Immediate responsibility for the barbaric chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians lies with those who used them—the regime, most likely, or possibly rebel groups trying to stoke international outrage. But the deeper responsibility is with the international order which allowed the conflict to escalate into a full-scale and for now unstoppable civil war.
Similarly, the immediate victims are the Syrian children, suffocating before our eyes. But grievous too are the wounds to our own security. As President Barack Obama’s “red lines” against the use of these weapons turn into smears of pink crayon, a big taboo has been breached.
Weapons of mass destruction are being used, repeatedly, and on an increasing scale, in the most dangerous corner of the world. We do not know what is being used, by whom, why or when the next attack will be. There is nothing much we can do about it.
Part of the blame rests with Western countries, timid, divided and distracted. America, infamously, has decided to “lead from behind” since the start of the Arab Spring. The European Union is still a foreign-policy teenager, uncertain of its own strength. Turkey has its own agenda. Israel decries the Assad regime as dangerous and hostile—but fears chaos or Islamists more.
The greatest blame lies with Russia. Out of anti-Western spite, it blocked every attempt to put pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad, at a time when deals were still, perhaps, there to be done. Again and again it has wielded, and threatened to wield, its veto in the United Nations Security Council, with the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, playing the role of “Mister Nyet” epitomised by Andrei Gromyko in the Cold War.
Effective outside pressure on the Syrian regime in the early phase of the uprising would not have meant going to war. It would have been mixture of verbal, trade and military measures, aimed at changing the regime peacefully in a brokered deal with the reasonable elements in the opposition.
It would have needed the force of international law—meaning a resolution in the Security Council. It might have involved a no-fly zone, havens for refugees, and strikes on air defences, It would not have been costless or riskless. We would not have got everything that we or our allies wanted. But the Assad regime would have seen the writing on the wall. China would not have blocked a move that had Russia’s support.
Without its great protector in Moscow, the regime in Damascus would have found it far harder to depend on obstinate, brutal force alone. But with Russia’s support, it could continue to defy the rest of the world, whatever the cost to its own people
Such a concerted international approach might not have worked. But it is hard to see how any result could have been worse than what we have got now. By inaction,outsiders have let the issue be decided by force alone—and by the most ferocious fighters on both sides. At least one (perhaps both) are ready to use, indiscriminately, weapons of a kind that the world thought it had under tight control.
Even now, Russia is trying to block international attempts to respond to the use of chemical weapons with a proper investigation, let alone anything tougher. The UN Security Council merely called for clarity. Russia pushes the line that the rebels were to blame: that may say more about the mentality in Moscow, mired in conspiracy theories, than it does about the situation in Syria.
The long-term solution in Syria may be a deal on the lines of the Dayton agreement that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. Many more people may have to die in Syria before we get there. But in the meantime we could at least drop our illusions about Russia. Its behaviour is not a deplorable, temporary lapse from the democratic, multilateral ideals it espoused after the collapse of communism. Its behaviour reflects the nature of the regime that rules it: kleptocratic, paranoid, vengeful and profoundly anti-Western.
Some recent signs give cause for hope. President Obama speaks publicly of the need to recalibrate America’s relationship with Russia. He mocked the thuggish, slouching body language that is the hallmark of his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, likening him to a to a “bored kid at the back of the classroom”.
Deeds follow words. Mr Obama has cancelled his planned meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin after the G-20 summit in St Petersburg on September 5-6th.
Instead, he will go to Sweden, meeting that country’s hawkish, Atlanticist leaders (how times change). Shortly before, he will invite the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—three countries that live in Russia’s shadow—to the White House to underline America’s commitment to their defence.
The era of appeasement seems to be over in Europe too. The European Union’s competition and energy directorates have demolished Russia’s market-abusing gas export model. Brussels is determined to do a deal with Ukraine at a summit in Vilnius in November. Russia has unleashed a trade war in response. The EU responded with asperity, saying Russian “threats” were “unacceptable”.
What is still missing is follow-through in international organisations, where Russia is still treated as a worthy, dependable and respectable partner. One quick step would be to restore the importance of the G7 (America, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy, France and Japan) and forget about the G8—which includes Russia, a decision made as a sop to Boris Yeltsin in 1997. Russia belongs in the club of big economies, the G20. It no longer is one of the big democracies.
Another important move would be to block Russia from joining the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. This Paris-based rich-world think-thank is the institutional citadel of Western good government; among other things it oversees money-laundering rules, through the Financial Action Task Force. Russia under its current rulers is one of the world’s greatest money-launderers: it should be a target of the FATF, not a member.
It is also high time for NATO to stop pretending that it has a friendly partnership with Russia. The Russian mission to NATO is a nest of spies, who grotesquely abuse their privileges as trusted visitors. The NATO Office of Security, the alliance’s internal counter-espionage service, should be unleashed, not hamstrung by political constraints.
We cannot wish Russia away. But we can drop our wishful thinking that allows the Kremlin to skew our decisionmaking. It may be too late to help Syria. But we are not too late to help ourselves.
Edward Lucas is author of Deception: Spies, Lies and how Russia Dupes the West (Bloomsbury)