Transatlantic diplomacy over Syria was fraught for the first half of 2013 and was shambolic in August as Europe and the US tried to respond.
In early 2013, Britain and France pressed the US to do more to aid the rebels and advance the fall of President Assad’s regime. As time passed, Europe accepted the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved, mainly because of the rise of radical Islamist opposition groups. Then, in August, the Syrian regime was revealed to have used chemical weapons on a civilian target, resulting in over 1,400 fatalities. The US, backed by France and the UK, demanded a military response to punish the regime and deter it from further use of chemical weapons. After over a year of arguing that military intervention would be ineffective, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to build public support for action. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s loss of a crucial parliamentary vote and the subsequent decision to rule out any involvement in military operations increased pressure on Obama to go to Congress.
At the G20 meeting in St Petersburg, France and the US tried to rally international support for action. Germany’s failure at the summit to sign a statement condemning the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime highlighted divisions within the EU and Germany’s turn towards non-intervention, though it signed the statement the next day. The decision by Obama to go to Congress before launching a military strike infuriated France and called into question the administration’s capacity to deliver on what it promised. The seemingly accidental diplomacy between John Kerry and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whereby Russia acted as a broker for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, then made the Syrian crisis a bilateral US-Russian affair. The removal of the chemical weapons was tempered by the legitimacy it lent to Assad. From the perspective of relations with the US, though, matters were even worse. Europe was divided, the commitment given by Obama was undermined by Congress, Russia appeared to come out on top, and the civil war raged on.