According to the UN watchdog, Paulo Pinheiro, speaking in the General Assembly on 29 July, Syria is in free fall: 100,000 dead; refugees and displaced persons in the millions; atrocities of every kind; no end to the fighting in sight. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have been under pressure to ‘do something’, and most media attention has focused on arming the rebels – as if they were short of arms. Both leaders were initially tempted but seem to have come off the boil.
In Washington, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote an open letter to Congress spelling out the costs and benefits of US military involvement in terms which seem to have succeeded in tilting the political debate against military action.
In London there was a debate in the House of Commons on 11 July on a motion put down by the Conservative backbencher John Baron, a former army officer, stipulating that no lethal support should be given to the rebels without the prior consent of Parliament. It was an encouraging occasion for those who believe in parliamentary democracy (not so encouraging for those who rely on our media, which largely ignored the debate). Speaker after speaker asked how arming the rebels could help bring an end to the fighting, and how we could be sure that the weapons would not end up in the wrong hands. The government had earlier been tempted by the argument that everybody in Syria has access to weapons except the good guys, and had expended a lot of effort trying to get the EU embargo on arms sales lifted; but Alistair Burt of the FCO, winding up the debate for the government, did not oppose the motion and it was passed with 114 votes in favour and 1 against.
Pinheiro repeated to the UN what has become a commonplace: there is no military solution to the conflict, the solution has to be political. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has said the same and so has the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. A political option is being developed. Both the US and Russian governments say they intend to call a Syria conference. Kerry and Lavrov recommitted themselves to it last week. After an informal Security Council meeting organised by Britain on 26 July, the Russian ambassador said:
Clearly there are still some obstacles to be overcome for the ‘Geneva II’ conference to be convened… There is still a good chance… because the alternative would be so horrifying, so it’s definitely better to keep trying.
Little has been said in public about arrangements for the Syria conference. They won’t be straightforward. Russia, Syria’s traditional ally, is a key player. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states have supported the rebels. Iran has supported the regime, as has Hizbullah; Iran has a legitimate interest in Syria, and if it is excluded will play an effective role as spoiler. Israel too has a legitimate interest. The Syrian parties will of course have to be there, and that includes the Assad regime.
One does not have to be a cynic to ask what on earth such a conference can be expected to achieve. The answer is that civil wars do come to an end, although it can be an agonisingly slow process, and outside assistance in finding a political solution has sometimes been effective. There are plenty of precedents (none of them perfect): the Taif Agreement which ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1989, the Dayton Agreement for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Anglo-Irish Agreement between Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald. A political solution results from a process, not an event. A conference can be part of that process, indeed can start it. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was top-down, an agreement between London and Dublin not endorsed by anyone in Northern Ireland (and heartily loathed by the Unionists).
The process has to be organic, incremental, multi-dimensional. No superpower, no group of powers can predict let alone dictate its evolution and timing. But they can get it moving. In the Syria case it would not be possible to bring all the interested parties together now, but it would be possible, with political will, to bring together America, Russia, the other permanent members of the Security Council, the EU, the Arab League, the Islamic Conference and others with an interest and record in peacemaking such as Canada and Japan. Such a conference could not solve the problem but it could start the process.
Why doesn’t it happen? ‘Political will’ is a mysterious concept. To a retired diplomat like me it is obvious that Washington and Moscow, to say nothing of the others, both stand to gain from engaging in such an enterprise together. Perhaps the first step in creating the necessary political will would be for the media to abandon for a moment their obsession with guns, blood and spies, and succumb instead to the seductions of diplomacy. But that is like asking little boys to stop playing soldiers and start playing municipal waste recyclers.