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Syria and the wider crisis of international diplomacy

The world holds its breath while Syria waits. Henry Patton

Two weeks ago airstrikes against the Syrian regime in retaliation to its assumed use of chemical weapons seemed a foregone conclusion, despite Russian and Chinese resistance. US-led Western resolve, albeit against a groundswell of public opinion and rather underwhelming backing from major allies, appeared unstoppable.

Since then, the Lower House of the British Parliament has withheld consent from a government motion to back military action, the US President has decided to seek Congressional support for any military campaign, the G20 meeting in Moscow was split almost evenly on the issue (with only a slight majority behind the US stance), and now a Russian plan appears to offer a way out of an increasingly intractable situation that illustrates the deep divisions in the international community over the use of force.

The sequence of events, not just over the past two weeks, but throughout almost the entire Syrian crisis, is reflective of a number of far more fundamental problems.

The first of these problems is the on-going contest over what principles of international law and what norms within the international system should have primacy. On the one hand, this is manifest in debates over state sovereignty vs. the responsibility to protect (R2P). At some level, there are important normative issues at stake, as well as questions of how far the international community, and individuals actors within should and can go to uphold these norms.

At another level, however, it would be naïve to deny that the contest over these norms is driven by the concrete interests of those defending one norm or another. In the case of Syria, Russia and Iran are, among other things, concerned about the survival of an important ally in the Middle East.

A second, and closely related, problem is the increasingly artificial distinction between the use of force within and between states. International law regulates when the use of force in international relations is permissible—self-defence and authorisation by the UN Security Council. Yet the problem with violence today is no longer, and has not been for a long time, its use by states against each other but against their own populations.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria so far, but it took until some 1,000 were killed by chemical weapons for some in the international community to contemplate a drastic, albeit again limited, escalation in their response. This dangerous relativism paralyses the international community—not because it does not have the tools or mechanisms to respond effectively to such humanitarian crises, but because it lacks the unity and political will to do so.

In addition, Western foreign policy making is trapped in an as yet unresolved, and probably unresolvable, contest between norms and interests. Leaving aside the grave humanitarian situation that the civil war in Syria has created within and beyond the country, the debate over military intervention is ultimately linked to the question whether the norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be upheld by any means possible.

As the United States has also, and unfortunately, come to believe that its own credibility is at stake in this debate, norms trump interests in decision-making. Thus, it remains unclear what, if any, benefit can be reaped from what is militarily on offer: limited strikes to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, deter it from a repeat, and degrade its capability to do so. This may well be an important point to make, but it can have consequences far more damaging to Western interests than a less aggressive response of, say, an indictment of Assad for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Another worrying trend, obvious in the international reaction to the Syrian crisis, are the increasingly shaky and changing patterns of allegiance within the Western alliance. From the relative unity during NATO’s Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the war in Afghanistan to the dissent over the invasion of Iraq, the lack of unity (in the European Union) over Kosovo’s independence, to the intervention in Libya and now the divisions over military intervention in Syria, the West has lost its common approach, US leadership has been challenged, and obviously common interests no longer translate into a common approach to international problems.

This has not been helped by the apparent lack of a clear strategy by the United States and its allies. Apart from a vague notion of a stable Middle East (and North Africa) region, which is beset by a myriad of other problems beyond the Syrian civil war and its consequences, it remains anyone’s guess what precisely the objectives are that should be achieved in Syria, the means by which to do so, and the resources required. Nor should one fall into the trap believing that Russia has much of a strategy either. It has at best as similarly vague objective—retaining its influence in the region—coupled with a ‘tool’ that is anything but sustainable even in the mid-term—keeping Assad in power.

Russia may thus be able to portray its initiative, almost certainly discussed, prepared and carefully choreographed at the fringes of the G20, as a constructive proposal to deal with the Syrian chemical weapons issue, but there is very limited likelihood that it will ever pass the Security Council in a workable form. Even if the P5 agree on a resolution, how feasible will it be to put Syria’s chemical weapons verifiably and permanently beyond use in the midst of a vicious civil war? And even if that were possible, it would still not address the much more deep-seated problems of the Syrian civil war that gave rise to the current crisis in the international community’s ability to respond effectively to man-made humanitarian emergencies. In that sense, the Russian plan is a symptom of a wider crisis of international paralysis, not a way out of it.

As Russia and the United States, and their respective allies, lock horns at the G20 and in the UN Security Council and perhaps eventually find a face-saving way out of their self-inflicted paralysis, the dynamic of the Syrian civil war has long taken a direction that will see neither of them as a winner. In other words, what we see in Syria now illustrates the inability of global leaders to lead and offer strategic vision of engagement with each other that would enable a more constructive and pragmatic approach to problem-solving. Not only does this harm great power interests but with a look at the ever worsening humanitarian crisis in and around Syria it also makes a mockery of the values they purport to defend.