Diplomacy has saved the day

The likelihood of a United States-led military strike on Syria has suddenly receded as Syria has offered to surrender its chemical arsenal.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2013 02:43 IST
Hindustan Times
Syria,civil war in Syria,Military intervention in Syria

The likelihood of a United States-led military strike on Syria has suddenly receded as Syria has offered to surrender its chemical arsenal.

The idea seems to have started from a gaffe by US secretary of state John Kerry, seized on by Russian President Vladimir Putin, endorsed by Syria and then, coming full circle, adopted by Washington and Paris so long as it was converted into a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The alacrity with which almost all major players in this crisis jumped on this bandwagon is an indication of how little stomach any of them have for conflict.

Syria and Russia seek to prevent US military action for obvious reasons. US President Barack Obama, facing a recalcitrant legislature and widespread domestic discontent at the idea, was also unenthusiastic about entering into yet another West Asian conflict.

No one can argue against giving diplomacy a chance, no matter how last minute, to avoid war. However, the proposal now faces two difficult political hurdles.

First, the Western countries and Russia must come to an agreement on the language of the UN resolution. The former will seek a tight timeline and clear language authorising military reprisals if Syria fails to come through on its promise.

Moscow would prefer a fuzzier formulation. Second, Syria will have to obey the resolution. The possibility that Damascus is merely using the passage of the resolution as an opportunity to waste time cannot be ruled out.

Syria developed its chemical arsenal as a cheap deterrent against Israel's nuclear weapons - it can hardly wish to surrender them during a bloody civil war. If Syria does eventually surrender its chemical arms, it would be a major breakthrough.

A West Asian state, in the throes of civil war, being persuaded to surrender its weapons of mass destruction through diplomacy would be one for the history books. Libya did something similar. What should be remembered is that all this was accomplished thanks to the threat of military action.

West Asia is at a cusp. The old dictatorships have fallen, the democratic revolts have burnt themselves out but it is not yet clear what will replace them in countries like Syria or Egypt.

Defanging Syria would help remove one potentially dangerous fallout of this present uncertainty. As most of the countries squabbling over Syria are doing so for geopolitical reasons, chemical weapons automatically get their attention.

The irony is that surrendering this arsenal will do nothing about the civil war itself. Damascus and the rebels will continue to slit each other's throats and far more deaths than the chemical attack caused will occur on a weekly basis.

That, unfortunately, has always been the lesser issue in the present debate.

First Published: Sep 11, 2013 23:41 IST