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The events of the last 2 weeks stand testament to the extent to which West has lost the initiative in Syria, and of the calamitous decline of France.
The commonly repeated claim that the US pulled out of all diplomatic contact with Moscow about Syria following the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, is simply untrue. Kerry and Lavrov talk to each other about Syria – and no doubt about other matters – by telephone practically every day.
What the US did pull out of was not diplomatic contact with Moscow about Syria; it was the talks concerning the setting up of the ceasefire that was envisaged by the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. Since by the time the US took this step both the Russians and the Syrians were saying the ceasefire had broken, it made no sense to continue with these talks, and for once the US acted properly by ending them.
Kerry and Lavrov have of course just met in Lausanne in the format of an international meeting to discuss Syria, though their meeting does not seem to have achieved anything much. Far from this being a US climbdown or reversal as some are saying, this meeting is simply a continuation of the ongoing diplomatic discussions that constantly take place between the US and the Russians.
However what is true is that following the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement Kerry was in no hurry to engage publicly in one to one talks with the Russians.
Beyond questions of prestige and of political convenience, it is not surprising if Kerry has been too embarrassed to meet personally with Lavrov since the Kerry-Lavrov agreement collapsed.
Kerry has been continuously bested by Lavrov in every meeting he has had with Lavrov over Syria. His deep sense of humiliation about this was all too obvious in the leaked transcript of his meeting with the Syrian opposition activists which took place at the UN General Assembly.
It is completely understandable therefore why Kerry might not have wished to meet with Lavrov so soon after the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, given that he would have known that Lavrov would have used the opportunity to carpet him over the US’s failure to separate Syrian opposition fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra. This together with the US attack on Deir Ezzor and the Jihadi attacks on the Castello road is the single most important reason why the Kerry-Lavrov agreement has collapsed.
In this situation Kerry turned to the French.
Here something should be said about Kerry’s relationship with France.
Kerry has very strong personal connections to France going back to his childhood, and speaks French fluently. He is familiar with the French political world, has longstanding friendships with several French politicians, and is even first cousin to one of them: Brice Lalonde, a former French Green Party leader and a minister in the French government in the 1990s, who was once mayor of the Breton village where Kerry as a child and as a young man used to holiday.
It is completely understandable therefore that Kerry – reluctant to face Lavrov and Putin himself – turned for help to the French.
The French for their part would have been only too eager to oblige. Not only would this have put them at the forefront of international diplomacy. France also has a long historic connection to Syria, which was once a French colony. France has been an outspoken supporter of the Syrian opposition and of the attempt to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and has hankered for a major role in the diplomacy concerning Syria.
The story of what followed is of how the French under the incompetent leadership of President Hollande blew it.
The French diplomatic initiative began with a trip by French Foreign Minister Jean-March Ayrault to Moscow on Thursday 6th October 2016 to discuss a draft Resolution the French had prepared concerning the situation in Aleppo.
As to the contents of this draft Resolution, Reuters claims to have seen it and says that it
“…..ask(ed) U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to propose options for a U.N.-supervised monitoring of a truce and threaten(ed) to “take further measures” in the event of non-compliance by “any party to the Syrian domestic conflict.””
The reference to “further measures” is clearly a reference to article 42 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which says
“Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”
In other words the French draft Resolution was intended to impose a ceasefire and to prepare the ground for UN authorised military action (probably a no-fly zone) in the event that it did not stick.
We know more about the text of this Resolution from Russian sources.
It put the entire blame for the collapse of the ceasefire on the Syrian government. It also demanded an end to Russian and Syrian bombing of the Jihadi rebels in eastern Aleppo.
In other words the Resolution blamed the Syrian government for the failure of the ceasefire, ordered it and the Russians to desist from bombing the Jihadis in Aleppo, demanded another ceasefire, and threatened military action against the Syrian army if the ceasefire broke down, without apparently making equivalent demands of the Jihadis.
The proposed Resolution was obviously completely lopsided and was therefore unacceptable to the Syrians and the Russians.
On the eve of Ayrault’s visit to Moscow Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, warned that the draft of this proposed Resolution was unacceptable. However he offered talks to see if it could be salvaged so as to enable the UN Security Council to take a united position on Syria and on the situation in Aleppo.
For what happened during Ayrault’s visit to Moscow and immediately thereafter we must turn to Putin, who gave the following account during a press conference in Moscow.
“Our respected friend and colleague, the French foreign minister came to Moscow and presented the French resolution. To which our foreign minister said: “We will not vote against it if you take our amendments and considerations on this issue into account. We are deeply involved in this crisis, in these problems; we know the details.” To which his French counterpart said: “Yes, of course, nor do we want to be slapped with this kind of veto.” Our representative to the UN in New York was told the same. Lavrov laid out the Russian position and there is nothing excessive in it.
I can tell you frankly what this was all about. The French resolution blamed the situation entirely on the Syrian authorities and said nothing about the opposition – in this case I am not talking about terrorists – the opposition that should also bear some responsibility, and some tasks should also be put before it. That is my first point.
Second, we stated that we were willing to endorse the initiative of the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy Mr de Mistura regarding the militants’ withdrawal from Aleppo. The French side took a positive view of that. We expected further joint constructive work both with France and with other Security Council members.
So what happened next? The French foreign minister left Moscow for Washington and the following day he and Mr Kerry accused Russia of every sin imaginable; no one talked to us and discussed nothing with us, and they threw this resolution at the Security Council, clearly expecting our veto. Why?”
These words of Putin’s clarify the changes the Russians wanted made to the Resolution.
Firstly a Resolution that placed the entire blame for the collapse of the ceasefire on the Syrian government was obviously unacceptable to the Russians, who have repeatedly said that the reason the ceasefire broke down was because the Jihadi rebels the US backs refused to abide by the ceasefire or separate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra.
The Russians insisted that the text of the Resolution be amended to shift at least part of the blame for the failure of the ceasefire onto the Syrian opposition, and to make demands upon them that were at least equivalent to those made of the Syrian government.
Secondly the Russians sought to incorporate into the ceasefire a proposal floated by Staffan de Mistura, Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy on Syria.
Staffan de Mistura’s proposal almost certainly was prompted by Kerry and the US, who have previously used de Mistura and the UN’s various humanitarian agencies to float proposals they are unwilling to put forward themselves.
The single most important part of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement was the provision that provided for the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo by way of the Castello road. The Kerry-Lavrov agreement failed because the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo refused to leave eastern Aleppo by way of the Castello road or to separate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra.
De Mistura’s proposal resurrected this part of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, without however making it a formal commitment. De Mistura proposed that Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters voluntarily quit eastern Aleppo and he offered to accompany them as they left.
The Russians welcomed de Mistura’s proposal. However they insisted that it be incorporated into the Resolution, turning it from a personal proposal by de Mistura into a binding commitment having the force of international law.
The Jihadis in eastern Aleppo rejected the de Mistura proposal and it became clear during the diplomatic discussions leading up to the UN Security Council meeting on Saturday 8th October 2016 that the Western powers were not prepared to incorporate it into the UN Security Council Resolution or into any other diplomatic document.
De Mistura’s proposal was never intended seriously. De Mistura himself undermined it by saying that Jabhat Al-Nusra accounts for just 900 out of the 8,000 Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo.
Not only is this contrary to most authoritative claims – which agree that Jabhat Al-Nusra is actually the dominant force in eastern Aleppo – but it contradicts what de Mistura himself has previously said. In previous statements de Mistura has admitted that Jabhat Al-Nusra accounts for half the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo.
