5 April 2017

Only Russia can bring Assad to the table

By Malcolm Rifkind

If I wanted peace in Syria, I would not start from here.

The chemical weapons attack on Idlib by the Syrian Government has killed, injured and maimed dozens of its own citizens, including many children.

The pathetic attempt by Assad, and by his Russian allies, to pretend that the deaths and injuries were caused by chemical weapons stored on the ground by opposition groups, and not by Syrian government aircraft, has fooled no-one either in Syria or around the world.

The consequences of the attack were not only terrible for its immediate victims. A further victim is likely to be the already faltering attempt to set up negotiations between the Syrian opposition and government to try and bring an end to this awful war.

It is inevitable that the Russians will veto all attempts at the Security Council to condemn Assad for this attack.

But the reality is that the Russians are in the dock as well, and know it. In 2013, in the aftermath of the House of Commons vote blocking British air strikes against the Assad regime, Russia brokered a deal which was intended to result in the Syrian Government giving up all its chemical weapons supplies so that they could be destroyed or removed outside Syria.

To a considerable extent the Russians delivered, but their claim that Assad no longer had chemical weapons has been shown to be false. With or without Russian connivance, the Syrian Armed Forces have held on to some of their chemical weapons.

Over the last couple of years there have been a number of reports alleging that chemical weapons have been used in various parts of Syria. This week’s attack was not only the most serious. The evidence proving that chemical weapons have been used is now unanswerable except by lies and unsubstantiated denials.

Any civilised person wants the civil war in Syria to end as soon as possible. The people of Syria must be desperate for it if they are to be able to rebuild their lives and shattered communities.

Civil wars only end either when one side achieves total military victory, or if all factions realise that no one is strong enough to defeat all the others.

That is what happened in Bosnia in 1997 and it led to the American-sponsored Dayton Accord which brought the civil war to a messy but comprehensive end.

Until the Russians intervened with their air power, it seemed unlikely that there would be a clear victor in Syria. Assad, even with Iranian and Hizbollah help was on the defensive and had lost control of most of the country. But the opposition, divided between moderates and Islamists, as well as terrorists, was also incapable of a clear victory.

The international dynamics of the conflict changed after the British Government’s defeat in Parliament in 2013. If the US and Britain had bombed Assad’s forces, there would have been no repeat of the use of chemical weapons.

Nor, in my view, would Putin have decided to deploy his air power in support of Assad. The Kremlin had no intention of risking a military confrontation, either in the skies or on the ground, with the United States. However, Obama’s decision not to intervene, following on from Cameron’s defeat, removed that risk and enabled the Russians to throw their military weight around with impunity.

That is the political reality we, not just the Syrian opposition, have to face. Although he cannot regain control of the whole of Syria, it is no longer sensible to plan on the basis that if we hold firm, Assad will step down.

All that is going to happen is that the war will continue, tens of thousands more will die or flee the country, and what is left of Syria’s remaining infrastructure will collapse. Not even the blatant use of chemical weapons will change anything, despite the hot words of retaliation from our politicians.  There is no desire in Britain to embark on another conflict and Donald Trump’s intentions remain unclear.

But perhaps the Russians could be useful. The US and the West could concentrate on trying to persuade the Russians that they need an end to the conflict just as much as we and the Syrian people do. The Russians have just experienced a terrible act of terrorism in St Petersburg. A Syria in a long-term state of anarchy as a failed state cannot be what they want. If they are willing to put pressure on Assad to stop the use of chemical weapons and work for a negotiated ceasefire, the West can do the same with the secular opposition as can the Saudis and Qataris with the moderate Islamists.

But ultimately, the question of whether Assad will have to be part of a post-conflict Syrian government is not for Trump  or for Putin to decide. Nor is it for Assad to decide. It will fall to his generals and allies as to whether their own interests are best served by him remaining as President.

As with Bosnia, when the Syrians decide that the time has come to stop fighting and start negotiating, that’s when they will need the international community.  They will need significant diplomatic support. They will require massive medical aid, food supplies and financial help.

But most of all, they will need our experience. The Americans who led the Dayton peace process will help, the South Africans who managed the peaceful transition from apartheid to a multi-racial society and, dare I say it, the Northern Irish who have now experienced imperfect but substantial communal peace for a generation.

Syrian society, its economy and its institutions have been destroyed to an even greater degree than in these other conflicts. We must hope it’s not too long before that process of reconstruction begins.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary between 1992-97. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Dept of War Studies at King’s College, London