Wednesday 18 September 2013

Letting The Bad Do Good In Syria

Russia Eclipses America: Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, seized the initiative over Syria by turning a throwaway comment from the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, into a plan to forestall an American strike against the Assad regime and open the way for peace negotiations.
ONE OF THE GREAT QUESTIONS in life is: why do bad things happen to good people? A few days ago the TV news carried a story of an frail Syrian grandfather who had lost his entire family in a bombing raid. The news crew found him sitting outside the ruins of his village.
“They are all gone, and I am left behind”, he lamented. “Why did God spare me and not them?”
An equally perplexing question, in the light of even more recent developments in the Syrian civil war, is: can good things come from bad people?
The Russian Federation, presided over by the autocratic Vladimir Putin, is a dark and menacing state in which persistent critics find themselves imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and effective critics are found murdered in the street.
And yet, this vast kleptocracy, with its protective screen of political praetorians, is currently the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in possession of a viable plan for preventing a military escalation in Syria. It is even possible that Russia’s plan to collect and destroy President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile could end up establishing the conditions for a negotiated peace.
The Russian plan – to which Syria swiftly assented – set the diplomatic machinery in motion at top speed. It also fell like a life-belt over the flailing hands of President Barack Obama, facing imminent defeat and humiliation at the hands of his own legislators.
The plan itself was inspired by a throwaway suggestion, elicited by a British journalist’s question addressed to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and dismissed by him as impossible in almost the same breath.
Asked what Assad could do to avert a military strike, Kerry responded that he could “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over. All of it. Without delay, and allow a full and total accounting before that, but he isn't about to do it and it can’t be done.”
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, thought differently. With his Syrian counterpart fortuitously in the Russian capital, negotiations were instantaneous and intense. It did not take long for both men to agree that Kerry’s throwaway suggestion offered the framework for a consensus resolution on Syria which all five veto-weilding members of the UN Security Council could sign.
Cynical? Opportunistic? Yes, Lavrov’s move was all of those. And yet, without the Russians’ determination to pick up and run with Kerry’s suggestion, the Syrian situation would have remained intractable and the likelihood of an American attack would have grown.
Lavrov’s diplomatic flexibility, his capacity to seize upon Kerry’s words and fashion a new and workable alternative to a punishing American attack, owes a great deal to the authoritarian character of the Russian state.
The pluralistic nature of American politics; the rigid separation of powers enforced by the US Constitution; the multiple and effective opportunities for democratic engagement available to American citizens: all these contribute to the slow pace US diplomacy.
Sergey Lavrov, unlike John Kerry, has only to convince one man before proceeding. The same is true of Syria’s foreign minister. Kerry’s master, however, has many hoops to jump through before shouting: “Go!” Autocracies may be cruel and rapacious, but they can also be extremely efficient.
And therein lies history’s terrible irony. The United States of America, the world’s richest and most powerful state, also claims the role of the world’s sole moral arbiter. The American people are encouraged to view their great republic as “the indispensable nation”. To the Americans, and the Americans alone, belongs the responsibility of dividing the world’s nations into the good, the bad and the ugly. When America goes to war it is “to make the world safe for democracy” (Woodrow Wilson) or in defence of “the free world” (Harry Truman).
And yet, wherever the beneficent and liberating figure of Uncle Sam has set down his giant combat boots – Vietnam, Iraq – all that he has wrought is greater destruction and more misery. Even America’s “good war”, World War II, was marred by its atomic conclusion.
And, of course, the war against the Nazis was won not by that great democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but by the murderous Joseph Stalin. Evil overcame evil on the killing fields of Russia and Eastern Europe: Good had a supporting role – at best.
Winston Churchill grasped this irony: of evil doing good in spite of itself; as only an aristocratic conservative could. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he quipped to one of his colleagues, “I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
So, let’s wish Mr Lavrov and his master every success. If the Devil is determined to bring peace to Syria, why would God stand in his way?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 September 2013.


Anonymous said...

I think this somewhat misses the point. Free of a US threat, whatever the consequences of THAT might for one and all Assad can now concentrate on winning his war, which he is gradually doing. And of course he will delay, obfuscate and use every other diplomatic means to avoid compliance, including hiding his WMDs. Not sure what the solution is but this ain't it.

Victor said...

An excellent summary of a horrendously problematic situation.

But, before we give too much kudos to the flexibility of autocrats, it's worth remembering how Stalin's paranoia destroyed the Red Army's officer corps and then blinded him to the imminence of the German invasion.

And, of course, when the Wehrmacht struck, the tyrant's satraps were both unprepared for the onslaught and too fearful to use their initiative. Many millions died from these characteristic weaknesses of autocracy.

stone said...

"why do bad things happen to good people?" I hope world peace and no war.

TM said...

It could lead to the best result, but I am very wary. Putin makes sense, which is worrying. I trust Putin less than anyone else involved in the whole saga.

Stalin and the USSR may have won the war, but the oppressive system they left wasn't much better than the Nazi's. There might have been some democratic communist states in existance today if it wasn't for the violent and arbitary oppression of the Soviets.

Paulus said...

I still wonder what role the Saudi's have in this. Have they put the hard word on Putin over Chechnya.
Saudi could be construed to be behind most of the terrorism in the Middle East for some years, even before the 9/11 attack in the USA.

Victor said...


I don't think there are grounds for thinking that the Saudi government is behind most Middle Eastern terrorism.

What is true is that the Saudi government has sponsored Sunni fundamentalism in both the Middle East and South Asia and that this has become a major motor of terrorism, which now threatens the Saudi regime as much anyone else.

Moreover, like every regime in the region, the Saudi government will have its friends, allies and dupes within the various Sunni Jihadist organisations, some of which practice terrorism.

Similarly, the Jihadists will have their own covert sympathisers within the Saudi regime. That's how the deadly game of Middle East power politics is played.

Even so, it's a mistake to think that the regime can turn terrorism on and off like a tap or that, conversely, the Jihadists can control their paymasters. And it's also a mistake to think that the Saudis are fundamentally "pro terrorism". The regime's security services actually spend vast amounts of time and money combating the phenomenon.

Meanwhile, quite a lot of Middle Eastern terrorism isn't Sunni at all, but Shiite and is influenced by Saudi's existential enemy, Iran (e.g. Hezbollah which is currently fighting alongside the Syrian government's forces).

The Assad regime is similarly friendly to Iran and draws its leadership from the Alawites, who are a form of Shiite. However, that regime also has long-standing pretensions to secularism and has tended to be something of an equal opportunity sponsor of both Sunni and Shiite terrorism.

Despite a few intriguing reports to this effect, I don't see any evidence that the Saudis have put the hard word on Putin over Chechnya. If they tried, Putin would probably ignore them, as he can have little respect for the Saudis' ability to deliver (as evidenced in Afghanistan over most of the last thirty years).

Rather more interesting, to my way of thinking, is the increasingly cosy relationship between Moscow and Teheran.

Like the Soviet regime before it, the Russian government has been pleasantly surprised by its ability to do business with Iran's Shiite theocracy. And this relationship is all the easier to maintain now that Iran's president seems to be both moderate and sane.

Anonymous said...

I am deeply concerned and unhappy with the state of affairs in Syria. I did not want the US to go ahead and bomb targets there, without any proof of the chemical attacks having been committed by the Syrian government or supporters.

I even thought it would be unwise to go ahead if that may be proved. What the UN now provided proves it more or less beyond reasonable doubt, that it was the Syrian government, that was responsible, at least some forces within it.

But with the Russian initiative, I am getting second thoughts. I appreciate the skills of Lavrov as a competent, high calibre diplomat, but he has also always ensure the interests of Russia are met.

I certainly have little or NO time for Vladimir Putin, who to me is nothing short of a modern day dictator, who is only in power due to twisting laws and systems to suit his agenda. Democracy in Russia is not the kind of system we may believe in, it is a farce.

They even pass laws to persecute homosexuals, ethnic minorities from the Caucasus and so on.

Now Putin wants to play peace maker. The truth is, Lavrov and Putin worked smartly, they caught the momentum, and they got the US tied into a deal, where now they and Syrian government can dictate the terms. So Assad has all the time he wishes to deal to the opposition, to delay chemical arms seizure, and to blame others if it does not work.

Obama has lost the momentum, which some may welcome, but for human rights will also mean more suffering and lives to be lost over months to come. This is all a crap deal, that serves only the dictators in Syria and Russia, no-one else, I am afraid. And I am usually a more left leaning person, I must say, so it is not meant to offend Chris or others!