The farce has ended, but the tragedy continues. In the idyllic surroundings of a secluded lakeside resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland the leaders of the United States and the other major industrialized nations met last week to discuss Syria and the global economy. The leaders, we are told, were casually dressed, presumably to assist friendly and informal conversation.
“The mountain has laboured and borne a mouse”
The leaders of the western world met in a high-ceilinged room of a lodge around a table small enough to reach across and shake hands (a charming detail) and near windows looking out at the placid waters of Lake Erne, which must have had a calming effect on the nervous system. One assumes that they also ate tolerably well and slept in comfortable beds with clean sheets and clear consciences
Afterwards, as usual, they papered over their differences in an agreed statement which, in the time-honoured tradition of diplomacy, was designed to hide the truth under a thick blanket of platitudes. The truth is that they talked much and resolved nothing. At the end, the differences were just as great as at the beginning. This was particularly the case over the thorny question of Syria, the issue that dominated the private talks of the so-called Group of Eight.
They were supposed to be finding a solution to the world economic crisis, but in the event the meeting was largely dominated by the bloody civil war in Syria, which threatens to become a wider regional war that can drag the whole Middle East down into an abyss of sectarian strife, killing and increased instability. Not that these ladies and gentlemen would lose much sleep over that. After all, they have stood by impassively as a hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria. Their activity has been limited to the shaking of heads and hypocritical complaints about atrocities.
The other leaders were desperate to avert a clash with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose services they may yet require to find a way out of the Syrian mess. Acting on the old principle “speech is silver, but silence is golden”, the final communiqué avoided any mention of the most contentious matters that divide him and them. This touching concern for the sensitivities of the man in the Kremlin is not the result of either humanitarianism or good manners. It is an expression of weakness.
The White House released a statement on the summit that applauded “the international consensus that was reached on Syria.” This was quite comical in view of the very clear divisions between Russia and everyone else at the summit. What did this “international consensus” consist of? They reached an agreement on a political process in Geneva to resolve the conflict, investigation of chemical weapons use and $1.5 billion in additional humanitarian support for Syrians. What does this mean in practice?
Let us consider first the question of chemical weapons. Although the United States, France and Britain all claim to have “hard evidence” for the lethal use of such weapons, the United Nations observers found no such proof. On the contrary, they have said that the only proof for the use of sarin gas was by a section of the rebels. The leaders duly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria but, with one eye on Mr. Putin, they did not blame Assad for using them against the rebels as the Americans, British and French have done. Instead they called for an “objective investigation into reports of the use of chemical weapons.”
After a private meeting with President François Hollande of France, Obama told reporters: “Both of our governments have strong evidence that in fact chemical weapons have been used in the past by the Assad regime, but we are very comfortable with the approach taken by the G-8 that allows the U.N. the full powers it needs to investigate and establish these facts on the ground.” This sounds very much like a man trying to backtrack as fast as he can. It is very clear that Obama was never enthusiastic about getting involved in Syria and wants to use the summit to “get out from under” – if he can.
The idea of a peace conference has been around for some time. It now suddenly seems more attractive than ever. Therefore, following lengthy negotiations the leaders finally endorsed the idea of holding a new peace conference in Geneva “as soon as possible,” whatever that might mean. In fact, “as soon as possible”, on even the most optimistic assessment, means the end of August or September – that is, if it is held at all. The rebels have never said they would attend such a conference, where they fear (correctly) they will be betrayed by their “friends”. As a result of the blind hatred (and sheer stupidity) of Washington, the Iranians have not been invited, although Iran is a major player in this conflict. So they have every incentive to carry on fighting.
Nor will Putin and Assad be in any hurry to go to Geneva. On the contrary, they will calculate that by late summer Syria’s fragmented opposition will be further weakened by military defeats. Russia and Iran are going to step up their supply of arms to Syria, and the regime is stepping up its offensive. Naturally! If the Americans are planning to send arms to the rebels, the only logical response is to hit them with everything at one’s disposal before the promised arms arrive. Assad sees Aleppo as the next objective. If Aleppo falls, the outlook for the rebels will be grim indeed. What then would be the purpose of a peace conference in Geneva or anywhere else?
Arms? What arms?
The result of any peace settlement with the rebels will not be determined by words but deeds. Syria’s fate will be decided, not around a conference table, even one “small enough for people to shake hands”, but on the battlefield. The reason the rebels have been so unenthusiastic about the promised peace conference in Geneva is that they are losing the war on the ground. They would therefore not have many cards to play in Geneva.
