US cannot sort out Syria on its own in multi-power world

20 years on from the terrorist ceasefires, Northern Ireland is definitely a safer place. 13 years on from 9/11, however, the world most certainly isn’t. As ever, the problem for the West is politics. Politics requires the perception that we are safe; yet perception is vastly different from reality.

Just over a year ago the UK Parliament stopped proposed military action in Syria. This was a very good thing – intelligence from research I myself was doing for a client in London indicated that the premise used to promote the proposed intervention (that Assad had used chemical weapons) was incorrect, just as in 2003 with the “weapons of mass destruction”. In fact, all the intelligence said that the Syrian opposition had used chemical weapons, not Assad. Is it not now interesting that we have come to view that opposition, not Assad, as the problem?

Last week I reluctantly supported military action. When genocide is ongoing within a democratic state which requests your assistance to stop it and you have the capacity to assist, you assist. However, no one supporting that assistance is suggesting a few RAF bombs will solve the problem; they are but a tiny part of a long-term and complex solution.

We still like to think we live in a binary world of “goodies” and “baddies”, but it’s a lot more complex than that – and actually there are a lot of “baddies” out there. To base intervention on particular atrocities would see intervention on different sides of the same conflict, so that’s useless (which was why I opposed intervention in either Iraq or Syria). To base intervention on which side suits the West only creates further outrage and fundamentalist opposition to the West in the long run. And the “sides” change all the time anyway!

The other issue, which I raised last month, is that the United States is no longer politically (or arguably even financially) in a position to sort these things out alone. Indeed, it never was – it has only been the sole superpower for two decades (while the Cold War looked and felt dangerous at the time, actually two superpowers provide enough coverage and a surprisingly secure sort of equilibrium which we haven’t had since 1991). Those two decades have seen the United States directly attacked, and then become embroiled in conflicts which served no purpose, cost lives, and reduced Allies – many countries involved in the first Gulf War had dropped out of the Western Alliance by the second.

Barack Obama was a horribly inexperienced President right from the outset, but even the greatest Foreign Affairs genius of all time in the White House could not solve the basic problem that is unclear what the United States should do; and it is clear that there are significant practical limitations on what it can do. Europeans now spent woefully little on their military to be of any real use as allies; and the IS surge in Iraq/Syria is in any case tied in all kinds of ways (primarily religious and trade) with conflicts ongoing all the way from the Sahara to the Black Sea.

What we are seeing in the world in 2014 is a shift to multi-powers, with the rise of China and perhaps other BRIC countries (with insecurity enhanced by their own and their neighbours’ jostling for power as others, including religious zealots, fill various new voids left by American inability or unwillingness to act decisively). It does look alarmingly like 1914, when a similar shift from Pax Britannica to the Cold War began and the lamps went out for a generation. It is extraordinarily difficult to see what we should do about it, however – the only thing which is clear is that if we are waiting for the United States to do it all, it will be a forlorn wait.

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