Impressive and Unimpressive Great Power Diplomacy

Great power diplomacy can, sometimes, be impressive. Sometimes it is not.

There have been two examples, one Russian, one American, that have been unimpressive since the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the resulting crisis in relations between the United States and Russia.

The first was the Kremlin’s response when news broke that hundreds of Syrians, including women and children, had been killed or seriously injured as a result of an attack using chemical weapons.

This was particularly controversial as Russia brokered the deal in 2013 which was supposed to have removed all of Assad’s chemical weapons stocks. If Assad was responsible, either Russia was deceived by him in 2013 or, Assad, with or without Moscow’s knowledge, has created new chemical weapons during the last three years.

The Russian Government should have expressed its shock and disapproval at what had happened and said that, if there was proof that Assad had been responsible, it would do all in its power to ensure that the government in Damascus never repeated this war crime.

Instead the international community was told that the building that was hit by one of the Syrian bombs, by an extraordinary coincidence, was a building, controlled by the rebels, which contained chemical weapons supplies which were released into the atmosphere.

There has been no evidence provided in support of this claim. If there is to be a UN investigation it will be interesting to hear what they conclude.

The other example of unimpressive diplomacy has been the demand by the White House and the US Secretary of State, amongst others, that Assad must resign and that the Russian Government must end their alliance with the Syrian President and work with the West to create a new transitional government that will not include the current regime in Damascus.

Along with most people I would be delighted if Assad did go and if President Putin withdrew both his support for him and Russia’s participation in the Syrian civil war.

But in making these demands, President Trump, Rex Tillerson and other Western leaders, were well aware that there was not the slightest prospect of this happening.

Over the last two years, with Russian support, Assad has retaken Aleppo as well as much other territory previously controlled by the opposition. Assad is much more powerful today than he was before Russia used its military might in his support.

Even with Russian and Iranian help Assad cannot expect ever to be able to regain control of the whole of Syria. But he is more powerful than his opponents and that cannot be ignored

When the great powers make claims or demands which are manifestly unrealistic or incredible they reduce their own authority and make the resolution of international crises far more difficult. They should resist the temptation to do so.

Already that appears to be being realized by the Trump Administration. After his meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Rex Tillerson said that the need for Assad to go was not so much a US demand as an expression of what they believed ought to happen. It is a pity that he and President Trump did not make that clear some days ago.

Likewise, President Putin’s change of mind and decision to meet Tillerson, as well as the tone adopted by Sergei Lavrov, were positive indicators that Moscow was, in reality, seeing recent events more in sorrow than in anger.

It was encouraging that Sergei Lavrov expressed the hope that there could still be co-operation on counter-terrorism, on North Korea and other issues. It was interesting that the original Russian announcement suspending the agreement that is designed to prevent Russian and American incidents in the skies above Syria has been quietly withdrawn.

What should happen now? The reality is that the US air strikes have changed the international dynamic and strategic reality within Syria. Having reversed Obama’s decision not to use military force Trump’s decision to authorized air strikes in one set of circumstances could be repeated elsewhere in the conflict.

Putin now has to take that into account. For three years he could be confident that Russia could use military force in Syria but the US would not. That meant that there was no risk of a US-Russian military confrontation. He can no longer have that confidence.

Both the US and Russia now have an interest in bringing the Syrian civil war to an early end. The Kremlin can be satisfied that, at least for a transitional period, Assad will still have a role. They can also assume that even when he eventually goes there will still be part of his regime that will be involved in the government of Syria.

The US is not going to repeat the mistake it made in Iraq when, after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, it insisted in the total disarmament of the Iraqi army and the dissolution of the Baathist Party.

Likewise, a cessation of hostilities and the creation of some form of government of national unity would allow the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people as a whole to feel there was a brighter future ahead which would enable them to realize their aspirations for greater liberty and economic recovery.

I have not mentioned the United Kingdom, Germany or France. They will have a diplomatic, economic and political role to play if and when the conflict ends. Their contribution could and should be vital to Syria’s long term future.

But the immediate objective is to end the fighting and the loss of life. That is the responsibility of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition who are locked in combat. It is also the responsibility of Russia and Iran who have been combatants for some time.

It has now again become the responsibility of the United States because of the willingness of the Trump administration to use their military capability.

Frederick the Great said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. We have had the arms for too long. Now is the time for the diplomacy.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence of the United Kingdom between 1992-97

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.