In a press conference on Thursday 6th October 2016 de Mistura gave a convoluted explanation in which he tried to reconcile his contradictory statements by claiming that his previous claim that Jabhat Al-Nusra accounted for half the fighters in eastern Aleppo had now been “updated”
“We have done a much more updated analysis of the al-Nusra reality in eastern Aleppo. I know I was quoted, and is correct, I did refer to a figure which was close to 50%, you must have heard it, I think it was in the context of the Security Council. Well based on a more accurate estimates, which are also more up to date, and which are never completely perfect but are in my opinion, quite reliable, we are talking now about a presence in eastern Aleppo of at maximum 900 people, 900 people. The previous figure probably was also based on the out of date figure, that about 1500 al-Nusra fighters had left Idlib and other locations in order to join the al- Ramousseh battle which you remember took place some time ago when they attempted to re-take al-Ramousseh road. But they, according to our information, did withdraw, once this counter-offensive did not succeed and failed. So this amends, and please take it now as the line, which can always be amended by facts and figures, and more effective analysis, but that amends the so-called 50% thing. 900 al-Nusra fighters in eastern Aleppo.”
De Mistura (of course) provided no evidence to back his latest ‘update’, which he insists must now be “taken as the line” (ie. which it is impermissible to challenge). As for his claim that the UN had previously mistakenly added the Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters engaged in the August offensive to those actually inside eastern Aleppo, that is simply silly. Frankly de Mistura’s comments read like they were made up on the fly.
What however actually spelt the end of de Mistura’s proposal was the suggestions the Russians made about what should follow it.
In public statements the Russians said that once the Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters had left eastern Aleppo the whole district should be reoccupied by the Syrian army. The Russians sugared the pill by saying the Syrian army should form joint patrols with the remaining Jihadi fighters to restore law and order and ‘reassure the population’ in the district. In Lavrov’s words
“In the first place, those who don’t leave with ‘Nusra’ should clearly separate themselves [from it], on paper, officially sign such a commitment. Maybe then the government law enforcers and this armed opposition will be able to form some kind of joint law-and-order bodies to ensure normal life, so that people would feel safe.”
This of course is a demand for the surrender of eastern Aleppo to the Syrian government. That is obviously something the Jihadi fighters and to the Western powers will never formally agree to, and the moment the Russians demanded it the de Mistura proposal was dead.
The other amendment the Russians are known to have demanded was one that deleted all references in the Resolution to a prohibition on aircraft (meaning of course Russian or Syrian aircraft) overflying Aleppo .
I have previously discussed the absurdity of this demand, made previously by Kerry and other Western leaders, which amounts to a demand that the Russians and the Syrians agree to impose a no-fly zone on themselves.
“……..Kerry is demanding is that the Syrians and the Russians agree to impose a no-fly zone on themselves so as to let Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Jihadis win in order to enable regime change to take place in Syria.”
The French draft Resolution repeated this absurd demand, which as I said before Kerry and other Western officials must know the Russians and the Syrians would never agree to. In the event the Russians rejected it, as they were bound to do, insisting that it be deleted from the text.
According to Putin Ayrault agreed to give serious thought to the Russian amendments. However he failed to do so. On going to Washington the following day he instead (according to Putin)
“….accused Russia of every sin imaginable; no one talked to us and discussed nothing with us, and they threw this resolution at the Security Council, clearly expecting our veto.”
Putin is being disingenuous here. The changes the Russians proposed to the Resolution were so fundamental they would have changed completely its whole character, even if they had left the bulk of the text unchanged. Once he saw the original text of the Resolution the French were proposing Putin cannot seriously have believed the French would agree to the Russian changes. Nor can he have seriously believed Washington would agree to them either.
The whole episode of the French Resolution and of Ayrault’s trip to Moscow in truth looks less like a serious negotiation and more like an exercise in diplomatic posing. Kerry and the French pretended they could embarrass the Russians into shifting their position on Aleppo by threatening to present a Resolution that would isolate the Russians in the UN Security Council.
Presumably de Mistura’s proposal, which appeared to offer the Russians what they have always wanted – the removal of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo – whilst in reality doing no such thing, was held out as some form of bait. The fact the Western powers refused to incorporate it in the Resolution or in any other diplomatic document shows that it was never intended seriously, and by demanding that it should be the Russians effortlessly exposed it for the sham it was.
