The Western-led response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 prioritized the use of military instruments of power that wrought death and destruction across the broader Middle East. The war on terror weakened the very structures of international law and multilateral institutions that underpin international society. Moreover, the divisive legacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eroded political support in Western democracies for further military action in the Middle East. The intervention in Libya in 2011 bucked the trend, but the subsequent radicalization of militia groups and the political and territorial fragmentation of post-Gaddafi Libya have sapped further the appetite for getting involved in complex and fluid situations.
Against this backdrop, Western discourse over Syria has come to resemble the ‘fighting the last war’ syndrome that generals (and policy-makers) are supposed to avoid. The political debate in the UK House of Commons on whether Britain should support the principle of taking military action in Syria was marked by repeated references to Iraq; some MPs even made the Freudian slip of referring to ‘Saddam’ instead of ‘Bashar.’ The long shadow cast by Iraq—and the contentious basis for, and legality of, going to war in 2003—has paralyzed Western policies on Syria, even as the humanitarian situation worsens and hundreds of civilians die each week.
Instead, the Syria impasse is drawing attention to a new balance of power as China and other major emerging economies engage in commerce, economic assistance, and the projection of hard and soft power across the world. It is the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia and Qatar that have led the calls for military intervention in Syria, taking matters into their own hands by trying to organize the political opposition to Assad and channeling support to rebel fighters, while neighboring Kuwait has emerged as a key financial conduit for the opposition movement. In the face of Western inaction these are significant moves that attempt to change the ‘facts on the ground’ with or without an international mandate.
The signs of a new regional and global order, in which power is more diffuse and stretched across multiple centers, were on display in Bishkek last week. The Kyrgyz capital hosted the thirteenth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and discussion of Syria dominated the meeting. The presidents of Russia and China met with Iran’s newly-elected president Hassan Rouhani, who was making his first foreign visit since taking office in August. Chinese President Xi endorsed Russia’s proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to international control and added its own objection to military intervention. The summit ended by calling for an immediate end to the violence, the start of an inclusive political dialogue, and the convening of an international conference.
None of this may yet come to fruition, and the sentiments expressed last week in Bishkek may prove to be as devoid of practical content as some of the more ardent Western rhetoric backing military action. It is likely that the civil war in Syria will continue to escalate and that thousands more will die before any settlement is reached. The tragedy for Syrians is that their crisis comes at a moment of such profound uncertainty in the structure and balance of international power. A half-decade and more of systemic shocks to the existing global order has resulted in a deep collective action problem that underscores the inadequacy of existing global governance arrangements, but there is no consensus about what should come next.