The Syrian conflict has triggered something more fundamental than a difference of opinion over intervention, something more than an argument about whether the Security Council should authorize the use of force. Syria is the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two. A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies now finds itself face to face with two authoritarian despotisms—Russia and China—something new in the annals of political science: kleptocracies that mix the market economy and the police state. These regimes will support tyrannies like Syria wherever it is in their interest to do so.
In sixteen months, the situation in Syria has mutated from an uprising in a few outlying cities into a full-scale civil war. Now it has mutated again into a proxy war between the Great Powers. The Russians have been arming the regime—it was a Russian air defense system that shot down the Turkish F-4 Phantom jet—and the West is now arming the rebels. The Saudis and the Gulf states are funneling weapons straight to the Sunnis, especially to anyone with Salafist and Islamic radical credentials. Arms are trickling across the borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan; the CIA has been given the difficult task of ensuring that at least the Turkish weapons are channeled to the right people and away from al-Qaeda affiliates. Who the right people are is anybody’s guess. In a village war, not even the CIA can be sure.
To the extent that there is a strategy on the Western side—and that’s a big assumption—it seems to be to tip the military balance inside Syria, without backing the US and NATO into a direct confrontation with Bashar al Assad’s protectors in Moscow. Slowly, this strategy, such as it is, may be turning the momentum in the rebels’ favor. A rag tag bunch of village insurgents and army defectors is slowly coming together as a fighting force. The videos they upload onto YouTube are now showing not only the pounding they’ve endured but the damage they’ve inflicted on Assad’s forces. More and more villages and towns have slipped out of the regime’s control, at least by night.
The defections—of regime confidantes and senior generals—are becoming eloquent. The regime is losing its nerve and its capacity to instill terror. Conscripts are not reporting for duty. Sunni officers are staying at home, and the burden of defending the regime is falling on the minority Alawites. Both sides, the regime and its opponents, are now fighting with the special savagery of those who know the fate that awaits them if they lose. The flames of the conflict are now flickering around the edges of Damascus. The war for Syria is likely to end only when the flames engulf Assad’s palace.
While the rebels are gaining momentum inside Syria, the exile leadership of the Syrian opposition is frittering it away outside. When opposition leaders were placed in hotel rooms in Cairo and told, by the Arab League and other foreign diplomats, to get their act together, the meeting degenerated into chaos. The Syrian Kurds, for example, emboldened by the successes of their Iraqi cousins, sought recognition of their national identity in a post-Assad Syria, but other opposition groups weren’t ready to grant it. Divisions of clan, tribe, ethnicity, and religion would make a united front difficult at the best of times. But it’s become clear that the Assads, father and son, were more skillful than Libya’s Qaddafi at keeping their outside opposition weak and divided. . These divisions will cost the Syrian opposition any chance of further international military help in the form of air strikes, safe havens, or buffer zones. Escalated engagement of this sort makes sense only if there is a regime in waiting that military action can propel into power.
In Libya, the Benghazi rebels did manage to hammer together a provisional administration that provided NATO with just enough cover to engage in regime change. No such luck in Syria. From the West’s point of view, we have a proxy war without reliable proxies. Whatever regime emerges from the ruins, it will be shaped by militia commanders who owe little to NATO or the United States, so we will not have much leverage in shaping political outcomes when Assad falls. The radical Islamists may owe more to their Saudi arms-suppliers.
So the Great Powers are facing off in the most volatile region on earth, in a contest that is already destabilizing the domestic politics of Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. It will go on like this for some time. Neither Russia nor the US wants to fuel the escalation that would bring the Syrian civil war to an end, lest this risk a direct confrontation between the two of them. The Russians and Americans are also restrained by their second and equally dangerous standoff over neighboring Iran. Russia helped build Iran’s nuclear program, China needs Iranian oil and both are willing to support Iran’s defense of the region’s Shias, including Syria’s Alawites, especially when the US and the Saudis are lined up behind the Sunnis.
But while Russia and the US want to keep the confrontation below boiling point, their proxies—Iran and Syria on one side, and Israel, Saudi Arabia on the other—will seek to drag them in deeper. And it’s not clear that either Washington or Moscow will be able to contain that pressure.
The Syrian conflict has laid bare how little the West understands Russia and China’s new approach to the world. Kofi Annan’s plan for Syria was based on the assumption that Russia’s real interest was in demonstrating to the US that it was the indispensable ally in the creation of a post-Assad transition. Annan’s attempt to secure Chinese support for his plan made a similar assumption.
What makes Syria a hinge-moment is that Russia and China are proving that they have no strategic interest in transitions beyond dictatorship, not just in Syria but anywhere else. Both Russia and China see Syria not through the prism of international peace and security or human rights, but through the logic of their own despotism. For Putin, Syria is Chechnya; for China it is Tibet. They understand Assad perfectly. He is doing what they have done many times and they want the world to understand that they will support any dictator facing similar challenges.
None of this should have come as a shock. By now we ought to know the Russian and Chinese regimes for what they are. But it is a surprise.
At the end of the Cold War in 1989, we told ourselves history had a libretto—a story about liberty—set to a happy tune. Once regimes like Russia and China allowed market reforms, political reforms would follow, since peoples with economic freedom were bound to demand democracy too. The people have done so repeatedly since 1989 and both regimes have shut them down.
Our idea that history had a libretto of freedom led the West to misread Russia and China’s strategic intentions. We brushed aside signs that they were refusing to embrace our view of the world. Russia resisted NATO expansion to its border and refused to give the alliance a green light over Kosovo, but we thought their need for foreign capital would soften their intransigence over time. Chinese leaders dug in when asked to devalue their currency and they continued to imprison dissidents. But we assumed they would cooperate with us on other issues because they sought integration into the global economy. For too long we believed they were behind us on the march to freedom but were heading in the same direction.
Syria marks the end of these illusions and the post-Cold War period that went with them. A vast swathe of the globe, from the Russian border to the Pacific, including the tributary states of the Russian near-abroad, is now in the hands of venal, ruthless, deeply corrupt, single-party elites. These elites—Russian and Chinese—will draw closer together, as they understand that they have made the same strategic choice. Both are using capitalism to consolidate political despotism. They both see the world as a battle between elites like themselves with unlimited power and Western elites whose power is limited by democratic liberty.
When they look at the world this way, the Russian and Chinese regimes mock our view of history. They believe history is on their side. The economic crisis now entering its fifth year confirms their view that democracies are divided, incompetent, venal, hypocritical, and above all, weak. As Putin himself said in a speech in Moscow on July 9, our economic malaise is “weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West.” Where the US and the West intervene, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and try to impose what Putin called “missile-bomb diplomacy” we do not stay the course, and where we fail to back words with actions, as in Syria, we confirm the Russian and Chinese instinct that we are weak.
Syria tells us that the era of humanitarian intervention, “responsibility to protect,” is over, because it assumed a historical progression that has turned out to be false. The idea that the “international community” should shoulder together the responsibility to protect people from murderous regimes made sense only on the assumption that we all wanted people to live in tolerably decent ones. Neither Russia nor China takes this view. They are perfectly content with a world of Mugabes and Assads and they suspect, with more than just cynicism, that the West, for all its protestations, is too. For we are tired and worried about our economies back home and responsibility for other people’s freedom has turned out to be a costly and dirty business.
We need to understand this new division of the world and act accordingly. It is not a new Cold War. There is no competing ideology—not yet—to provide Putin and the Chinese leadership with an expansionary strategy. They are not yet our enemies, since they have no design to upset the existing order of states and alliances. But they are adversaries, with interests opposed to ours. To assume that they could ever be allies with us on Syria was not just Annan’s mistake. It was a general delusion from which we all need to awake.
Russia and China’s defense of dictators casts itself in the language of international law, but neither cares about Bashar al Assad or his sovereignty. When the flames of Syrian popular anger eventually engulf his Damascus palace, they will cut their losses and move on. But they have put down a marker. This is not your world, they want us to know, and history is not moving in your direction. You will have to reckon with us. We shall indeed.