What does the diplomacy around the Syrian crisis tell us about the countries involved? I suspect that when historians look back at the early years of the 21st century, they will analyse the events of the past three weeks very closely.
Nations rise and fall over decades, but sometimes a single event takes on a symbolic importance when it seems to reveal an essential truth of a situation that has slowly evolved into being.
Think of the Suez Crisis in 1956. The British and French had been subservient to the US for many years, but it was the humiliating failure of one disastrous imperial adventure which appeared to signal the formal demise of the old European powers.
Now there are those who believe that President Barack Obama’s hesitant approach to using military force, as well as his evident failure to win Congressional and popular support, marks the moment when the US stepped down from its role as a global superpower. Take a look at this piece by Timothy Garton Ash in the Age. And this article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times.
Both men are worried that the United States is drawing in on itself, and warn that a world where the US does not have a clear leadership role will be even more dangerous than the one we already know.
But what about Russia? By general consensus, this has been a very good week for President Vladimir Putin. His bold plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons – now formalised in the Geneva agreement – may turn out to be completely impractical. And yet it was immediately seductive to all the principle powers. It lets Obama off the hook. For the time being, at least, he does not have to face an embarrassing defeat in Congress that would have left him with the hideous dilemma of whether to pursue military action anyway.
The Americans can now plausibly argue that if they had not threatened to use force, President Bashar al-Assad would not have agreed to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Syrian regime, for its part, has avoided the risk of an immediate attack, and will surely try to obfuscate and delay in the weeks and months ahead.
A good week for Russia
As for Russia itself, it is now back at the top table of global diplomacy, talking to the US as a true equal for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The Geneva agreement ensures the two sides are locked into negotiations that could last for months or even years. Putin, full of chutzpah, even wrote an article in the New York Times, warning Americans that they were not so exceptional after all.
This seemed to go down well on the streets of Moscow. In a very unscientific poll of popular opinion, I found that people were generally impressed by how Putin has handled the Syrian crisis. “I’m not a fan of Putin’s, but on this issue he is right,” said a charity worker. A lawyer said “American policy is absurd, can’t they see what the jihadists are doing?”
For 20 years, many Russians argue, the US has acted with reckless arrogance, but now at last it has been pegged back.
Finally, what of Syria itself? Chemical weapons, horrible as they are, have only caused a tiny fraction of the casualties in the civil war. Russia will carry on providing military support to Assad. The US may step up arms shipments to the opposition.
Perhaps an optimistic analysis of the Geneva agreement is that it will keep the Americans and Russians talking to each other, and in the process help revive the moribund talks on a wider peace agreement. Now that would be a good way to show that a new, multipolar world, can work better than the one we seem to be leaving behind.