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There Is Something Deeply Cynical About This Chemical Weapons ‘Timetable’


What on earth was going on in Washington and Geneva last week? I’m not trying to cheapen the unspeakable tragedy of Syria, nor the apparent common sense that suddenly gripped world leaders on Saturday when the US and Russia agreed a framework for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, but the Obama administration is still getting weirder and weirder.

First – and let’s remember the narrative of events – Obama last year was really, terribly, awfully worried that Syria’s chemical weapons would “fall into the wrong hands”. In other words, he was frightened they would fall into the hands of al-Qa’ida or the al-Nusra front. Seemingly they were still, at that moment, in the “right hands” – those of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. But now Obama and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, have decided that they are in the wrong hands after all, since they are now accusing the “right hands” of firing sarin gas shells at civilians. And that crosses the infamous “red line”.

I am overlooking, for the moment, the almost magical moment when Kerry told the world that America’s strike would be “unbelievably small”, followed by Obama telling us all that he doesn’t do “pin pricks”. What does all this twaddle mean?

And then – wait for it – as the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, suggested an international collection of all the rusty old chemical shells in Syria, Pentagon “sources” said it would need up to 75,000 armed troops to protect the chemical inspectors. Seventy-five thousand! If that isn’t boots on the ground, I don’t know what is.

And all this amid yet more nonsense in America last week about Hitler and the Second World War. Maybe the Americans should offer 250,000 men and see if Putin won’t pitch in with another quarter of a million and the two great statesman can recreate the Grand Alliance of Yalta – Cameron, I’m afraid, doesn’t get to play Churchill this time round – and do a re-run of the Second World War in Syria with live bullets: D-Day, Arnhem – no, on reflection perhaps not Arnhem – Stalingrad, the Battle of the Kursk Salient, the whole shebang. Believe me, the convoys would stretch for miles.

Of course, Putin and Lavrov kept clear of references to the Second World War. Russia suffered too grievously from the real Hitler for that. I’ve said this before, but I really do suspect that leaders who have no experience of war – I am excepting McCain and the indefatigable UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi here – actually thought they were making a Hollywood movie. Kerry’s preposterous “unbelievably small” strike is obviously a low budget film for recession-hit America. Obama promises wide-screen drama. Think Steven Spielberg. And then the Russians, who can spot a dead cat when they see one, zap the whole project.

None of the above should cheapen the tragedy of Syria. The world, I suspect, is not totally convinced that the regime was responsible for using chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August – though I bet the Russians know who did. Now we’ve got rebels chopping off prisoners’ heads, I’m not sure what scruples they’d have about using sarin. But it was interesting to see the Syrian government agreeing to put their chemical weapons in international hands – I couldn’t help noticing that they didn’t demand the same of the insurgents…

But without dismissing the Geneva shenanigans out of hand, let’s have a closer look at the Kerry-Lavrov timetable. The Syrians have to come up with a list of their nasties within a week. Inspectors are to be on the ground by mid-November. Then every chemical weapon has got to be destroyed (or “secured”) by the middle of next year. And this amid a civil war! Peace in our time. O brave new world.

Of course, while the inspectors are battering their way through the front lines – if Assad hasn’t got all his weapons in Tartous, Banias and Lattakia on the Mediterranean coast, which I suspect – the Syrians continue to kill each other, the Syrian government goes on trying to break the rebels and the Islamist insurgents go on attacking Christian towns and chopping off the heads of captives. Put bluntly, they can use rifles, shells, knives and swords to slaughter each other – but absolutely no sarin. There is something deeply offensive and deeply cynical about all this. Russia re-enters the Middle East, Obama is off the hook after playing World War 2 – and the Syrians go on dying.

I do hope that all this will work, that we will have a “Geneva 2” conference at last, and that America and Russia will no longer spat over the Syrian bloodbath. But I am not at all sure the rebels will go along with this, because Assad is clearly not leaving power. Not now, anyway. And the Saudis? And the Qataris? And any other Gulf Sunnis who’ve been funding and arming the rebels? And the whole timetable seems so hopelessly optimistic that I wonder what Kerry and Lavrov put in their coffee in Geneva before addressing the press. For there are fearful pitfalls along the way.

However, there is another story going on here, and that’s Iran. For now, the leader of Iran appears to be a wise and sane man, Putin can surely resurrect his own ideas on Iranian nuclear material, and the Iranian-Syrian alliance could be hooked up together to end the whole miserable failure of politics and perhaps even the war in Syria. Then Obama can claim a world-shaking political victory (brought about only by his threat to use force, of course) and Kerry can go back to making peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

And now that the Egyptian army is helping the Israeli army enforce the siege of Gaza again, Obama could find a few old Dakotas and run a postwar Berlin-style airlift to drop food and fuel to the Palestinians below. Ah, just another movie. 

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