By sending arms to the rebels, the western “democracies” hoped to restore the military balance just enough to provide the rebels with the necessary cards. That is the real reason the Americans want to send arms to Syria. But the immediate result of the United States’ plans to begin sending light arms and ammunition to Syrian rebels was to encourage the Russians and Iranians to increase the flow of ever more sophisticated arms to the Damascus government. Putin has warned the Americans not to try to establish a no-fly zone in any part of Syria, and indicated that Russia would respond by dispatching sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.
Their plan to “restore the balance” in Syria’s civil war has immediately run into a number of problems. Despite all the promises and eloquent speeches, there is no proof that any arms have so far been sent. The “international consensus” spoke of “humanitarian aid” for Syrians. But what the rebels want is not more bandages and tents but guns and rockets. On this question, however, the Americans and their British and French friends have fallen suddenly quiet. Why?
David Cameron was one of those most enthusiastic about beating the drum for the European Union to abandon its embargo on arms for Syria. In this he was backed by the French President Francois Hollande. Between them, they raised such a fuss that they finally got the EU reluctantly to agree to allow each nation state to follow its own conscience on this matter.
What was the result? Days past, weeks passed, a month passed. But nothing happened. After all the fuss, not a single bullet has been sent to Syria from the United Kingdom, and for a very good reason. Mr. Tough Guy Cameron does not have the ability to get the approval of parliament – or even his own parliamentary group – for such a measure. The opposition Labour Party has so far maintained a diplomatic silence on this question. In view of all the lamentable statements of Messrs Miliband and Balls recently, that is undoubtedly a most sensible course of action. In the end they will mumble something about the need for peace and appeal to the United Nations.
More seriously, the Lib-Dems, however, David Cameron’s Coalition partners in crime, have not disguised their opposition. More seriously still, two thirds of Cameron’s own party in parliament would not support it. The Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, came out publicly against it. As is well known, Boris is after David’s job and could not let such an opportunity slip. Most important of all, the majority of the British people remember how they were deceived and lied to before the invasion of Iraq and show no interest in being dragged into yet another foreign adventure in the Middle East or anywhere else.
At the G-8 summit, Cameron and Putin appeared together in a press conference. That was a real comedy. Here was the leader of one of the major world powers standing next to the leader of the fractious and disunited coalition government of a country that long ago lost any claim to a leading role in world affairs and is increasingly regarded as a second-rate country off the coast of Europe and America’s pet poodle. Unfortunately, it would seem poor Dave has not yet got the message. Puffing himself up like the bulldog in Aesop’s fable, he blathered endlessly on about the wickedness of Assad beside an increasingly irate Putin.
The stony expression on the Russian President’s face revealed his growing sense of irritation. One could read his thoughts: “Why do I have to stand here listening to this pretentious nonentity?” At one point the unfortunate interpreter admitted it was difficult to express the President’s anger in English. In view of the extremely colourful and rich vocabulary of Russian invective, that was probably just as well. Eventually, Putin’s patience ran out. He demonstratively disconnected the earphones that were conveying this stream of nonsense to his ears. Cameron was visibly unnerved by this ungentlemanly conduct. But he really ought not to have been surprised by it.
A transition to what?
The leaders of the western world now find themselves in an impossible position. Whatever they do now will be wrong. They talk about a transition to a new government in Syria. But nobody has explained how this would work, or what the composition of such a government might be. Obama and some European leaders (mainly Britain and France) demand the removal of Assad. But Assad, seeing what happened to Gaddafi, is in no hurry to step down, and the question is: who is going to make him?
It seems that the Americans are slowly beginning to understand the facts of life – a little late perhaps, but always better late than never. Under the incomparable leadership of George W Bush, they stormed into Iraq like an elephant in a china shop. They tore down the old state apparatus with no idea of what to put in its place. The result was utter chaos and a rapid descent into sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis. Ten years later Iraq has not yet recovered from this disaster.
Moreover, by destroying the Iraqi army, the Americans removed the only force in the region that could provide a counterweight to the power of Iran. As a result, the Iranians now have considerable influence inside Iraq. This has unnerved the reactionary oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf and especially Saudi Arabia, which is increasingly unstable. That is part of the reason why the Saudis and Qataris have intervened in Syria, to crush the revolutionary movement and whip up Sunni extremism and encourage the Jihadi madness.
Belatedly, Washington is realising that it has very few options. If it sends modern sophisticated arms to the Syrian rebels, they will certainly end up in the hands of Jihadi groups, and can be used against the USA in the future. Putin never tires of repeating this fact. But if it does nothing, the Syrian conflict can spiral completely out of control, engulfing the entire region in flames. Since the Middle East is vital to America’s influence, this is a very scary prospect.
