Syria - what role for diplomacy?

G8 leaders at a counter-terrorism working session at the G8 Summit, Northern Ireland, 2013. Photo by Crown copyright

In the course of little more than a week, the idea that diplomacy could achieve anything to prevent the war in Syria escalating yet further fell off the international agenda as arms supplies became the dominant theme and returned to head it following the G8 summit at Enniskillen’s Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland. Here’s my quick take on what seems to be going on.

The G8

As I argued in my last article, a protracted war in which western powers join others such as Saudi Arabia in supplying arms to the anti-Assad forces is a more likely prospect than a direct military intervention by the US and/or any of its European allies.

This has been underlined by the firmness and clarity of Russian President Putin as he supported Assad in the lead-up to the G8 summit. He was under pressure but seems to have performed as if he wasn’t. If such things count, there will only be greater caution now among western governments. There may still be some enthusiasts but most leaders and senior officials will have even less appetite than before for using armed force of any kind – whether boots/wheels on the ground or just air strikes and no-fly-zones. It remains impossible to see how to get UN Security Council approval and hard to be sure of domestic political support otherwise. Above all, there are the awful strategic risks of getting into an exposed position in Syria where it remains easy to see how to get involved and close to impossible to see how to exit satisfactorily.

Heading to Enniskillen, the Financial Times reported, the UK, US and France intended to put forward a five-point plan for a transfer of power in Syria – ousting Assad, in short. Since Putin wouldn’t have signed up for that it’s not clear where anybody thought they were going with it. Perhaps the idea was to intimidate him with the prospect of isolation, enough to ditch a long-held policy. Why anybody would think that likely hasn’t yet been explained.

If that was the plan, then one idea behind the timing of the US announcement about supplying arms to the anti-Assad forces was as a pre-G8 bargaining manoeuvre. Obama placed some chips on the table to show he was serious. It didn’t work and once the G8 leaders were meeting, the effort to isolate Russia was abandoned. Instead, a communique was drafted that Putin could happily sign up to. It omits statements that there is firm evidence of use of chemical weapons while condemning any such use if it does happen and it commits everybody to seeking a diplomatic solution.

A moment of diplomatic clarity?

Read optimistically, what happened before and at the G8 summit has buried the notion that western powers – primarily the US, UK and France – can somehow “settle” Syria to their satisfaction by excluding Russia and, by extension, Iran from the process and by setting the ousting of Assad from power as a precondition of talks. It simply isn’t going to happen like that. What western leaders need to understand before they can start playing a useful role in building a more peaceful future for Syria is as follows:

  1. They cannot do it alone.
  2. If they seek a military option, it will not be easy.
  3. If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria among others.

As a paper circulated by the European Council on Foreign Relations has argued, the options of “intervention-lite” and “diplomacy-lite” solutions are equally fake. After Enniskillen, arguing anything to the contrary is wilfully stupid.

The risks of the great power game

How does this sit alongside the analysis I advanced in my last post, on the great power game, in which outside powers try to weaken each other at the expense of the continued suffering of the Syrian people?

The scenario I outlined could well look more attractive to outside policy-makers, whichever party they support in the conflict, than outright victory for one side or the other. But it also carries many risks that are also likely to be widely recognised – risks of an increase in the already growing instability in Lebanon and the risks of something similar in Jordan and Iraq as well. The issues are a combination of the political and socio-economic challenges presented by an influx of refugees, conflict transmission mechanisms and Israel’s response to the crisis.

Policy-makers in different capitals with an interest in Syria will therefore find their opposing policies lead them to a shared interest in a diplomatic approach that could help mitigate the risks. It will not be at all an unusual situation if all sides are urging peace talks while the combatants fight on and their external backers keep arming them.

However Byzantine the positioning, this could provide the room for manoeuvre for working towards an agreement that paves the way to ending the violence, at least the worst of it. It could offer an opportunity for both sides in Syria to seek a peaceful way out – an opportunity, if there is any, will to go with it.

Two straws in the wind

The G8 communique solves nothing on Syria. But it is open-ended. It commits the G8 to "a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria” but sets no other pre-conditions. Whatever the language previously used by western governments about Assad, the communique they signed up to does not make Assad’s departure a pre-condition. At the same time, British officials reportedly read Putin as being concerned primarily about Syria not suffering from a power vacuum of the sort that emerged in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted. They interpreted him to mean that Assad’s continuation in power was not in itself essential.

That may very well be over-optimistic – who knows if they were not there? But if there are no longer any pre-conditions about outcomes and who can attend, that is a step in the right direction.

What has yet to be worked out – and it won’t be done by anybody who drafted or signed the communique – is how the Syrian people can get the chance to exploit the space that is beginning, slowly and hesitantly, to emerge beneath the political posturing and diplomatic manoeuvring. There is a long way to go yet and I am afraid there will be no swift end to Syria’s mayhem and misery. But it does feel as if a door has been opened and a tiny chink of light is showing.

Dan Smith, Secretary General

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Photo: G8 leaders at a counter-terrorism working session at the G8 Summit, Northern Ireland, 2013. Photo by Crown copyright