That the whole episode of the Resolution was nothing more than an exercise in diplomatic posing is confirmed by the Reuters report of 5th October 2016, published on the eve of Ayrault’s trip to Moscow. It says
“French officials have said that if Moscow were to oppose the resolution they would be ready to put it forward anyway to force Moscow into a veto, underscoring its complicity with the Syrian government.”
In other words the French and the US were never negotiating with the Russians seriously. The pretended plan was to scare the Russians into backing down by threatening them with a Resolution they would be too embarrassed to veto.
That neither the US nor the French ever really believed this plan would work is however shown by the comments a French diplomat is reported to have made to Reuters
“It’s all that’s left. We’re not fools. The Russians aren’t going to begin respecting human rights from one day to the next, but it’s all we have to put pressure on them.”
These words expose the emptiness of the whole affair. If the French knew all along the plan would not work and that the Russians would not be embarrassed into backing down and would veto the Resolution when it was put to the UN Security Council, then what was the point of the whole exercise?
In the event not only did the Russians not back down but they turned the tables on the US and the French by proposing a Resolution of their own. Apparently this closely followed the text of the French draft. However it incorporated all the changes the Russians had previously insisted on, and which Putin says Ayrault had previously agreed to consider.
The Russian counter-Resolution was not intended simply as a spoiler. It was intended to help the Chinese make public their support for the Russian position without putting the Chinese in a position where they would have to veto a Resolution which had the support of the majority of the states on the UN Security Council.
China has a longstanding policy of not vetoing Resolutions which have majority support in the UN Security Council except in very exceptional circumstances. Clearly what happened was that the Russians and the Chinese worked together to enable China to cast a vote supporting Russia at the UN Security Council without having to cast a veto when the French Resolution was put to the vote. By proposing their Resolution the Russians made it possible for the Chinese to abstain on the French Resolution – which was guaranteed the support of a majority of states on the UN Security Council because it had the support of the US and its allies – whilst making it possible for the Chinese to make their support for Russia clear by voting for the Russian Resolution.
This in fact is what happened with Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN, speaking out strongly at the UN Security Council in support of the Russian Resolution whilst making clear China’s unhappiness with the French Resolution. Here is how the UN’s press centre summarises his comments
“The draft text from France and Spain contained several important elements, but some of its contents did not reflect full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and independence, nor did it incorporate constructive views from some Council members (NB: this is a clear reference to the amendments proposed by Russia – AM). On the other hand, the Russian Federation’s draft text did reflect respect for Syria’s sovereignty. Noting that he had voted for the latter text, he voiced regret it had not been adopted.”
(bold italics added)
As it happens the Russian draft Resolution gathered more support in the UN Security Council than the Western powers and perhaps the Russians anticipated. Russia, China and Venezuela voted for it and Angola abstained – as was to be expected. However Egypt, traditionally a US ally and the one Arab state represented on the UN Security Council, also voted for it, whilst Uruguay – the one genuinely non-aligned state on the UN Security Council, also abstained (ie. refused to vote against it). This left just those states on the UN Security Council who are known to be allies of the US to vote it down.
If the plan behind the French Resolution was therefore to embarrass Russia by isolating it on the UN Security Council, then deft Russian diplomacy meant that it failed.
In passing, the battle over the rival Resolutions at the UN Security Council on 8th October 2016 may be causing a rethink in Beijing of China’s traditional policy of not vetoing save in exceptional circumstances Resolutions which have majority support.
Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to be hinting his dissatisfaction with this policy and his belief that China should in future play a more assertive role in the UN Security Council in alliance with Russia. Interfax reports him telling Putin (his “old friend”) at the BRICS summit in Goa that the Chinese and the Russians should in future coordinate even more closely their positions at the UN Security Council to achieve a “fairer” world
“As UN Security Council members and leading countries, we should step up our coordination and interaction within the framework of multilateral institutions. Key issues should be addressed through coordination between you and us, so that our combined efforts help ensure a fairer and more reasonable world order.”
(bold italics added)
The Russians have complained that presentation of a Resolution to the UN Security Council that had no possibility of being adopted simply in order to embarrass one of its members and to score a public relations point is an abuse of the procedures of the UN Security Council. They are of course right.
