Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
If you picked up a newspaper a week or so ago, you would have felt pretty certain that even though the UK Parliament chickened out, western intervention in Syria was well and truly on the cards. Stateside, hawkish rhetoric was flying through the air like a load of bloody big hawks and politicians were suddenly really concerned about the plight of the Syrians. Meanwhile, in the Western Mediterranean, US and French naval forces were amassing, floating about and wondering how long it would be before they got to shoot some missiles. A punitive strike on Syria, in response to the Assad government’s alleged gassing of civilians, seemed almost inevitable. Fast-forward to now, and western intervention in the world’s nastiest war seems very unlikely. What’s going on here, then?
Essentially, it’s all thanks to a clumsy slip of the tongue by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. At a press conference called to discuss Syria in London last week, Kerry was asked if there was anything – anything at all – that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to stop American warheads whizzing happily over Damascus and straight for his military hardware.
“Sure!” said Kerry, semi-sarcastically, throwing his arms aloft like a diplomatic Larry David: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay.
"But he isn’t about to do that,” he added. “And it can’t be done, obviously.”
He was right: it definitely couldn’t be done. When UN experts entered Iraq back in the 90s, it took them three years to track down and destroy Saddam’s stockpiles. And that wasn’t a warzone. And the Assad family have been amassing and stashing the chems since the 70s. About 75,000 troops would be needed just to find them, according to one former UN inspector, and the current number of Big Power boots on the ground right now is exactly zero, unless you count the tasteful brown Oxfords worn by western spies.
Despite the attempts to play down Kerry's speech – his office claimed it was merely a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons” – the diplomatic door had opened, just a crack. Through it jumped Russia’s President Putin; staunch ally and (chemical) weapons vendor to the Syrian regime.
A few hours after Kerry’s goof, Putin crony and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had sent a formal proposal to President Obama, asking him to put his plans for attack on hold. Facing rising criticism at home, Obama agreed. Putin then gloated in an open letter to the New York Times, writing: “Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees [the destruction of the chemical weapons] as an alternative to military action.”
The situation is basically the reverse of what happens in In the Loop, when a bumbling, peace-loving Minister says: "To walk the road of peace, we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict," a garbled remark that, by the film's end, has snowballed into an imminent invasion of the Middle East.
Like those of the Minister in In the Loop, Secretary of State Kerry’s words probably changed the course of history, accidentally shifting the global power balance. Unlike his fictional colleague, he had managed to avert US involvement in yet another foreign conflict, rather than start one. The whole business has been seen as Russia’s biggest diplomatic coup for years, although the US have been pretending it was their idea the whole time. With all the diplomatic crowing and face-saving, it’s all pretty Cold War.
By Saturday, the plan had begun to coalesce. At a conference in Geneva, the US and Russia gave Syria a week to declare all of their chemical weapons, and until “the first half of 2014” to remove or destroy them. This is a still a huge job, not least because Assad’s chem collection – probably the largest in the world – seems to be scattered around the country in a network of “remote underground bunkers". Syria’s first job was to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which they hurriedly did on Saturday.
John Kerry, and his sarcastically flailing arms of inadvertent peace.
At the end of all that, the threat of US intervention still loomed. "The threat of force remains, the threat is real," Obama said in Israel, even though it probably doesn't and isn’t. "We cannot have hollow words in the conduct of international affairs," he added, hollowly. Most states have expressed satisfaction with the deal, either because they don’t want the US messing around in the World’s Worst War (like Russia and China), or because they’re saving face (like the US, UK and France).
Meanwhile, the horror of the endless war continues: just three days ago Human Rights Watch found new evidence of an overlooked massacre back in May, in which at least 248 innocent people were killed with guns and knives in the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas in western Syria. “There can be no room for games,” said Kerry over the weekend, but as of yesterday his snowball was still rolling, and the gloating from the nasty side continued. "It's a victory for Syria achieved thanks to our Russian friends," sniggered a Syrian Minister on Russian TV.
It might be frivolous to blame the whole business on Kerry’s gaffe, but it’s no exaggeration to say the role of the US in world affairs has taken a big knock over the past week. Writing for Foreign Policy, Will Marshall compares Obama’s backtrack in Syria to the British Empire’s “east of Suez” moment in the 60s, when it finally became clear that Blighty probably couldn’t run the world from gentlemen's clubs in the West End any more.
If Obama agrees to completely remove the threat of force from the western Med, as still might happen, Marshall might be right. In the latest stage of what is fast becoming some kind of weird diplomatic blog beef, US pro-intervention senator John McCain has promised to write an answer to Putin’s NYT letter on the Russian news site pravda.ru.
Of course, none of this bickering and smuggery really matters. What does are the hundreds of thousands who've lost their lives in the Syrian civil war and the ongoing suffering of millions more injured, displaced and grieving people in Syria and across the region. Just as the US is losing “leverage” in the Middle East and the wider world, a video has emerged of Iranian elite forces fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s boys.
And seemingly no amount of diplomatic chatter can stop all the killing. A new report from the UN’s Human Rights Council covers in painstaking detail the Assad army’s relentless attacks on doctors, which even extends to the shelling of hospitals and other medical facilities. A long-awaited UN report on Assad’s chemical weapons is due this week but no one really cares – the results are a foregone conclusion.
In his speech on Russian TV, the Syrian government spokesman said Kerry’s fudge and the ensuring deal had helped to “avert” war. It hadn’t. The shelling of civilians continues, and there’s no end in sight.
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