June 18, 2013 by Ian Black
In the context of the war in Syria, the G8’s support for peace talks in Geneva and a pledge of $1.5bn (£960m) in humanitarian aid are the diplomatic equivalent of motherhood and apple pie – a comforting reaffirmation of the decent and unobjectionable.
But neither will do much to end the crisis any time soon. Agreement between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, brokered by David Cameron, may have been based on a common desire “to stop the bloodshed” but it barely papered over the cracks.
Cameron had warned that the Russian president was isolated. But when consensus is required, as it is at the G8, one country still trumps seven. Putin did sign up for a call for a “transitional government” in Damascus but he gave not an inch on the crucial question of whether Bashar al-Assad should step down, as the US, Britain and the Syrian opposition all insist he must.
So what had been billed as “a clarifying moment” clarified only that there is still no agreement among the five permanent members of the UN security council. That’s as true now as it was when the Syrian uprising – by far the bloodiest of the Arab spring – began in March 2011. The difference now is that at least 93,000 people have been killed and the entire Middle East is quaking to the terrible sights, sounds and dangers of a spreading and increasingly sectarian war.
The G8 politics of the lowest common denominator mean that efforts to convene the Geneva negotiations “as soon as possible” will continue – though their prospects are dim and the timing uncertain.
Assad, making significant military gains with the support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has pledged to send a delegation but the opposition remains divided and deeply reluctant. Russia and the west are also at odds over whether Iran, a loyal supporter of Assad, should be invited.
The predictable failure in Enniskillen shows there has been no progress since the first Geneva conference in June 2012. Assad, then as now, refuses to negotiate his own departure, insisting he will still be around in 2014.
Other key elements of the Syrian tragedy got careful references. The condemnation of “any use of chemical weapons” glossed over Russia’s insistence that there is no evidence of the use of sarin nerve gas by government forces – contradicting claims by the US, Britain and France. Concern about “extremism” was another, with a call on the Syrian authorities and opposition to shun any organisations affiliated with al-Qaida.
No mention was made of controversial plans by Washington, London and Paris directly to arm rebel forces – even though US intentions, after a convoluted statement last week, remain unclear.
Obama sounded uncertain and defensive, telling PBS that “we’re not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni” but aiming instead for a “stable, non-sectarian, representative government”.
But his views on Putin’s role were unmistakably blunt: “Assad, at this point – in part, because of his support from Iran and from Russia – believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition, believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population,” the president said. “And as long as he’s got that mindset, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”
Aid agencies will be pleased with the promised $1.5bn in humanitarian aid – split between Syria itself and neighbouring countries, which are struggling to cope with 1.6 million refugees and rising. That’s a substantial sticking plaster. But the wound is still bleeding heavily and shows no sign of being staunched.