Everybody keeps repeating that a political solution is needed. But if you say “A”, you must say “B”, “C” and “D”. Any political solution involves striking a deal with the Russians. This was the real significance of the G-8 meeting. This is why, although apparently he was in a minority of one, Putin behaved so stubbornly and aggressively. He spoke and acted as if he was in control, and that is not far from the truth. On the ground in Syria, his side is winning and the rebels backed by America are losing. That fact is far more important than formal majorities in meetings in Northern Ireland!
Obama now needs Putin more than Putin needs Obama. The two sides are permanently locked in a global conflict of interests that has not grown less, but more vicious since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the last twenty years, US imperialism has been advancing inexorably into those areas that were previously Soviet spheres of influence: Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. In the case of Libya the Russians gritted their teeth and did nothing. But in Syria Russia has decided to draw a line in the sand: “Thus far, and no further!” This is an important factor in the equation.
The conflict between US imperialism and Russia is seen by some nostalgic people, especially the former Stalinists, as proof that Putin’s Russia is somehow playing a progressive role in the world. That is wishful thinking. Russia today is a capitalist country that has nothing in common with socialism. Its conflict with the USA is purely a conflict of interests between two capitalist states over spheres of influence, access to markets and raw materials. Furthermore, the leaders of Russia will be quite prepared to do a deal with the western imperialist nations, on condition that their interests are safeguarded.
This is clear to anyone who is capable of reading between the lines of the official communiqué and other statements arising from the G-8 meeting. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is Russia’s ally, and so Putin is not willing to see him overthrown immediately by military means. Nor is the man in the Kremlin willing to see its ally become a pawn of the USA, or even worse, a state run by Jihadi fundamentalists. However, while making this clear to his western friends, he also dropped a broad hint that Russia would not be averse to letting Assad go, as long as its vital interests were protected. This behaviour confirms the old saying: “nations do not have friends, only interests.”
On more than one occasion Putin made it clear that he would agree to the removal of Assad, but only gradually, and on condition that the bulk of the old regime remains intact. The old bureaucrats, torturers, officers and policemen would remain, but they would have to accept a coalition government containing some of the elements of the opposition most trusted by Washington. Basically, Syria would remain a Russian sphere of influence. This is not the most appealing scenario from Washington’s point of view. But it is the only serious offer on the table, as Putin is well aware, and Obama is beginning to realise.
Despite all the rhetoric of Obama and Cameron, the final declaration made no reference to a call for Assad’s departure. That was a diplomatic setback for the Americans and British. Despite being heavily outnumbered in discussions with the seven other heads of state, Putin showed no sign of backing down. He skilfully played on the fears of the West that the rebels include extremists allied with Al Qaeda, and repeated his contention that the disparate opposition could not form an alternative government.
Nevertheless, as those allied against Russia at the meeting noted, the summit declaration did include an implicit appeal to members of Assad’s government to abandon him, by suggesting that they could survive in a new government without him. This indicates a new twist in the intrigues of the imperialists. In public they give heroic speeches about arming the rebels, while in secret they are desperately striving to do a deal with the Russians to find some kind of compromise, which they hope will put an end to the fighting and restore some semblance of stability.
This was very clear from the final communiqué also, which called on both the Syrian government and opposition “to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism.” That begs the question of who is going to perform this feat. And why call upon the Syrian (that is, Assad’s) government to do anything at all, if it is as bloody and brutal as they say? By referring to the Syrian government without naming Assad, they are holding out an olive branch to Baathist politicians and generals. This is an indication of where the wind is blowing.
All of a sudden the emphasis is on stability and the need for a strong government in Syria. The communiqué states that public services in Syria must be preserved in a transition, and specifies that “this includes the military forces and security services.” In a post-summit news conference, Cameron said, “For those who have been loyal to Assad but who know he has to go and who want stability in their country, they should take note of this point.” In other words, they are giving a sly wink to the Baathist officers and bureaucrats that they might keep their positions, power and privileges in a “free Syria”. In what way this “freedom” would differ from what existed before is not explained.
Post script: A few days after the G-8 summit, America announced plans to negotiate with the Taliban in order to facilitate its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The very next day four Americans were killed during a rocket attack at Bagram Air Base, outside of Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility. One day later, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he will not enter peace talks with the Taleban unless America steps out, and voiced his anger at US political recognition for the...Taliban. Nowadays the life of an American President is not a happy one.
London 19 June