Syria is now the subject of international attention, and is the latest country to fall into a state of UN declared ‘Civil War’ in the wakeof the Arab Spring. This to me and many other commentators comes as no shock.In multiple articles including my own, written at the time of the wave ofrevolutions which started at the end of 2010, Syria was earmarked as ‘the one to watch’.
What is most interesting in the case of Syria however is the relationship between Russia and President Assad, America and the Syrian state.It is the first civil war situation where the term ‘cold war tensions’ has comeback into regular usage to describe the conflict of interests which existbetween two of the globes largest geopolitical powers.
This was the tone of a discussion on a recent Newsnightafter a rather weathered looking US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton,proclaimed Russia to be engaging in military intervention by providing helicoptersfor the use of the Syrian leader. The act which Clinton warned would ‘escalatethe situation dramatically’ was described as a ‘bolt out of the blue’ fromcommentator Mark Urban, which could not be further from the truth. As pointedout by Professor Fawaz Gerges, Director of the Middle East Centre of the LondonSchool of Economics, Russia has in fact always been the main supplier of SyrianArms.
Russia (and Putin in particular), have a history of a noninterventionist attitude, with a strong precedent to abstain or vote againstany UN resolutions which promote regime change or that meddle with internaldomestic affairs of a sovereign nation, as was the case with Libya. Unlike America, Russia believes in national sovereignty for every state, not just those who play by their own political rules.So for Russia this latest arms deal (which is in fact still a speculation),would merely be business as normal, as opposed to the attack on Westernprinciples which American political figures are trying their hardest to make out.
With the rise of the ‘BRIC’ countries it comes as nosurprise that the US are utilising the plight of yet another ‘failed’ state, aspropaganda against nations who are speeding up the tramlines to catch them upas a world power (my sincerest apologies for the cheesy Olympic styled metaphor, those adverts must be stronger than first thought). American, Cliff Kupchan Head of Russia TeamEurasia Group himself stated that Russia is not constructive in its actions,and such media coverage may lead to a change of tact.
This part of Syria’s plight is fascinating in terms of geopoliticaldiplomacy, but in terms of the conflict itself has rather less significance.Russia has claimed that the weapons that they have provided have not been usedagainst civilians during the struggle, something undoubtedly untrue. But whatthe Americans and the British must remember whilst scoffing at Putin’s naivetyis that the West displayed the exact same innocence in regard to the armsentering Gaddafi’s Libya.
Like the West with oil in Libya, the Russians do have covertinterests in Syria, more so than the Americans. Many of Assad’s military personneland staff are Russian trained in order to combat conflicting religious sectsand Saudi led forces in the region. It hosts great geopolitical significancefor all international powers, as it lays between the fragile states of Iraq andTurkey and between the ‘rich West’ and the ‘poor’ post soviet ‘East’, making it’sdemographics perhaps more significant in a world where religion is startingonce again to play a much larger role.
UN intervention is less likely in Syria as the West does notdepend as heavily on Syria’s depleting oil reserves. Lack of oil equals lack ofconcern; an equation proven throughout history. In comparison to Libya, Syriaactually has less of a historical significance to the UK and the US. Libya hada history of terrorist networks, weapons of mass destruction and activelyanti-western leaderships. Although some of these elements can be viewed inAssad’s regime, through his acts of terror and resistance of western values,there is certainly no concrete grudge projected from America and Great Britainas was the case with Libya.
There is also the increased fear of the domino effect, aswitnessed in the Arab Spring. If a pattern of intervention is started, thesituation may escalate further from a series of civil scaled conflicts, to aregional battle along certain political, cultural and religious cleavages, in asimilar pattern to that which then evolved into the Cold War. Commentators havelong stated that should a WW3 break out, it will not be a Eurocentric war, butone in which the Middle East becomes the warzone for struggles beyond itsborders and beyond its interests. The sphere of influence has shifted.
Gerges stated that the Washington consensus is thatintervention would indeed lead to such a region conflict, and that politicalwill for such action is low due to the current heightened fears surrounding thestate of Iran. Interfering with Russian exports could create whole realms ofnew problems, and the dispute between the US and Russia has arguably already affectedthe situation in Syria by pulling the limelight away from the actual problem.As stated by Gerges and many other academics concerned with the region, Syriahas reached the tipping point of no return as predicted.
When neighbours start fighting neighbours, it is difficultto envisage what may lead to a resolution, but in past situations neither ofthe great powers have been able to exert a notable influence.