The speed of the diplomatic turnaround over Syria has been truly breath-taking. One minute, President Obama was preparing to tour the US talk shows to appeal for Congressional (and public) support for air strikes; the next, he was actually on those talk shows, voicing qualified support for a Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stocks under international control. The vote in Congress, which was seen as key to the success or otherwise of Mr Obama’s second term, has been shelved, and France – the toughest-talking European power, after the UK Prime Minister was forced by Parliament to drop out – was in the process of drafting a UN Security Council resolution that would put the Russian proposal into effect.
Forget about a week being a long time in politics. In pretty much 24 hours flat, we have gone from the threshold of unilateral US military action and a Cold War-style US-Russia rift to a proposal on which almost everyone can agree – except possibly Syria’s anti-Assad opposition.
That caveat about the rebels makes for problems, but is not necessarily fatal – either to the avoidance of air strikes or to the convening of the talks agreed in principle last June. The French draft resolution is said to provide for the weapons stocks not just to be controlled, but destroyed, and for any breach to be met with “extremely serious” consequences.
If those consequences are assumed to include military action, there is, of course, a risk that the resolution will attract a new Russian veto. At worst, Moscow’s proposal will be seen as a tactic conjured up, with Syria, to head off US air strikes – a tactic, moreover, presaging months of Iraq-style disputes about access and monitoring .
But if there is an “at worst”, there is also an “at best”. It hardly matters why the international appetite for a military response – however limited in intent and however heinous the crime that inspired it – is so small. It could be because American and European voters are war-weary, because – especially in Britain – the experience of Iraq still colours the political debate, or because the Syrian conflict is recognised to be too complex for punitive resolution; any and all are possible. But if democratically elected leaders cannot carry their voters with them on something as grave as peace or war, it is time to pause and consider whether another answer might be found.
An answer that avoids outside military action, while removing the particular nastiness of chemical weapons from the fray, would benefit everyone, especially the growing numbers of Syrian civilians who find themselves living in a war zone. And if a UN-sponsored agreement along the lines of the Russian proposal were credible, it could help to open the way for wider talks. This, though, is to jump far ahead. The priority now is to ensure that the diplomatic process is not written off before it has been given a real chance to start.