Democracy is the best policy

Frank Mitchell

When the Americans give a party, it’s usually an event not to be missed for a whole raft of reasons – the first being that it’s usually the only game in town and if you miss out on this deal, you’ll likely miss out on the next offer too.

This time it’s different: when President Obama invited the rest of the world to get behind his punitive bombing campaign in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, suddenly everyone had more important things to do.

This turn of events had been in the cards for some time but no-one could have expected such a sudden change inWashington’s fortunes or the rapid dissipation of theUnited States’ diplomatic power and influence. Especially over something that appears on the surface to be relatively marginal.

It all came to a head at the Group of 20 nations summit inSt Petersburg, when theUSproposed a statement condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons. More than half the participants from the BRICS (Brazil,Russia,India,ChinaandSouth Africa), the European Union,Argentina,Indonesia,MexicoandGermanychose not to sign on the dotted line.

Not since the Vietnam war had there been such a disintegration of the Western consensus on an international issue. But what was perhaps more significant was that that position was arrived at not because governments saw it that way but because their publics would tolerate nothing less. Democracy, for the first time in modern history, impinging on policy-making.

The British prime minister David Cameron was a classic example: having pushed President Obama to intervene inDamascus, he was then forced to back down when his own parliament repudiated him. Even polls of serving US armed forces personnel showed a majority against military action.

Enter the gruff Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, normally only seen taking rigid Cold War-like positions against the West. Suddenly Lavrov was thrust centre-stage, having to broker with the Assad regime for the international inspection of chemical weapons inSyria.

For the first time in modern diplomatic history,Moscowis having to take an assessment of the situation which would prove that Syrian rebels could have been involved in both this and previous attacks. The Russians are taking a position on an international issue, the outcome of which is unclear and which may end up being against the interests ofMoscow. Lavrov is now thrust into the role of international honest broker and can expect only marginal help fromWashingtonif things start to unravel.

Already the wily Lavrov smells a rat. He believes that Americans are pushing for one outcome only: to put all the blame for chemical weapons on Assad and absolve the opposition of any wrong-doing.Moscowstill believes that the opposition has a case to answer.

During a ‘constructive’ meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly inNew York,USSecretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov agreed to continue pushing towards destruction of ‘all’ chemical weapons inSyriaunder international supervision.

‘There are some serious concerns that the Syrian opposition may possess components of chemical weapons,’ Lavrov told the press after the meeting with his counterpart. ‘All chemical weapons must be destroyed inSyria, including hazardous materials in possession of the opposition.’

Lavrov also stressed that work on the UN Security Council resolution onSyriawill be conducted ‘within a framework that had been agreed betweenRussiaand theUSinGeneva’.

Russiahopes that the UN Security Council resolution onSyria’s chemical weapons will be adopted immediately after the decision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inThe Hague.

‘The talks were productive. We have a common understanding of how to move forward,’ Lavrov said. He also stressed that ‘the OPCW plays a major role in these matters’. Kerry agreed, saying, ‘We had a very constructive meeting.’

‘We are proceeding based on facts. And the facts are that the Syrian government has signed the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, immediately expressed its willingness to meet its obligations under this document and provided a declaration to the OPCW on their stockpiles of chemical weapons and their locations,’ the Russian Foreign Minister said.

According to Lavrov, the sideline talks with Kerry touched on many issues, but the main topic of discussion was the UN Security Council resolution in support of the OPCW decision.

One of the main sticking points is a possible Security Council resolution that would include possibility of the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.Russiaas well asChinahave continually opposed the inclusion of any such reference in a draft UN resolution.

‘We are satisfied that our persistent calls for the return of the UN inspectors for an investigation of the previous episodes have finally borne fruit,’ Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told the Russian parliament.

The experts were sent to investigate several cases of alleged use of chemical weapons, but their work was disrupted by the August 21 attack, which killed an estimated 1,400 people. The team was redirected to the location of the new incident to conduct a probe and produce an intermediate report on it.

ButMoscowis unhappy with the direction theUSis steering the Russian-brokered plan to dismantle the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons.

‘US officials compromised on chemical weapons, but they continue talking about how “the Syrian regime”, as they call it, is guilty of the use of chemical weapons without providing comprehensive proof. They constantly voice reservations that the plan to punishDamascusup to a military intervention is still in power,’ Ryabkov said.

Russiacriticized the intermediate report presented at the UN, which some Western countries took as blaming the government of Assad for the attack.Moscowsays the evidence is not conclusive and argued that a more comprehensive approach was needed.