There are two wars being fought over Syria. There is a civil war on the streets of Homs and Aleppo and Ma’loula and Damascus, a war played out in the currency of bombs and bullets and (possibly) sarin. The consequences of this war are, so far, 100,000 dead, seven million displaced and a nation turned to rubble.
Then there is the war on the global stage between outside players, a war played out in the grand halls of the UN, in the corridors of Whitehall, Capitol Hill, the Kremlin and Geneva, and on the op ed pages of the New York Times. The consequences are measured in the accumulation of moral credibility and geopolitical advantage. It is a war in which the people of Syria appear only intermittently, and then as a stage army primarily to be deployed and exploited for moral and political gain. It is a war of the cynics. The fact that Vladimir Putin, the man who ferociously cracked down on the people of Chechnya, who has crushed all dissidence in Russia, and who has armed the Assad regime and backed its assault on its people, can now play the role of global peacemaker and the world’s moral conscience shows how distorted has become the meaning of morality in the international sphere.
One does not have to be a pro-war hawk to be cynical about Russia’s plans to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, plans that have now received US backing in a deal thrashed out this weekend in Geneva. In his op ed in the New York Times this week, Vladimir Putin warns that a US military strike ‘would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.’ We must, he insists, ‘stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement’.
The hollow laughter you can hear is from the people of Chechnya. Fourteen years ago, Putin wrote another op ed for the New York Times in which he presented a very different argument. In a 1999 editorial entitled ‘Why We Must Act’, Putin justified Russia’s ‘decisive armed intervention’ in Chechnya as ‘the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists’. ‘[W]hen a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements’, he wrote, ‘responsible leaders must respond’ – an argument not dissimilar to Barack Obama’s claim that if the USA did not strike Syria, ‘other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them’.
Today, Putin insists that ‘force has proved ineffective and pointless’ in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. ‘No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons’, he claims, ‘civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect’. In his 1999 op ed, Putin explained that ‘in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that.’
However cynical we may be about Russia’s motives, should we not pragmatically welcome the Geneva deal negotiated between US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov? After all, a Syria without chemical weapons would be a better place. The trouble is, nothing is quite as it appears on the surface. For a start there are, as many chemical weapons experts have pointed out, formidable practical obstacles. Any such process of chemical disarmament, many insist, would require a ceasefire already in place, and that it would take at least a decade to complete. The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons, for instance, which began in 2004, is not expected to be completed until 2016, while the process of destroying America’s own (admittedly much larger) stockpile is expected to take around 30 years and cost $35bn. The insistence that all Syrian chemical stocks must be eliminated by mid-2014 appears, then, to be either hopelessly deluded or deeply cynical, a kind of deadline that allows for Russia and America to impose control over the conflict, permitting both sides to claim success while keeping all their options open.
In any case, horrible though chemical weapons may be, it is conventional weapons that have killed the vast majority of the 100,000 Syrians who have perished in the war. The disarmament plan might help assuage the moral consciences of the outside world but will do little to end the war in Syria. Indeed, it may work to entrench the current stalemate, by turning the civil war even more into a Great Power struggle, ensuring that every group and faction in the conflict becomes more tightly bound to one foreign power or another.
That Vladimir Putin has been able to promote himself as the seeming voice of reason and the moral conscience of the world tells us less about the plausibility or moral rightness of the Russian plan than it does about the incoherence and uncertainty of Western policy. Such is that incoherence and uncertainty that Barack Obama has been simultaneously snookered and bailed out by the Russian president. The man who once represented ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’, who came to the White House as the anti-war president, and who promised to bring moral order to America’s foreign policy, now finds himself clinging to the moral coat-tails of a leader who makes George Bush seem like a hippy.
We should be as skeptical of the moral anger over chemical weapons now emanating from Whitehall, the White House and the Élysée Palace, as we should be of the idea of Putin the peacenik. Western leaders, as I observed in a previous post, have been happy to turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons, even to encourage it, when it suits their needs. They are happy to use white phosphorus, not technically a chemical weapon but as horrible in its impact. They are happy to sell Assad the materials needed to make chemical weapons.
We should be skeptical, too, of Western leaders’ support for the democracy movement. Throughout the Arab insurrections, Western politician, while always proclaiming the virtues of democracy, have usually taken an instrumental view of its desirability. Dictators that worked to the West’s interests have often been seen as preferable to democrats who challenged those interests. Bahrain, for instance, has, with considerable bloodshed, and not a little help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, viciously suppressed the local movement for democratic change. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are important Western allies, particularly in the ‘war on terror’. The US Sixth Fleet is based in Bahrain. So an opposition movement, whose aims are little different to those of similar groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria, has been largely ignored by Western leaders, while a vicious, dictatorial regime continues to be showered with favours. It is an attitude that echoes that of Russia towards its client Syria.
‘Hats off to the Russians, those guys are master diplomats. Putin has totally won this round’, Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of International Relation observed last week, after Russia’s disarmament proposal appeared to skewer American plans for military intervention. He is right. But to pose the debate in this fashion is to reveal how corrupted has become our moral compass. The fighting and the dying go on in Syria. But the focus of the world’s attention this weekend has not been on Damascus or Homs or Aleppo or Ma’loula but Geneva. The actual war in Syria has receded into the background, while the real engagement has come to be between the politicians and diplomats of the great powers. At the heart of the negotiations between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have been questions not merely about what any outcome might mean for the people of Syria, but also, indeed mainly, about what it might mean for the geopolitical strategies of the two nations, whether it will be acceptable their respective allies, regional and global, and of how will it play to their domestic audiences.
So, yes, Putin may have won this round. But whoever wins the next round, and the one after that, whoever is deemed to have prevailed in Geneva, the real losers are, and will continue to be, the people of Syria whose struggle for freedom has become inextricably enmeshed in a web of great power conflicts. It is a cynical view. But it has become a war of the cynics.