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Syria or the Symbolic Graveyard of the West

Picture: Jewel Samad Source: AFP

Picture: Jewel Samad Source: AFP

The last plan to solve the Syrian war could certainly lead to a positive outcome – as diplomacy is always better than force – but raises serious problems: does the Euro-Atlantic community have any idea of what it want to accomplish in Syria? What is the end game in Syria? Does the West want to destroy Syrian chemical weapons? Or Hurt the Assad regime?

In a matter of weeks, the Euro-Atlantic community went from regime change, to punishment of the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, to now putting all Syrian chemical stockpiles under UN supervision. The latest alternative emerged after the G20 meeting described as a gladiatorial contest between the old Cold War foes. In the aftermath of the meeting, US Secretary Kerry announced, as reported by Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times, in London on Monday that “a military strike on Syria could be averted if the Assad regime handed over its chemical weapons.” This statement changed the Cartoondebate on Syria. Then the Russians jumped on board of this alternative and have since been lobbying in favor of an international supervision of Syrian chemical arsenal.

Putin knows that he now has the upper hand, as no Western nations, due to domestic opposition/skepticism, are willing to participate in another military endeavor in the Middle East. For instance in the US, 31% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the situation of Syria – when until now foreign policy was one of the strong points of Obama’s presidency –; in France, according to Le Figaro 2/3 of French citizens oppose a military intervention in Syria. President Hollande is as well facing pressure from the left and the right to bring the issue before the Parliament. British Prime Minister is out of the race after the rejection by the House of Commons, and Angela Merkel, in the middle of her campaign, does not want to include Syria on the menu considering the domestic taboo around foreign interventions.

With the usual suspects, the UK and Germany, out of the race, the US only has France as its wing-mate in case of military intervention. But as a surprising move President Obama sent the Syrian file in the hands of an indecisive and belligerent Congress. Since his election in 2008, the legislature has not played in favor of Obama, blocking any policies initiated by the President, despite the control of the Senate by the Democrats. The Putin alternative, to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control, suddenly seems to attract President Obama and the Syrian government as it could solve the crisis without the use of force.

Photo: Evan Vucci, AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Evan Vucci, AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday President Obama met with members of Congress and addressed the nation later the same evening. Before a national audience, President Obama in a quick – 15 minutes – and well structured speech tried to make the case before the American citizens. He started by asking two key questions: “Why it [Syria] matters? And where are we going from here?” Obama talked of the evolution of his position on dealing with Syria as he had been, at first, against military intervention until the August chemical attack. He built his case by explaining the progressive historical international opposition to the chemical weapons starting with World War one. He, then, exposed the facts that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime against Syrians in August. Obama went on by arguing that stopping Assad is a direct matter of American national security, as a “failure to stand” against chemical weapons would send the wrong message to the world. “Our [American] ideals and principles,” claimed Obama “as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria.” He tried to demonstrate that Syria is a clear matter of national security. Most of his speech consisted in demonstrating how the US would use force against Syria through targeted strikes in order to degrade Assad capabilities. He underlined that he neither believes in regime change nor in sending boots on the ground, but targeted strikes could send a message to Assad and other dictators.

Then, he reflected on the question of alternatives or even leaving Syria to other countries. Obama underlined the limited success of diplomacy and sanctions so far in pressuring the Assad regime. The case for military intervention seemed to be the only alternative until the end of his speech when he finally addressed the Putin initiative. Consequently, Obama asked Congress to postpone its vote approving or not the military intervention until Kerry and himself can continue the discussion with their Russian counterparts. Diplomacy appears to be back on the table. In any case, Obama’ speech emphasized on the fact that the US remains a superpower with an unchallengeable military. The subliminal message was simple: the US is the hegemon and just the threat of American military force – and its exceptionalism – is enough to foster fear around the world as the current chains of events demonstrates it.



Aside from Obama’ speech and going back to the latest development, the Putin alternative, there is one major problem with such approach: the seriousness and credibility of the Russians and Syrians to actually coordinate and cooperate with the international community. Both know better than anyone that the UN process is always slow, chaotic, messy and lengthy. The question remains: is Russia trying to buy more time in order to protect the Assad regime? The Russia strategy is a slow option requiring a lot of transparency and cooperation; but it is certainly a possible and credible road. France has since been working on making sure that the future UN Resolution would come with serious teeth. Laurent Fabius, French minister of foreign affairs, declared “une perche, il faut la saisir. Un piège, il ne faut pas tomber dedans” (in English: a perch one shall seize it. A trap, one must not fall in it). France wants quick and real promises allowing a credible crisis management and solution.

To retake the words of neo-cons advisor and crusader, Karl Rove, “it’s amateur hour at the White House.” Rove may certainly be right on some degree, even though one shall recognize that since 2008 Obama’s foreign policy has been based on two dimensions: cuts and the pivot to Asia. Being stuck in the Middle East was never part of the plan for Obama, whom has been working “on ending wars rather than starting them.” In the case of Putin, the excellent Fiona Hill of Brookings, wrote one of the best analyses on the Russian variable in the Syrian equation. She argued that “Putin is particularly skilled at keeping his opponents off balance. And there is no question that Obama is Putin’s opponent on the issue of Syria.” She claims that Putin is not defending Syria, but rather Russia as the Assad regime is perceived as a much better option in order to keep in check the rise of radical Islamic groups. In terms of leadership, Putin may certainly have won this set.

At the end of the day, the US and the Euro-Atlantic community seem to be the biggest loser. The US, led by an unwilling President to use force in Syria, has not only lost Britain as its reliable partner, but as well has sent a mixed message to France of disposability. The French government has expressed its desire to punish the Assad regime, but its military is seriously overstretched due to its current mission in Mali and ongoing defense cuts. With France, on the sideline during the G20 meeting in St-Petersburg, and now waiting on the US Congress to make a decision, “Hollande’s critics say he looks like a lackey.” The Euro-Atlantic community is demonstrating a serious lack of unity and confusion on an issue that matters to them. NATO and the EU have been seriously quiet so far.

Syria could very much be the symbolic graveyard of the supremacy of the Euro-Atlantic community over the shaping of world events and enforcing global security. The chaotic and mixed messages emanating from Western capitals illustrate the end of an era. The unwillingness to act in order to defend core moral and normative principles developed, promoted and enforced by the West since the end of World War II could represent the end of Western supremacy. Welcome to the 21st century multipolar system!



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.