On Aug. 21, 2013 the Syrian government of Bashar-al Assad was alleged to have used chemical weapons against its own people when it launched rocket and artillery attacks on the strongholds of rebels fighting to topple his regime in the suburbs of Damascus. These attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Syrians, including children and women. The video footages told a gory story that was seen around the world. Having crossed the “red line” articulated by President Obama, some Americans saw this as an opportunity for the United States to enter the civil war in Syria.
The pressure for war was building, as some analysts opined that inaction would be a sign of weakness. American battleships were ordered to the coast of Syria. This action placed pressure on Syria and its benefactor, Russia, and prompted President Vladimir Putin — through his foreign minister, Sergey Larov — to offer the Syrian and American governments a diplomatic alternative to armed conflict.
On Sept. 9, Larov proposed international control over Syrian chemical weapons to avoid American strikes. He further called upon the Syrian government to agree on placing its chemical weapons storage sites under international control, as well as their subsequent destruction, and also to fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons.
Diplomacy was thus introduced. And both the alleged culprit nation and the threatening world power agreed to give it a chance. Wherever there’s potential for armed conflict, whether by conventional warfare as was the case in Iraq or missile strikes from afar, as Syria now presents, the best solution is always peace.
Happily, the diplomatic initiative of Russia has borne some fruit. On Sept. 14, the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister Larov made public an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of next year and, significantly, left an opening for sanctions should Damascus fail to observe its obligations.
Whatever form war takes, the greater loss is measured in human casualties. Syrian chemical weapons may have killed over 1,400 people. How many people would American strikes have killed? Peace is the antidote to war. And peace can prevail only when astute diplomacy is given a chance. Fortunately, President Barack Obama, in his deliberative wisdom, decided to give diplomacy a chance.
Diplomacy is the art of negotiation. It is most essential during moments of crisis that portend for armed conflict. But can Putin and Assad be trusted? The questions of trust and mistrust, brandished against Russia and Syria, have no place in diplomacy. This is the case because there is no apparent need to negotiate with countries or people we trust. We hold conversations with friends and negotiate with enemies. The greatest diplomatist who ever walked on the face of this earth, Charles Maurice Talleyrand, was trusted by neither his boss (Napoleon) nor the other nations of Europe. In negotiations the end, which is peace, justifies the means — diplomacy.
War holds no benefits for Syria, the United States or Russia. The smoldering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are yet to be brought under control. A new inferno in Syria may set aflame the entire region. To quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Syria represents yet another “unknown unknowns” situation.
Dr. Emmanuel Konde is a professor of history at Albany State University.