The diplomatic chess game that will settle what action, if any, is taken against Syria has produced almost as many surprises as earlier debates over Iraq. The failure to win parliamentary support for military action proved to be an embarrassing miscalculation for the British government, and a disappointment to many who approved of strikes against Assad but wanted their government to proceed less adventurously. Rather than admit that they bungled the vote the Tories have branded the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, as a weakling, as someone lacking the courage to make statesmanlike decisions. But the spin has done little to hide the fact that neither side is happy with the result. “The UK’s official stance towards Damascus is a policy orphan, unclaimed and unloved,” writes Rafael Behr, the political editor of the New Statesman. “If parliament has decided it doesn’t ever want British military muscle flexed against dictators, that is a significant moment. But that isn’t what MPs now claim they meant to say at all.”
Across the pond, the political drama has turned on the president Obama’s unpredictable mix of bellicosity and caution. Putting the most favourable gloss on the situation, the New York Times reports that during the last month “the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television.” The White House has done its best to present this zigzagging policy as sophisticated realpolitik, but most of the time it has looked like confusion. The only thing that has become clearer during Obama’s vacillations is the American public’s growing reluctance to support another military entanglement in the Mid-East.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has stumbled from one gaffe to the next: telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that US action might involve “boots on the ground” then standing alongside UK Foreign Secretary William Hague six days later to assure the world that a strike against Assad was likely be “unbelievably small.” A further misstep by Kerry has produced the current charade in which Russia, Assad’s longstanding ally, will assume control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and ensure that they are kept out of the conflict. America’s efforts to get rid of its own stockpile illustrate how impractical the Russian proposal is likely to prove. The US promised to destroy 31,500 tons of chemical weapons in 1985—after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention— but more than 20 years past the initial completion deadline (1994) at least 10 per cent of the stocks remain. Syria’s stocks of sarin may be much smaller, but it seems fanciful to believe that Russia, or anyone else, will effectively decommission these in the middle of a fierce civil war.
The ambivalence evident in both Obama’s and Kerry’s improvised responses to the crisis speak to America’s uncertainty about its role not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East. Not long ago chemical weapons were the “red line” that Assad could not cross. Now they look more like a trap that could lure the administration into an unwinnable conflict. During President Assad’s recent interview with Charlie Rose he dismissively referred to current American policy as the same doctrine [as George Bush] with different accessories.” This is wrong. The real difference, so far, has been Obama’s lawyerly approach to the crisis, his focus on narrow quasi-legal questions and a willingness to be led by Congress. These evasions cannot last indefinitely, hoewever. Eventually Obama will have to act.
Rami Khouri, one of the most perceptive political commentators on the Middle East argues that only concerted action by Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States can determine what happens next in Syria: “The governments of these four countries must meet and negotiate regularly with the same diligence that they now apply in sending arms to fighters on both sides in Syria.” Khouri supports the Russian plan and believes a legitimate alternative to the current standoff. He may well be right. But if the incoherence of the international response to date is anything to go by, it seems highly unlikely that such negotiations will ever take place. Meanwhile, the carnage in Syria and the meaningless diplomatic gestures that disguise the profound impotence of the international community look set to continue unabated.