By Dr Andrestinos Papadopoulos
THE statement by US President Obama that the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s President Assad would constitute a red line for the United States and the chemical weapons attack on a Damascus neighbourhood on August 21 provided a new diplomatic dimension to the Syrian crisis.
Taking advantage of an offhand remark by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, Moscow took the initiative to present its proposal for Syria to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control, clarifying through Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that it is not an entirely Russian initiative, but stems from contacts with the Americans.
As leaked to the newspaper Kommersant, the plan comprises four stages: Syria would sign the Convention on Chemical Weapons Ban, declare production and storage sites, invite inspectors to Syria and decide with them how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.
As expected, the Russian proposal was accepted by Syria and was positively received by Washington and European capitals. In fact, President Obama asked Congress to delay votes on authorising military strikes in order to give Russia time to get Syria to comply. To this effect, Kerry and Lavrov met in Geneva and reached an agreement, which might lead to an international conference, while a second meeting will take place in New York later this month.
This new development had its repercussions. Russia considered by the West as an obstacle to peace in Syria, appears now as a peacemaker, since its plan aims at reducing tension in the Middle East. At the same time, it shields its ally Assad and prevents any military action that is not approved by the UN Security Council. Russia’s interest in Syria is explained by the following: the naval base in Tartus secures Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean; Russia provides Assad with arms and other military material; Putin is not indifferent to the presence of two million Christians in Syria; success of the rebels might lead to the export of fanatic Islamism to Russia, whose population is 15 per cent Muslim. Finally, Russia would like to avoid a repetition in Syria of what happened in Libya, where its political and economic interests were not taken into account.
For President Obama, the Russian proposal offered a convenient way to pull back from the threat of military action which has left him isolated not only internationally, with some exceptions, but domestically as well.
What is at stake is the credibility of the United States. If Obama avoids military action against Syria for chemical weapons, what will happen with the nuclear programme of Iran and North Korea?
In this respect, one should look at various considerations, which create difficulties and problems. In the first place, there is no broadly based coalition, since prominent allies of the US either refused or are unable to participate in military action. With no UN Security Council resolution there is no legal framework for military strikes. The US public, war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan, is in no mood to support more military action in the Middle East. Infiltration by Al Qaeda elements into the ranks of the Syrian rebels has also led second thoughts. There is also the danger the military strike could be considered as imperialist policy directed against the Muslim world and make Assad a hero, since he dares to challenge the superpower.
Even if the revolt against Assad is considered as part of the “Arab Spring”, the forces which will be liberated cannot be controlled. The examples of Libya and Egypt point to this direction.
The Russian proposal came in the context of the threat of military action, which President Obama decided to take even without congressional approval, a fact that was critical to forcing Assad to eagerly accept the Russian proposal.
The question, however, remains open: how workable is the Russian proposal, given the practical difficulties? In the light of what happened in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, one wonders how effective the work of the international inspectors will be, while the war rages in Syria.
We should finally mention that the Russian proposal also mobilised the United Nations. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rushed to state that he might ask the Security Council to end its “embarrassing paralysis” over Syria and agree to act. However, it was France which took the initiative to table a draft resolution that would provide a framework for controlling and eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons but also allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative. Our wish is that international efforts are successful, so as to boost the chances of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, which will benefit the war-torn region of the Middle East.
Dr Andrestinos Papadopoulos is a former ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus