A dialogue that worked

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Khaleej Times, October 1, 2013

In Syria, civil war has torn apart the nation and put civilian lives at risk for more than two years. The surrounding nations fear for their safety, and those minding their borders fear the already massive refugee crisis.

Around the world, the most powerful and influential nations fear chaos and instability. Yet they cannot agree on an approach to the situation that pleases all stakeholders. Despite this chaos, and despite the situation worsening all the time, dialogue was just used to full-effect by stopping the United States’ attack plan in its tracks.

The power of dialogue was more evident in Syria than in anywhere else in the world as this situation reached its boiling point these past few weeks. President Bashar Al Assad refused to give up power and the rebels have refused to give any ground not taken by force. Civilians suffer, refugees fill nations unequipped to handle them and through it all, dialogue is a force, which helps guide progress toward a peaceful future.

As many as 100,000 are dead and both sides have accused the other of using chemical weapons. Amid the fighting, many Western powers, including the United States, Britain and France lobbied for intervention with military action. The United States in particular, accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons against civilians on the 21st of August. Many have claimed this to be sufficient justification for an attack, many remain unsure.

In the aftermath of the alleged chemical attack, voices were heard from all sides saying all different things. The Assad regime blamed the rebels, the rebels blamed Damascus. The United States called for immediate action against Assad, while the Russians refused to back any military action. Meanwhile, the United Nations was putting chemical weapons inspectors on the ground in Syria. These experts were there to determine, scientifically, whether or not a chemical weapons attack actually took place where it was alleged that it did.

On their first day on the job, the United Nations team in Damascus had their convoy attacked by snipers. The team turned around and went back to base, hoping to start the next day. They did start the next day, heading to the site of the attacks and taking tissue samples, water samples and other scientific data to be tested. Though journalists across the world and the US government seem to agree that a chemical attack took place, no nation or group has released definitive scientific evidence of chemical weapons use.

President Barack Obama decided that instead of taking unilateral action, he would seek Congressional approval and attempt to build a coalition. Instead of immediately re-supplying Assad, Vladimir Putin and the Russians decided to halt some weapons deliveries until the results have been released and more recently, Putin urged the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles. Though initially reluctant to support negotiations and dialogue, even the United States appears on board, with Secretary of State John Kerry advocating a similar position.

When it appeared that there might be an attack from the West before the United Nations inspectors could finish their job, Putin took matters into his own hands by publishing an opinion piece in The New York Times where he called into question the views of Obama and urged the American people to support a diplomatic solution.

At the end of a tension-filled week, it was the power of dialogue that won out of the power of Western military might. Assad’s government agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles voluntarily rather than by force. This represents a monumental victory for peace through dialogue, but only time will tell if this tactic will be truly successful.

The Syrians have promised to disclose all of their chemical weapons facilities and surrender the weapons to the UN by mid-2014, but no one knows if the Assad regime will follow through.

Though the situation in Syria is still tense, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and his team, Obama and Putin can rest knowing they used dialogue and diplomacy to prevent the possibility of yet another US-Russian proxy war in arguably the most dangerous part of this planet.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community