Whilst it is the sort of thing that has happened before, and which will doubtless happen again, it is nonetheless an extraordinary misuse of the UN Security Council – not to mention an extraordinary waste of time – to behave in this way.
It is also a sad reflection of the state of French diplomacy. The country that invented modern diplomacy has wasted a week of diplomatic time on what was essentially a farce. That time could have been used to look for a serious diplomatic solution to the problem of Aleppo.
Once upon a time French diplomacy would have sought to do just that – striving to shape a Resolution the UN Security Council could adopt that might have brought some sort of peace to Aleppo. The basic groundwork after all has already been done in the form of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. Clever French diplomacy would have sought to revive the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, and to enshrine it in an enforceable UN Security Council Resolution, which would have had behind it the force of international law.
Instead the time was misused – and the energies of diplomats were wasted – on an act of grandstanding conducted one suspects for the benefit of the Western media and with an eye to the French Presidential election next year.
It beggars belief that the France of De Gaulle or Mitterrand would have agreed to let itself be used in this way. If Kerry and his officials had wanted to put on a show at the UN Security Council then the French in former times would have told them to do it themselves rather than involve France in it. As it is the prestige of French diplomacy has been diminished.
It was what happened next which however brought the complex if empty diplomatic manoeuvres of the previous days down to the level of bad farce.
Stung by the Russian vote against the Resolution – or more probably intent on striking yet another pose – French President Francois Hollande publicly declared that he intended to use Putin’s forthcoming visit to France to harangue Putin over Syria.
To that end he cancelled an official opening ceremony for a newly built Russian religious and cultural centre in Paris, which had been the ostensible purpose of Putin’s visit, supposedly so that the visit could focus exclusively on Syria.
Hollande’s pitch has echoes of the equally unfortunate and equally empty proclamation by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott that he would use the G20 summit in Brisbane to “shirtfront Putin” over MH17, though it is more likely that what Hollande had in mind was a once famous incident when French President Mitterrand gained widespread praise in France and in the West by embarrassing his Soviet hosts by publicly bringing up the subject of the then jailed Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov at a Kremlin banquet.
The Russians however robbed Hollande’s gesture of its whole point by simply calling off the visit. In doing so they exposed the irrelevance of France, brought about by the hollowness of France’s diplomacy.
Putin cruelly turned the knife in an interview with French reporters in which he cheerfully said that attending the opening of a Russian religious and cultural centre in Paris was more important than holding talks with the French President
‘…..it is not that we are renouncing the visit, but simply that we were told that the main reason for this visit, namely, opening the religious and cultural centre, is not appropriate at this moment. But if the main reason for my visit to Paris is not appropriate, we will probably find another opportunity to meet and discuss Syria. We set no limitations concerning this matter and we are open for dialogue.”
(bold italics added)
This interview is as it happens a good example of Putin enjoying himself.
He teased his interviewers by pretending the Russians had not called off the visit but had merely “postponed” it. He patronised them by saying the visit would happen when it was “most convenient” (to whom?). He dismissed French talk of Russian war crimes as “political rhetoric that does not have great significance”. Instead of letting himself get baited on the situation in Aleppo, he lectured his interviewers on the situation in Aleppo as if he was a schoolteacher addressing a class of backward children.
“Question: Mr President, the thing is that the French do not understand why you are bombing these people you call terrorists. After all, it was ISIS who attacked us, but there are no ISIS forces in Aleppo. This is what the French do not understand.
Vladimir Putin: Let me explain. It is another terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, that controls the situation in Aleppo. This group was always considered a wing of Al Qaeda and is included in the UN’s list of terrorist organisations.”
Not surprisingly much of the French political class – including all the conservative and right wing contenders in next year’s Presidential election – have rounded on Hollande for his inept handling of the whole affair.
France remains a potentially important country, drawing huge prestige from its history and its culture. Leaders like De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac, and even to some extent Sarkozy, have shown how effective if used properly French diplomacy can be.
The shabby events of the last two weeks show how under the inept leadership of Francois Hollande this asset is being squandered. The big loser is France.