In The Media

Update Syria: Is the War on Terror finally over?  

by Daryl Copeland

September 11, 2013

The last few days have been particularly head-spinning. Just over a week ago, in response to allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, some kind of armed Western intervention in Syria seemed imminent. In Washington, London and Paris, sabres were rattling and the ground was being prepared for war. All signs pointed to another round of shock and awe.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … redux.

And then the tide turned. By the time world leaders sat down for the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, divisions over Syria within the international community were so sharp that the event was effectively hijacked.

So what happened? The chronology is a case study in the importance of the unexpected.

It started in London. Whether or not it was the result of a colossal political miscalculation or divine providence, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s fateful decision to put his bellicose “in principle” resolution to an open vote in Parliament August 29 allowed the people to be heard. In a stunning rebuke, the motion was defeated — a gesture that seemed to set off a chain reaction. Inevitability was replaced by uncertainty.

On August 31, President Barack Obama abruptly changed course and decided to seek Congressional approval for any military action against Syria. Although the president and members of his administration lobbied furiously for a yes vote, support for a strike on Syria was tepid at best and the pendulum appeared to be swinging in the opposite direction. That vote has now been postponed.

French President Francois Hollande, who had hitherto been especially hawkish, announced on September 6 that France would await the report of the UN weapons inspectors before deciding on whether to participate in any military action. A day later, in a joint statement, 28 EU foreign ministers followed suit.

The diplomatic momentum quickened radically at a September 9 news conference, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set out some concrete conditions for averting a strike. However inadvertent, his offhand remarks may have been the game-changer. In a classic strategic counterstroke, Russia seized the opportunity to assert its leadership and quickly brought Syria on board, while Assad took to the American airwaves in what (for him) amounted to a charm offensive.

Today, despite some tough sledding, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are fully engaged in the search for a binding resolution which would result in Syria surrendering its chemical weapons arsenal to international control and signing the Chemical Weapons Convention. In a televised address to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama, though committed to keeping the military option open, declared that he was open to non-violent alternatives.

In short, although much uncertainty remains in this erratic and at times confusing episode in international relations, the prospects of a strike on Syria now seem to be receding.

These are early days yet, but for those who favour talking over fighting as a means to resolve differences in international relations, there are grounds for guarded hope that a corner has been turned.

What better time than the 12th anniversary of 9/11 to reflect on these events, and what it might all mean going forward?

I suggest there are three potentially positive outcomes here.

While the situation in Syria remains dreadful, there has never been any reason to believe that the sort of outside intervention being contemplated in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons would have tipped the scales against Assad. In Iraq and Afghanistan armed intervention yielded disastrous consequences, and at best a mixed picture in Libya. This time around, it may just be possible that West will be spared the devastating blowback associated with joining one side in a civil war. Perhaps the democratic will of the people, rather than the self-serving machinations of special interests, will at long last prevail.

Secondly, if the Security Council members can finesse a resolution which attracts broad support, the way will be cleared for the UN to collect, audit and ultimately destroy Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and their components. Given the many other festering global issues which aren’t amenable to unilateral or bilateral resolution, that kind of result would represent a major political gain for multilateralism — and at a most opportune time. In the emerging ‘heteropolar’ world order, power is once again on the move and its sources are diverging. With no single country or bloc able to impose its will, collective action will represent the only path to progress.

Finally, if a settlement is reached it once again will have demonstrated the enduring utility of diplomacy as a non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise. In a world beset by so many perils for which there are no military solutions — climate change, diminishing biodiversity, pandemic disease — international political performance must be improved. If we’re to survive on this small planet in the long term, equitable and sustainable development — not hard power — must become the basis of security, and diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

After 12 calamitous years pursuing an unwinnable global War on Terror, it’s time to turn the page.

So where is Canada in all of this? Nowhere.

While some commentators have suggested that there may be a role for this country in ending the Syrian crisis, so far our contribution has been limited to providing moral support for the use of force, making provocative, unfriendly remarks about President Putin and Russian policy, and offering to accept 1,300 Syrian refugees.

By way of contrast, Germany plans to resettle 5,000 displaced Syrians, and Sweden has offered Syrian nationals blanket asylum.

Canada — once the helpful fixer, honest broker, generous aid donor and innovative internationalist — has today morphed into something quite different.

Pearson would weep.

Daryl Copeland, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat, is an educator, analyst, consultant and the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy, Rethinking International Relations. Follow him on Twitter

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