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The narrow defeat on 29th August of the UK government’s parliamentary motion on support in principle for military action against the Syrian regime has forced Prime Minister David Cameron to concede that Britain will play no part in any direct attack on Syria. If the UK is to play no military role in ‘punitive’ responses to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, what options are open to the UK in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict, protecting civilians and punishing those responsible for war crimes there? And how does Cameron’s overt preference for the military option, with or without UN mandate, condition these non-military options?
Pushing for peace
The possibility of a negotiated peace in Syria should not be dismissed. Neither the regime’s military, militia and foreign allies, nor the variety of armed factions ranged against them (and, increasingly, each other) are exhausted. Nor do the Assad regime’s mid-year successes in central Syria presage any imminent likelihood of it regaining control of the north and east. The strategic stalemate that appeared to set in to the conflict in June, after pro-Assad forces retook al-Qusayr, arguably presented a breathing space for negotiations and the so-called Geneva II conference, proposed by the US and Russia, with UN and Arab League backing, the previous month. As recently as mid-August, the Geneva talks were expected to resume in September.
But even convening these talks will now prove far harder. Expectation of Western intervention against President Bashar al-Assad, as well as their own increasing divisions, gives the Western-backed armed opposition groups an incentive to delay talks. Jihadist groups that have proved effective militarily are largely excluded. US and Russian facilitation of the Geneva process, however fraught, also tends to exclude the voices of regional actors like Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, each of which feels its interests very directly threatened in Syria and gives active support to one or more armed faction.
This calls for a rethinking of the Geneva process, if not the 2012 transition roadmap, to bring in the full range of actors, not the abandonment of peace talks. Threat of US-led intervention and its own increasing international marginalisation, should it be proved to have launched a chemical attack on 21st August, could incline the Assad regime towards a negotiated settlement, perhaps even an exit and exile strategy.
This will not happen without pressure from Iran and Russia. Both have much to lose in Syria, but neither is entirely closed. Iran is still in its post-electoral opening and under severe economic pressure, looking to cut a wider deal with the West. Russia may not be comfortable with its isolated position defending the alleged user of chemical weapons. Like the US, it fears the growing influence of jihadi groups while the current stalemate continues. While there is little hope of Moscow abandoning its Security Council veto over action against Syria, it will be embarrassed if it stands almost alone defending Assad in the Council or against a General Assembly resolution. Neutrally collected and analysed evidence of Syrian regime culpability for chemical weapons attack will be crucial to shifting Russia’s position.
Having made clear its preference for ‘punitive’ military action, and been frustrated by parliament in pursuing such action, the UK government is not ideally placed to broker negotiations. Yet the UK does have influence with Syrian opposition groups, in the Gulf States and, when it acts in concert with its less interventionist EU partners, with Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Again, the importance of due investigative and legal process through UN Fora is crucial. When asked on 29 August if he agreed that Assad should be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC), David Cameron replied curtly that these processes take time. Yes, the wheels of institutional responses turn slowly, not least justice institutions. Yet the most obvious response to any breach of customary international law on the use of chemical weapons (Syria is one of just five states not to have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention) is a war crimes prosecution through the ICC. It is not important that Syria has not signed the Court’s establishing Rome Statute. Assad and any responsible commanders could still be subject to international prosecution if the Security Council referred Syria formally to the ICC.
The UN has been investigating a wide range of alleged crimes committed by both sides with a view to future prosecutions. Clearly, the presence on the Security Council of Syrian allies and a majority of non-signatories to the Rome Statute presents obstacles to referral, but the Council has overcome such obstacles before, notably China’s reluctance to see its Sudanese allies prosecuted over actions in Darfur. With France and other allies, the UK should take the lead within the Security Council in pushing to refer Syria to the ICC based on the same ‘moral minimum’ or red line that has been deployed in favour of armed intervention. This, in turn, may provide leverage to persuade pro- and anti-Assad factions alike to take peace negotiations more seriously.
Notwithstanding the heavy shadow of its past action in Iraq, the UK’s moral standing is bolstered by commitment to legal and democratic process. The UK should take a breath, step back from punitive reaction and recommit itself to a multilateral, inclusive and legally rigorous approach to resolving the war in Syria and its many affiliated regional conflicts. No other form of intervention will effectively protect the lives and rights of Syrian civilians either in the current war or the difficult peace that must follow.