Syrian crisis: between unilateralism and collective effort

Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, talks on Syria.

Click to enlarge the cartoon. Drawing by Niyaz Karim

It is widely agreed that the latest proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control and subsequently destroy them has drastically changed the terms of debate on the conflict. The New York Times rightly noted that it “could open up a broader channel to a political settlement between Mr Assad and the rebels – the only practical way to end this war”. But the positive implications of a shared success are more far-reaching. This is not just about Syria alone. It is about bringing back trust, undermined in many ways over the past 20 years, with negative consequences for almost any major item on international agenda.

I agree with Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, who wrote in his blog: “The Russians have taken a step towards America on Syria. The Americans should now respond.” This complex message is the key point President Vladimir Putin makes in his direct appeal to the American people, published in the NYT. Unfortunately, in our bilateral relationship we have reached the point when the record has to be set straight and in public.

The measure of deterioration is shown by the Financial Times, which finds it hard to grasp the motives behind Moscow’s initiative since “the Russian leader is not inclined to do Mr Obama favours”. This sort of stereotyping makes people believe Moscow proceeds from the assumption that it will gain from any outcome in Syria, however disastrous, and even prefers watching the administration and America self-destruct in Syria and the broader Middle East.

This is a simple way to avoid serious analysis of the intractable dilemmas in Syria, faced not only by the US, but the international community at large. It isn’t Russia’s fault that time and regional context haven’t been on the opposition’s side. Our diplomatic effort is based on the recognition of the death of the old geopolitics, which led to blunders such as the Crimean War, tragedies such as two world wars and the time warp of the Cold War. Russia doesn’t seek the comfort of freedom of action provided by aloofness, by not staying in touch with western partners.

The lack of communication between our societies is a problem of fundamental importance. Dr Rowan Williams in his research on Dostoevsky (2008) concludes that human communication is one of the essentials in life. We also believe in the open-endedness of human narrative as inherently linked to an issue of freedom. Projected to societal development and international relations, it is a powerful critique of end-of-history notions. As John le Carré put it in a recent FT interview, “the next worst thing after communism was anti-communism”.

So we seek to restore those channels of communication, to remove the barriers of ideological Cold War prejudice. Specifically, we propose to take collective action through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN Security Council on a host of regional problems.

A proxy war by regional powers in Syria and military action by extra-regional powers are no substitute for a regional solution of the crisis. This was why President Putin as host of the G20 summit did his best to enable his colleagues to have an in-depth discussion of Syria outside the formal agenda. The Geneva talks between Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry have the potential to be a crucial turning point not only in terms of Syria but far beyond. That is why it is so important to follow the agreed script and to get the entire undertaking right.

Alexander Yakovenko is Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was previously Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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