The voice in the margins of the G20 meeting that needs to be heard on Syria, above all, is that of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She could mobilize India, Brazil, Japan, and others for a very simple proposition that might sound like this:
“Leave aside for the moment your differences in the Security Council on who did or did not use gas in Syria. You five countries that are permanent members – China, Russia, the United States, France, and Britain – cannot agree over what military action should or should not be taken over that, but surely you can agree that all chemical weapons should be removed from Syria now and that such a process should start now under UN supervision as was done in Iraq in 1991.”
If all the participants in St. Petersburg could rally to forge such a consensus it would bypass the dispute over who was responsible for the gas attack in Syria – Bashar al-Assad or the rebels. Neither President Obama nor Russia's President Vladimir Putin would need retract a word they have said.
Mr. Obama has already said that the advice of the joint chiefs of staff is that military action is not time-sensitive. This means he can hold open the threat. Mr. Putin has every interest in letting Mr. Assad know that he stands by the demand that all chemical weapons should be removed and he could even assist the process and participate in the destruction. It would not be part of the mandate of the UN inspectors to identify which country had supplied the weapons or if they had been stolen them and by/from whom.
Some will say that to go along with such a proposal would be an unacceptable climbdown for the US. But even President George W. Bush offered Iraq's Saddam Hussein what he thought was an exit. He promised days before America and Britain's deadline for Iraq to disarm in 2003 that he would not start the attack if the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) he believed were present were offered up for destruction. President Bush Sr. also made a somewhat similar offer if Hussein withdrew from Kuwait.
If the proposition to withdraw all chemical weapons from Syria were agreed on, it would almost certainly be sufficient to bring about an accompanying ceasefire. It would also be an impetus to start the planned conference in Geneva to negotiate a peace settlement.
Such an obvious and simple proposition may, in the frenzied debate that surrounds Syria, appear absurd: We may be told it is a non-starter. But history tells us that it is only at the brink that one has the opportunity to rethink.
The G20 countries are not without a voice or influence when faced by vetoes in the Security Council. If the permanent five members of the Security Council will not rethink their current stance, then the full General Assembly can use other powers in the UN Charter.
The nearest historical analogy is 1956 when President Eisenhower, with the battle just starting around the Suez Canal between Egypt and the invading forces of France, Israel, and Britain, put the weight of the US behind an emergency session of the General Assembly. A resolution calling for the end of the conflict was passed by more than a two-thirds majority against the two veto powers on the Security Council, France and the Britain. The fighting ceased and they withdrew their forces.
Circumstances, people will say, are very different today. I am not convinced. True, during the intervening years, the US has become very averse to using the Uniting for Peace procedure used in the General Assembly during the Suez Canal conflict. But the fact that this power could be invoked might be an additional spur to the Obama reassessing his stated intent to proceed with military strikes against Syria.
Britain's House of Commons, wisely in my view, slowed the drumbeat to a wider war in the Middle East last week. Far from being ashamed, I am proud of our democratic process in doing so. Obama has wisely slowed the process even more by deciding to involve Congress in making the decisions about military strikes against Assad in Syria. Congress doesn't return to Washington until Sept. 9, while the St. Petersburg G20 meeting runs from Sept. 5-6.
The US congressional debate has started afresh. Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina have already said they will use their vote to press not just for Obama’s stated policy of “a shot across the bow” and for action “limited in duration and scope” but for regime change and the overthrow of Assad.
Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina have pushed for regime change and the overthrow of Assad, but have recently lent tentative support to Obama's proposal for action “limited in duration and scope” if it is part of a larger plan to boost aid to the rebels.
Other concerns are surfacing. What if rockets are fired not from Syria but from Lebanon into Israel and war starts again there? During the first Iraq war in 1991, despite rockets being fired by Iraq into Israel, President Bush Sr. managed to persuade Israel not to respond. Will the same restraint be available again? I rather doubt it, for Israel sees Iran as being involved in both Lebanon and in Syria. Israel still wants Obama to attack Iranian facilities that it believes are making nuclear weapons. The Middle East is a powder keg. The Sunni/Shiite confrontation is spreading, and it is reigniting in Iraq.
Again, history tells us that limited war and micromanagement are very hard to achieve. What starts small ends up large. The huge risks of triggering a wider war by the US intervening in the civil war in Syria, even in the limited way that Obama envisages, lay in my view behind many parliamentary members' rejection of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s flawed arguments for military strikes against Assad. The British members of parliament also took on board the caution of British military leaders. After all, the very recently retired Chief of Defence Staff in Britain has made it quite clear he was and still is opposed to action of the sort planned in Syria.
At the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg the rest of the world has an opportunity to intervene for a negotiated peace in Syria. Let us hope they take it.
Lord David Owen, a former British foreign secretary, was co-chair of the European Union commission on the former Yugoslavia during the war there in the 1990s.
© David Owen/Global Viewpoint Network. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.