Sometimes, in diplomacy, a translator is not enough. You need a code-breaker. This is very much the case with the latest round of diplomatic statements about the civil war in Syria, currently the biggest armed conflict anywhere in the world. So here they are, deciphered.
It all started on Tuesday, when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that Russia would deliver S-300 air defence systems to Syria. He then added the following cryptic comment:
“”We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads from exploring scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces.” What on Earth does that mean?
What Ryabkov was saying, decoded, was that giving Syria some state-of-the-art air defence missiles would enable it to shoot down American, British or French aircraft if they try to enforce a “no-fly” zone over Syria. And the “hotheads” he wants to deter are the American, British and French political leaders who talk about doing exactly that.
The NATO countries did not lose a single aircraft when they acted as the rebels’ air force in Libya two years ago, and Moscow wants to ensure that they won’t get a free ride if they try to do the same thing in Syria. The S-300s will stop them from “considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” and thus “stabilise” the situation in Syria by making Bashar al-Assad’s regime safer.
Ryabkov refused to say whether the missiles were actually on their way yet, and the Israelis promptly declared that they were not. But Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon helpfully added: “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”
He is clearly saying that if the missiles do reach Syria, the Israeli Air Force will attack and destroy them. But he calls it a vital issue for Israeli security, even though the missiles are purely defensive weapons, incapable of attacking Israel. “Security” in what sense?
In the sense that Israel sees freedom to launch air attacks on Syria any time it feels the need as a vital element of its security policy. The S-300s would make it more dangerous to bomb Syria, so Yalon sees them as threatening Israel’s “security”. It’s an innovative use of language, to say the least.
And then there’s the European Union, which met on Monday to consider ending the blanket arms embargo against all parties to the fighting in Syria. The embargo was duly ended, and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that it was a major step “to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria”.
This really does require translation. What Cameron means is that with no EU arms embargo any more, individual EU members (like Britain and France) will be free to send arms to any Syrian rebel group of their choice (but not the nasty Islamists, of course). Since giving them better weapons would put more pressure on Assad to negotiate or quit, it therefore “reinforces international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution.” Obviously.
Except that there won’t actually be any European weapons going to the rebels. The British and the French don’t want to get too far ahead of their EU colleagues, so they are postponing that decision to another summit meeting — in August. In the meantime, the EU countries will not “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of weapons.
And that’s about it. George Jabboure Netto of the opposition Syrian National Council said the end of the EU arms embargo was a “step in the right direction,” while the spokesman of the rival Syrian National Coalition said the move might be “too little too late.” (An inadvertent admission, perhaps, that things have not been going well for the rebels on the battlefield of late.)
And President Barack Obama most eloquently said nothing at all.
He said nothing about the EU’s initiative, because it’s so confused and contradictory that it’s embarrassing to talk about it.
He said nothing about the Israeli threat to attack the Russian anti-aircraft missiles because Israel is a “friend and ally,” and it’s best not to notice when its threats to attack other countries get too brazen.
And he said nothing about the Russian S-300s themselves, because he is probably secretly glad that they are being sent to Syria.
Obama is not one of the “hotheads” who want to intervene in Syria, but he is coming under increasing political pressure from those who do. Senator John McCain, the elder statesman of the Republican Party, slipped across the Turkish border into Syria for an hour on Tuesday and came back swearing that it would be easy to ensure that arms aid went only to the right rebels (i.e. not the Islamist ones).
So it actually helps Obama if the Syrian air defences get better, because it makes the case for “no-fly zones” and other forms of military intervention even less persuasive.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London