A Chance for Peace Talks on Syria

, by Lucio Levi

A Chance for Peace Talks on Syria

The use of chemical weapons on the Damascus suburbs brought a wave of indignation in international public opinion and led to US President Obama threatening a retaliatory strike against Syria.

This threat did not receive the expected support either in the US Congress where its reception was at best tepid nor in Britain: witness Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons. Lack of support was also widespread among the international community in general though with the notable exception of France. The common view was in fact that a military attack would not only result in further civilian casualties, but would also increase the risk of the conflict spreading to the rest of the Middle East, a region which had already become unstable following the widespread democratic movement known as the Arab Spring plus inherited religious conflicts and the infiltration of terrorism. For all these reasons world peace would be endangered.

The opening of peace talks between the United States and Russia on the Syria crisis has averted that risk. Their most important achievement is that Assad has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and to submit his chemical arsenal to international control. It is to be wished that the atrocious tragedy already caused by the use of toxic gas will pave the way to a strengthening of the United Nations Organization and of the concept of international legality. The Geneva agreement could moreover become the first step towards the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and lead to an international conference on the denuclearization of the region to include the submission of Israeli nuclear weapons as well as the Iranian nuclear power plants to international control under the IAEA.

In Syria, by using his powerful military arsenal to kill his political opponents – and also thousands of unarmed citizens – Assad failed to meet his responsibility to protect the civilian population. He committed crimes against humanity and war crimes for which he deserves referral to the International Criminal Court. On the other hand, Assad is the only political personality in a position to keep faith on the pledge to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal. Therefore, if the plan to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons is to be pursued – a process which experts say would take at least a year – his leadership of Syria should stand for the time being. Handing over such weapons might seem an almost impossible task for a country engaged in civil war. But with international support, and provided that the agreement between the US and Russia continues playing the role of engine of the disarmament process, even such an ambitious project has a chance of succeeding.

Unlike in the case of Libya which saw a no-fly zone being declared following agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council, the United Nations has this time been unable to agree a similar approach in relation to Syria. Because of crossed vetoes between the Western countries on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, it has proved impossible to authorize intervention measures to protect the Syrian population against the atrocities whether committed by their own government or by the rebels themselves. The result is that so far agreement has been limited to a ban on chemical weapons, but does not resolve the problem of ending the civil war.

Just as the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime after US military strikes opened the way to the failure of the state – i. e. the failure to deliver key political goods such as public order, security and justice –, so too the forcible removal of Assad from power would also generate greater instability and leave Syria ‘on fire’ and at the mercy of terrorism and organized crime. When states fail or collapse, terrorist groups, warlords, drug and arms traffickers and other non-state actors move in to occupy the territory.

On the other hand, the power vacuum left by the US in the Mediterranean could be filled by the EU though providing it first finds a way of speaking with one voice. Challenged by growing political instability of the region, so far the EU has shown itself to be totally powerless.

A European initiative should revive the project of a Euro-Mediterranean Community. In order to achieve this goal, a Conference on Security and Co-operation in the Mediterranean, similar to the 1975 Helsinki Conference on East-West relations, should be summoned. This is the way to pursue the peace (through the creation of a denuclearized zone in the Middle East and armaments reduction), development (through a regional economic and technological development plan inspired by the precedent of the Marshall Plan), democracy (through political and economic support of the Arab Spring), economic integration and federal unification (through the strengthening of the Arab League).

It is up to the European Union to create the external conditions which are necessary to open the way to such a pacification, development, democratization and integration plan in the Mediterranean region. To achieve these goals, the EU should endow itself with federal powers in foreign and security policy and increase in its own budget resources starting from the Eurozone countries.

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