Syria, Ukraine and the abject failure of Western diplomacy

Syria is obviously a god-awful mess, despite the surreal nature of this morning’s interview between President Assad and Jeremy Bowen.  Meanwhile, President Obama is considering sending more weapons to the Eastern Ukraine, an area already devastated by civil war.

No sane person can look on these two places and think that anyone in power can have done the right thing. Both are symptoms of the abject failure of Western diplomacy.

Politicians, obviously, must take some of the blame. After all, we elected them and the buck stops there. But in foreign policy far more than domestic or economic policy their actions are controlled by an establishment, whether in the Foreign Office or the State Department. The late Robin Cook came to office as Foreign Secretary determined to implement an “ethical foreign policy”; an idea which met such determined opposition from the mandarins (and our allies) that he was forced to abandon it even before the Iraq war.  It is almost as if there is acceptance that foreign policy must be unethical.  Now I am not a foreign office insider, merely an interested observer, so my diagnosis is based on what I see and what I conclude rather than what I know.  I am putting forward a conjecture, which may or may not be correct,  to  explain this abject failure. It fits such of the facts as I am – we are –  allowed to see; and I should not be surprised if diplomatic insiders were to say, ah, yes, but if you knew what we knew but can’t tell you… Sorry, what was that about transparency?

It seems to me that Western diplomacy is still stuck in a Cold War mindset, where the first approach to any issue is to ask, “whose side are we on?”, or more specifically, “where do our interests lie?”.   It is not, “how can we prevent this conflict from worsening”, but it should be. Our interests are always in reducing or preventing conflict, and this will usually mean not taking sides. Yet in both Syria and Ukraine, the first thing we did was to take sides.  The analysis seems to be – “here there is conflict or potential conflict. One side will win. Which should it be for the best protection of our interests?”, and that is essentially a faulty analysis.  Perhaps it is even, “here there is conflict, our enemies have taken sides, so let’s do what we can to draw them in and bog them down”. I really hope that this sort of analysis doesn’t take place anywhere in any department paid for by my taxes, but I cannot be certain. Nevertheless, it is clear that “take sides first” does drive most Western foreign policy; and it should be equally clear in both Syria and Ukraine that it has been counterproductive. It has not worked. 

Instead, our approach should be, “let’s prevent this conflict”.  In fact, “let’s prevent this conflict even if it helps our enemies’ friends and an unpleasant tyrant stays in power”.  That’s difficult, but you have to think, if you were a Syrian person, would you rather still be living in a peaceful Syria under Assad’s tyranny, than in today’s devastated country or in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Turkey?  Our failure in Syria is because we took sides against Assad. In doing so, we prevented any of the various peace processes from taking place, because we – and our allies in the Syrian opposition – put an impossible precondition on the talks: Assad must Go.  It’s no use spinning it that the Russians put their precondition on too (“Assad must stay”) – the fact is, both sides had preconditions. And ours was more demanding.  Peace talks are always better than no peace talks. Peace talks without preconditions are better than no peace talks. Peace talks with our preferred preconditions – dream on.

Syria is a very complex situation. We got it badly wrong by taking sides. Assad is a tyrant, but he is a secular Baathist tyrant. His regime isn’t universally-unpopular. Syria’s Alawite,  Christian. Druze and Shia minorities still support it. The Sunni majority didn’t, and the opposition was backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  Both of these are “on our side” – oil-rich Sunni tyrannies – while Iran and Russia backed Assad.  And from the mess has emerged Daesh, our enemy’s enemy.  Qatar and Saudi are players in a wider regional game against Iran, and neither of them has ever had any interest in creating a legitimate democratic government in Syria.  Democracy is anathema to both of them.  Political support for “the moderate Syrian opposition” was orchestrated in Washington, almost certainly funded by money from these tyrannies (Qatar and Saudi). But because we took sides, because we were too weak to say to this so-called moderate Syrian opposition, “Drop your precondition to peace talks or we will drop you”. Because we put taking sides before preventing conflict.

The same mistakes are being played out in Ukraine. Here, the issue is simpler; it’s Western triumphalism over Russia. The bear is wounded, so we poke it with a stick.  Our urge to take sides – particularly against our old enemy – has once again trumped the need for conflict prevention. If you lived in Eastern Ukraine, would you rather live in a semi-autonomous Russian enclave than undergo years of civil war? None of the above is not an option.  The Kiev government, which we so triumphally supported, is guilty of prolonging the war, of wanting absolute victory over the separatists.  We should, instead, be pushing for a plebiscite in Eastern Ukraine, as we should have done in Crimea.  Given a transparent, free plebiscite, the most likely outcome would have been a majority for autonomy within an independent Ukraine – capital Kiev, not Moscow. (the Crimean outcome would probably have been for reversion to Russia….) Democracy means self-determination, and self-determination is more important than arbitrary boundaries drawn on a map. The border between Ukraine and Russia   has no historic significance, it was – like the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine by a stroke  Krushchev’s pen – essentially decided by Soviet bureaucracy.  Territorial integrity is nothing more than a useful notion, it cannot be absolute and must be trumped by self-determination in a democratic society.  (Small-c conservatives in Madrid and London need to understand this too in respect of Catalunya and Scotland)..

There is, probably, still, just a window of opportunity to prevent all-out war in Ukraine. The opportunity to save Syria has, I fear, been lost to Daesh. But we will only prevent that war by stopping taking sides, and President Obama’s plan to supply Kiev with weapons is not going to help.  Conflict prevention must always be the primary goal of diplomacy, because conflict is always worse than the alternative.

Almost always. I don’t like absolutes.  But in Syria and Ukraine, the conflict was avoidable. We just messed up, at the cost of millions of lives.

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