HONG KONG – “The Chinese side welcomes the general agreement between the U.S. and Russia,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said while meeting his French counterpart on Sunday. “This agreement will enable tensions in Syria to be eased.”
China has every right to be pleased.
Exactly a week earlier, while in Tashkent accompanying President Xi Jinping, who was paying a state visit to Uzbekistan, the Chinese foreign minister spoke on the telephone with his American counterpart, John Kerry, about the situation in Syria.
At the time, the United States was threatening to take military action — without the approval of the United Nations Security Council — against Damascus for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.
Wang reiterated China’s opposition to the use of force. He stipulated two principles to be followed by the international community. First, adhere to the basic norms in international relations, that is, acting within the framework of the U.N. Second, reject any use of chemical weapons.
This sounded good but then, from the U.S. standpoint, Syria was already using chemical weapons and force needed to be applied to get it to stop.
The Security Council, over the last two years, had not been willing to apply sanctions against Syria, with Russia and China vetoing such proposals.
So, it appeared, there was a deadlock. An American military strike appeared inevitable if the U.S. Congress authorized President Barack Obama to do so.
But then, the very next day, the ground shifted dramatically. Kerry, asked at a press conference in London whether there was anything President Bashar Assad could do to prevent an attack, responded in an off-handed manner:
“Sure, if he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community, in the next week, turn it over. All of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Kerry did not mean his words to be taken seriously. The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, explained that her boss was making a “rhetorical argument” and not a proposal.
But those words provided the basis for a proposal from Moscow. That same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that he had proposed to Walid al-Moallem, his Syrian counterpart, that Syria place its chemical weapons under international control for destruction.
Unexpectedly, Syria welcomed the proposal and applied to join the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of such weapons.
Ironically, all this wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. had not threatened military action outside the confines of the Security Council framework.
But now, the U.S.-Russia agreement has returned the U.N. to center stage. Both China’s goals, it appears, have been achieved, assuming that Syria fulfils its commitment.
China, of course, is not the only winner. The U.S. and Russia are also winners, having reached agreement on how to bring about the neutralization of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Syria, too, is a winner, having warded off, at least for now, an American military strike.
However, we are not out of the woods yet.
Though Syria has applied to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, Assad has said he would not destroy his weapons until the U.S. stops threatening his country.
And Putin has seemed to support such a stance. The Russian leader has said that placing chemical weapons under international control makes sense “only if we hear that the U.S. side … drops the idea of using force.”
However, since the threat of force is what brought Russia’s proposal and Assad’s consent in the first place, the U.S. is not about to comply.
The ball is now in the Russian court. Putin, who is basking in his unaccustomed role of a peacemaker, will now have to ensure that Assad cooperates in the destruction of his chemical weapons.
The positive impact of the U.S.-Russian agreement will be felt far beyond Syria’s borders. The U.S. may now be willing to give diplomacy a chance in dealing with Iran as well, and there is already talk of a meeting between Obama and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in the first such meeting since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
But momentum must not be lost. The Security Council’s first needs to adopt a resolution calling for the destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and provide for sanctions if Damascus should renege on its obligations.
If the Security Council mechanism works properly, then there will be no need for any nation, including the U.S., to threaten unilateral military action.
Frank Ching is a journalist and political commentator based in Hong Kong. Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Frank Ching1