In human conflicts, trying to gauge what’s right and what’s wrong is seldom an easy call, as the spectrum of colliding ideas and deeds often includes a grey area. When it comes to civil conflicts, the task becomes even more difficult, because the urgent need to stop the tragedy trumps the temptation to apportion guilt. Every now and then, however, we face a conflict in which taking sides is both a theoretical possibility and a moral necessity. To that category belongs this crisis, which has plunged Syria into tragedy for more than three years. This is why one feels a sense of outrage when faced with those who try to “yes-but” or “either/or” their way out of taking sides which, in the end means taking the side of the wrongdoers.
Two years ago, a senior member of the administration of US President Barack Obama told me that it was “out of the question to allow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to massacre his people.” That was the time of “red-lines,” which were destined to become pink and then fade away altogether. Last year, a senior French official reassured me that French President François Hollande was ready “even for military action” to bring the Syrian carnage to an end. But, of course, that was before Obama accomplished his backward leap, leaving the hapless Hollande in the lurch.
Although I campaigned for international action to end the Syrian carnage, I never believed that the US under Obama or France under Hollande would do anything meaningful to help the Syrian people achieve freedom. However, I did expect, and hoped, that, unable or unwilling to do anything useful, the “major Western democracies” would do try to do no harm either. Sadly, I was proved wrong. First, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, no doubt ordered by Obama, agreed to reduce the whole issue to that of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Then, it was Hollande’s turn to dismount from his high horse to try and market the so-called “Geneva II” show. Gradually, the chemical weapons issue was reduced even further to cover only the stockpiles indicated by the Syrian regime itself. That meant nothing would be done to provide an independent list of suspected locations of these weapons. Nor was there any suggestion of destroying the factories, the laboratories and research centers involved in what experts believe is the largest chemical weapons program in the Middle East. Needless to say, the deal brokered by the gullible Kerry did not deal with Syria’s biological weapons either.
During the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Kerry boasted of his “success” in convening the Geneva II talks on Syria. Yet this looks like a step towards repeating a tragedy that was witnessed in Bosnia. Assad’s regime is promising to let women and children leave a number of besieged cities, starting with Homs, under UN supervision. A similar scenario played out in Bosnia in July 1995 when women and children in Srebrenica, under UN protection since 1993, were allowed to leave—and then Serb death squads moved in to massacre the 8,000 men and boys left in the besieged city. The UN “protection force” looked the other way while the mass killings, later described by the Security Council as “genocide,” continued 200 yards away.
After the massacre, the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke let the Serbs reap the benefits of ethnic cleansing by establishing their “republic” in the third of Bosnia-Herzegovina that they’d captured.
The true nature of the Russian-Syrian hidden agenda was partly revealed last week when hundreds of people allowed to leave Homs were instantly arrested by Assad’s forces and taken to unknown destinations. If the same scenario were repeated elsewhere, the regime would be able to conduct mass arrests at minimum cost and under the gaze of UN observers.
Originally, the Geneva discussions were a Russian ploy to hook the US into endless talks while Moscow and Tehran helped Assad crush his opponents with superior military force. The net result of Kerry’s “diplomatic success” could be a Russo-Iranian victory to regain control of Syria through genocide. They may even replace Assad with another murderous poltroon, a scenario that Russian President Vladimir Putin used in Chechnya when he promoted Ramzan Kadyrov as that unhappy land’s new “president.”
Remember that “Geneva I” was supposed to be about forming a “transition government ” to lead Syria out of its deadly impasse. “Geneva II” was supposed to be about fixing the timetable for the transition and agreeing on its components. Now, however, we are told by Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, that there is no talk of a timetable for transition and that “Geneva II” will focus on “humanitarian issues.”
In the meantime, Russia and its allies in Tehran will continue funding and arming Assad’s forces while protecting it against diplomatic pressure. One sign of this came on February 6, when Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council on ensuring humanitarian access to the remote and hard-to-access parts of Syria. Churkin did not even take the time necessary to study the proposed draft before stating that “it would not be examined, let alone passed.” The reason for this is that the draft, without naming the Assad regime, contains a threat of sanctions against those who put up obstacles to the deliveries of humanitarian aid. The draft speaks of a 15-day deadline for fulfilling a list of demands that includes an end to all forms of violence and encroachments on international law, including the bombings of populated localities and attacks on humanitarian missions, as well as the lifting of blockades of cities. And these are all things that Assad has been doing for three years and continues to do today.
In other words, Russia has succeeded to obtain carte-blanche for Assad while Obama and Kerry use the little influence they have on Syrian opposition groups to persuade them to quietly walk to the slaughter.
Clearly, Russia is using “Geneva II” as a ploy to ensure victory, if not for Assad personally—he may yet be ditched and sent into exile in Qom—for the faction in Damascus that hopes to prolong the 43-year-old despotic system with support from Tehran and Moscow. And that could entail an even bigger bloodbath in Syria, one that even Kerry might not be able to sell as a “diplomatic victory” for his team.