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The G8 communiqué issued at the conclusion of the Northern Ireland meetings contains six paragraphs addressing the crisis in Syria. Despite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s valiant attempt to portray some kind of a breakthrough, the sad but inevitable truth is that the communiqué broke no new ground. This reflects the reality that the G8 is not the G7: Russia is the troublesome addition to this particular octet. The communiqué is missing some essential pieces of the Syrian puzzle, but in a broad sense does not prevent or preempt the implementation of any options now under consideration by the United States to help Syria’s neighbors withstand the results of the Assad regime’s terror campaign against major sectors of the Syrian population.

In sum, the G8 document pledged an additional $1.5 billion for humanitarian needs in Syria and neighboring countries, fully 20 percent of which will come courtesy of the American taxpayer. There was a strong call to hold, as soon as possible, a "Geneva Conference on Syria to implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012." The Syrian regime and opposition were urged "jointly to commit" at the forthcoming Geneva conference "to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to al-Qaeda, and any other nonstate actors linked to terrorism." The G8 called on "all parties to the conflict" to allow access to United Nations personnel "in order to conduct an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons." The communiqué condemned human rights violations and abuses "committed by anyone" and called on all concerned "to respect international humanitarian and human rights laws, noting the particular responsibility of the Syrian authorities in this regard."

Having participated more than once in the excruciating process of drafting and negotiating conference communiqués, I am reluctant to second-guess professionals who labor early into the morning hours debating language. Commentators often lose sight of the fact that these are negotiated documents: no one gets his way entirely. This is a point often lost on Washington bureaucrats as well, officials in functional bureaus who expect American negotiators to deliver a document reflecting in full their narrow, highly specialized slice of the foreign policy pie. It should be stipulated in advance that US officials succeeded in producing a final communiqué that keeps the door to a negotiated settlement open while not binding the United States in ways that would forbid military steps designed to mitigate the humanitarian crisis now destroying Syria and swamping the neighborhood. Critiques of the document—including this one—should be read in that context.

In calling for a Geneva II conference as soon as possible, the G8 repeated the basic provisions of the June 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué, and by so doing did no harm. Indeed, the G8 stressed that the June 2012 document "sets out a number of key steps beginning [emphasis added] with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent." Russia’s objective is to freeze the West by means of an endless Syrian peace process while Iran and Hezbollah do their best to save the hapless Bashar al-Assad. The language of the communiqué makes clear, however, the purpose of any forthcoming conference and provides an implicit exit ramp for those truly dedicated to seeing the transitional governing body created as Geneva II’s first substantive order of business. The burden is largely on Washington to get the Syrian opposition to show up in Geneva with a coherent, representative, and legitimate negotiating team. The burden is largely on Moscow to induce its client to send to Geneva a negotiating team empowered to create a transitional governing body that could include Assad and members of his inner circle only if the opposition consents—the most unlikely result imaginable. The G8, in short, very usefully reiterated the central purpose of any Geneva peace conference: to produce a new government for Syria.

Critics of the G8 communiqué emphasize that it does not call on Bashar al-Assad to step aside; indeed, it does not even mention Assad. Two points are in order: first, the Final Communiqué of June 2012 neither mentions the name Assad nor contains any preconditions relating to his status. Second, the G8 communiqué is a negotiated document, and Russia was part of the negotiation, as it was in Geneva in June 2012.

The G8 communiqué, when referring to the prospective Geneva II, resorted to reiterating passages from the document produced nearly a year ago in Geneva I. The emphasis then and now is on creating, through negotiations featuring mutual consent, a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers. Preservation of governmental institutions, state offices, and public services was upheld, but "under the control of the transitional governing body" and performing "according to professional and human rights standards." Although no preconditions were set forth, clearly the faithful implementation of the Geneva I standards by Geneva II would rule out the survival of the Assad regime.

If producing a negotiating team from the Assad regime actually empowered to negotiate regime change will not be easy for Russia, neither will it be easy for Moscow to persuade the regime to grant full access to United Nations chemical weapons investigators. That the G8 communiqué calls on "all parties to the conflict" to cooperate with the United Nations is defensible, but "all parties" have not been the obstacle: the regime, for perfectly understandable reasons, has blocked the entry of investigators. Similarly, describing the role of investigators in terms of conducting "an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons" is objectively acceptable. Does it not, however, contain the implication that the conclusions of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom fall short of objectivity? Russians, from President Putin on down, enjoy taunting the administration over the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction fiasco ten years ago, implying that the intelligence services of three states are now either incompetent or in the service of politicians determined to frame their blameless client. If and when a United Nations team is able to verify the conclusions arrived at by those intelligence services, it will be interesting to see how Russia upholds the G8 communiqué’s call for accountability.

The most likely Russian response to such a finding would be to claim bias on the parts of investigators. This was Moscow’s reaction to the June 4, 2013 report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Perhaps the most conspicuous shortcoming of the G8 communiqué is its failure to cite, much less quote, that definitive report, whose findings have been universally ignored by apologists of the Assad regime and other proponents of Western inaction in the face of regime depredations. That report, while taking to task in no uncertain terms some elements of the armed opposition, made clear the Assad regime’s "crimes against humanity," "war crimes," and "gross violations of human rights law." The essence of those crimes is an ongoing assault on Syrian civilian residential areas by artillery, military aircraft, and occasionally Scud missiles. It is this terror campaign (supplemented by massacres in areas accessible to the regime) that has accelerated the humanitarian catastrophe destroying Syria and destabilizing the countries on its periphery. To call, with fine impartiality, "on all sides" to respect human rights while gently "noting the particular responsibility of the Syrian authorities in this regard" is to give a bad name to the art of diplomacy.

Similarly, the G8’s call on the opposition and government to agree at Geneva to oust al-Qaeda elements "and other nonstate actors linked to terrorism" is missing one key word: Hezbollah. Despite having expropriated the role of the Lebanese state by intervening militarily in Syria, Hezbollah remains a nonstate actor. Linked to terrorism? Can there be any doubts in this regard? Was it not enough to concede to Moscow the word "nonstate," thereby exempting from consideration Russia’s client and Iran, two entities immersed in terrorism? There is no doubt that "destroying and expelling" al-Qaeda in and from Syria is a worthy goal. Yet a G8 communiqué that addresses and condemns the presence of some foreign fighters and not others, while ignoring altogether the findings of a seminal United Nations report on crimes against humanity and war crimes, is a communiqué that seems to overlook the key aspects of what is happening inside and around Syria.

In the end, perhaps it is enough that the West signed up to nothing in Northern Ireland that would tie its collective hands. President Obama told interviewer Charlie Rose recently that Syria is not Iraq, and that "serious" US national security interests are engaged by the impact of what is happening inside Syria on American allies and friends on Syria’s periphery. How to stop Assad’s shelling and bombing campaign of terror against residential areas is the key question facing the US administration. Until that issue is satisfactorily addressed, Syrians will suffer needlessly, friendly countries will be swamped by refugees and security challenges, and Geneva II will not likely happen. Kofi Annan had it right long before he left the stage: unless and until the Assad regime takes the necessary de-escalatory steps, nothing meaningful can happen diplomatically. Borne aloft on the shoulders of Iran and Hezbollah, however, Bashar al-Assad’s idea of diplomacy has nothing to do with Geneva I or Geneva II.

Photo: EPA

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof