Russia and the West must build trust to carefully craft political solution for Syria
Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30
Just when we all might be thinking that the Syria imbroglio cannot get worse, a Russian bomber is shot down by Nato member Turkey.
Verbal missiles of mutual accusation and denial fly to and fro between Moscow and Ankara.
It's no surprise that Turkey and Russia have had this dangerous military exchange. Turkey has been annoying its Nato allies by being far too easy on Isil for all sorts of reasons, not least its tough eye on the national ambitions of the region's Kurds.
Russia has been claiming to take a principled fierce stand against Isil while attacking many other anti-Assad targets in Syria.
In both cases, the policy is self-serving and opportunistic, and has nothing much to do with the fate of Syria as such.
The Paris massacres, of course, create a sense of urgency. But any such military action is mainly a waste of time and bombs if there is no clear strategic goal in mind.
Aghast at this Syria/Isil omni-shambles, the world's diplomats emit a weary sigh: sooner or later there needs to be a comprehensive deal between grown-ups to solve the Syria problem.
Why not start the talking now, before something else happens to make this already horrible situation even more horrible?
Sounds reasonable. But it requires key leaders to take a view on a painfully simple question: what is the Syria problem in all its mayhem in fact about?
Russia's answer to that question is cynical but clear:
Western colonialists drew their lines on the map to create the Middle East states that we now have. Then the West (and, yes, Moscow too) for decades propped up all sorts of unsavoury, incompetent regimes for their own dreary purposes.
Successive Western blunders and emerging Islamist extremism have combined to make much of this region unfit for purpose.
Syria itself is collapsing as a state, with a new primitive Isil "caliphate" ideology establishing itself on a dangerous scale.
The only way forward is to re-establish legitimate state authority/order, and that means working with the Assad regime (as the West has done happily for many years in the past).
Hence, Russia is using its rights under international law to help the Assad regime quell the different crazy groupings trying to overthrow it, many of whom have been stupidly backed by Western governments and Turkey even though they are even more extreme than Assad.
The West keeps saying that "Assad must go". In fact, Assad must and will stay, perhaps well after US President Barack Obama has "gone".
You Westerners don't like Isil-type lunatics shooting up your cafés? What do you expect to happen if you blast open Arab-Islamic fanaticism with one ill-considered lunge after another in favour of "democracy"? What do you think you're dealing with?
The robust reply from the West to the Russians would be:
Western policies in the Middle East have not covered themselves in glory. But that's because none of us, including many Arab leaders themselves, know what to do about the really basic problem: the Middle East is unstable because the modern world is leaving it behind.
We're happy, nay keen, to work with you in devising new arrangements that work. But you bang on about upholding the legitimacy of Assad and the territorial integrity of Syria while you're greedily gnawing bits off Ukraine. Don't lecture us on "double standards". There's enough hypocrisy in all this for everyone to have a goodly share.
We agree that a common approach to reform across the Middle East needs to be "realistic": the starting-point and ending-point are not Western (or even Russian) democracy.
But the basis for measured reform needs to be some Arab-style modern pluralism. You Russians talk tough but bring nothing at all to the table on this vital aspect.
The intelligent, flexible approach, eg. shown by the Gulf states, is better than the rubbish Assad/Gaddafi fascism that emerged during the Cold War: the latter simply stores up problems that explode all the more dangerously down the road.
As for Western lunging, your current clumsy policy of indiscriminately blowing up Arab Muslims to champion the worthless Assad is not working out so well either. You've had a civilian plane full of Russian tourists blown up, and now a Russian bomber shot down. What do you think you're dealing with?
These testy public exchanges duly accomplished, Russian and Western diplomats can then get into hard private bargaining over possible plausible outcomes and how best to try to get to them.
The essence of a Syria deal is clear. Find a way to mobilise any combination of externally backed Syrians to overwhelm the "caliphate", then try to set up internationally guaranteed power-sharing and reconstruction.
A respectable measured exit strategy for Assad can be included: Assad himself may "go" or at least fade far into the background, but Assadism stays for the time being as part of the package of gradual change.
That Syria deal is part of a wider dialogue about Middle East reform. Why not a parallel dialogue about new European security architecture too? How to get there? Diplomacy can't work without minimal understandings (sometimes explicit, but often deliberately vague) between key parties on both process and plausible outcomes.
That requires obscure crab-like manoeuvres between leaders and their core teams to explore how far all concerned are ready to trust each other enough to commit to bold new initiatives.
Ever since the Cold War ended, Western and Russian leaders have failed to build and sustain trust. Those of us in the business can point to precise moments when things went well and when they went wrong or were mishandled, by both sides.
Sooner or later, there will be a political process for Syria.
Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw