing and eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. So much so that the US/UK invasion of 2003 did not find any such weapons. Against that background, there is hope for the anticipated UN mission to investigate Syria’s chemical weapons agreed to yesterday in Geneva.

The two Indochina wars, the first Iraq war and the Balkan wars in Bosnia and Kosovo underline the necessity of inclusive diplomacy. Just as China’s inclusion was imperative for a conclusion of the two Vietnam wars, Syria’s participation important for the first Iraq war and Serbia indispensable for settlement of the Balkan wars, so Iran must be in the room for any settlement of the Syrian war.

Lord Williams of Baglan is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and a former UN envoy in the Middle East

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