This week two particularly disheartening things happened in relation to Syria which don’t give me very much hope for the future.
The first is, of course, the bomb in central Damascus at a checkpoint between the Russian embassy and the Ba’th Party headquarters. Over 50 people were killed, most of them civilians. The SNC, in a refreshing advance in their discourse, condemned the attack rather than claiming it was a government false-flag operation. SANA (Syrian official media) described it as a terrorist attack, which is technically true except that by ‘terrorists’, they mean the SNC, which is probably too disorganised to carry out terrorist attacks even if it wanted to.
Unfortunately, the UN Security Council statement condemning the bombing was derailed by US efforts to insert parallel language condemning the Syrian government, something the Russians refused to accept. The Russians (and to some extent the Chinese) have, in their efforts to avoid giving a justification for international intervention, consistently managed to go too far and have ended up blocking a number of sensible and useful resolutions. For this they have been roundly criticised by a number of Western countries, and rightly so. Their rebuke to the United States for complicating this statement cannot be taken very seriously, but neither can US attempts to insert the language in the first place. They are equally hypocritical.
Arguably, none of this is particularly new. The multilateral international efforts to find some kind of end to the war have been a front for Saudi-Iranian and US-Russian power struggles since about June 2011, and have suffered deeply from that. However, the fact that the two countries were unable to agree on the wording of a simple resolution condemning an act of terrorism without trying to beat their own obsessive drums is a handy symbol for the relative importance of their geopolitical concerns and the well-being of the Syrian people.
The second, even more infuriating, event is the sudden decision by the Syrian National Coalition to boycott the Friends of Syria meeting which is being convened in Rome expressed in order to start working towards a political solution to the war. The supposed reason is that the international community’s failure to condemn the recent shelling of Aleppo has disgusted the opposition so much that they refuse to come to the table. This reasoning is, at best, worrying. There is nothing especially outstanding about this latest round of violence which demands particular attention beyond the statements which have already been made. In any case, it is patently absurd for the opposition to pretend that the United States and other Western nations are working against them or are not on their side. It seems like a rather transparent excuse to avoid negotiations.
It is interesting to see how much of a part Muaz al-Khatib, the President of the Coalition, has played in the decision to boycott. He has been instrumental in dragging the Coalition towards negotiations, and this has been apparently such a difficult job that was been reduced to unilaterally announcing his willingness to negotiate, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces. That he is not only allowing this new message to be publicised but taking part in it himself suggests one of two things: either he is merely a figurehead whose attempts to draw the Coalition in a new direction have been curtailed, or he is genuinely unable to make up his mind in which of two mutually contradictory paths is better. Either way it’s not an encouraging sign, and indicates that the Coalition’s week-old flirtation with political talks has been definitively throttled.
If the SNC were using this as an excuse to push away their Western backers and come up with a plan by themselves, that would at least be a step in the right direction. However, the wording of the statements they have released suggests that they are proposing to boycott talks until the rest of the world has come up with a coherent plan. To be sure, there is a dire need for a coherent plan for Syria (although there is a direr need for the major players on both sides to take plans seriously rather than using them as a stalling tactic). But anyone who believes that the best method of creating a plan for Syria is for the West to draft it alone without any Syrian input is displaying the severest signs of delusion.
I heard a Soviet joke a few days ago, originally told about Czechoslovakia, which I believe applies nowadays to Syria:
Why is Syria the most neutral country in the world?
Because it refuses to intervene even in its own affairs.