By Mark Mardell
Presenter, The World This Weekend
The Syrian civil war seems intractable, interminable, a torrent resulting from various polluted streams of histories – from the poorly thought-through Iraq invasion to the withered Arab Spring, from 14 centuries of sectarian conflict to the end of the Cold War.
But does it point the way to the future – perhaps not a future we might welcome, but a sign of the way the world is heading?
Syria has become a bear pit – the terrible destructiveness of any civil war (they last on average seven years) compounded by the self-interest of other international actors.
In a recent special edition of The World at One devoted to the conflict, most of the participants expressed a deep gloom about the prospects for an early end to the war – indeed to any end.
I can’t remember who said it so I can’t credit them for their wise words, but someone recently observed that one of the problems with this civil war is that, even if some of the nations involved actually desire peace, it is not their first priority.
The United States and the rest of the West want the destruction of the so-called Islamic State, and would like President Assad to be replaced by a democratic opposition.
Turkey worries about refugees and a Kurdish state and seems ambivalent towards Sunni movements.
For Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is another front in a struggle to be the main regional superpower – itself refracted through a sectarian conflict being fought in many of the nearby nations, where Sunni and Shia identities have become sharper and harsher.
But it is Russia that is the key and the core.
There’s quite a debate about what President Putin wants. Some say a warm-water port, some that he can’t lose an ally, others that he wants to defeat a “colour” revolution.
Or that it is about projecting Russian power in the world – and some who agree with that add that such a project is really all about burnishing his image at home.
Understanding Russia’s aims is key to understanding the conflict in Syria
The Cold War may have ended more than a quarter of a century ago, but the global rebalancing that followed is still happening.
The United States is still the world’s foremost superpower but the brief time when it was the unquestioned heir to the end of history has long gone. Some will argue its moral self-confidence was squandered in the sands of Iraq – others that it is a lack of will on the part of the current president.
It’s true that President Obama has absolutely no appetite for such confrontation, nor for wading knee-deep into another unwinnable occupation of an Arab country.
But don’t hold your breath for a big change after the election. Hillary Clinton might step up military intervention, while Donald Trump is more difficult to read – friendly towards Russia, against intervention, but pledged to destroy IS. But whatever the campaign rhetoric, I would hazard a guess the next president will only be different on the margins to the current one.
It is fashionable to castigate President Obama for flaccidly allowing Assad off the hook.
It’s a point of view many politicians, military people and diplomats share, so we hear it often. But it is at least arguable that President Obama not only understands the mood of the American population, but the limits of what even a determined superpower can actually achieve, having examined the evidence of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
President Obama is wary of imposing military solutions on global problems.
There’s no better take on Obama’s world view than Jeff Goldberg’s masterful discussion highlighting in particular his scorn for the “playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow”, which dictates a military solution to every crisis.
The president adds in his interview: “What I think is not smart, is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”
But this leaves the “liberal interventionism” which followed Rwanda and Bosnia in abeyance.
This is not just about will. It is about a changing world, a rebalanced world, where East versus West is not the only game in town.
Syria is a sign of not just a world where the US has lost its appetite and its confidence to play sheriff to the world, but one that is increasingly multipolar.
The Philippines’ recent hesitation about patrolling the South China Seas alongside the US navy indicates that it wants a good relationship with the growing superpower on its doorstep.
While China may project more regional power in nearby waters than it used to, it is still averse to projecting military power to interfere with other nations’ internal affairs. It does not burn with a universalist’s desire to right wrongs.
Russia only occasionally attempts the same moral pretensions that always seem to go with US military action and is rarely believed when it does. But it is every bit as assertive as the US once was.
Questions remain about the ability of the United Nations to influence world events
Perhaps creating disorder is easier than imposing order. Probing along the borders of Nato and the European Union, occupying the Crimea, preventing the westernisation of the “near abroad”, Syria is simply the latest manifestation of Putin’s projection of military power.
Beyond the actual cost of the operation, he has few fears.
We talk glibly of the “global community” but it is hard to see what it means. The UN becomes a cockpit for angry accusations, and forlorn hopes, rather than resolution. Not quite in the league of the League of Nations, but certainly where heads butt, rather than get banged together.
On the Security Council, China and the United States have most of the guns and much of the financial clout. But it is Russia – dreaming of the power and the glory of the Soviet Union era – which is determined to recreate some simulation of that empire’s reach and influence, provocative and short-term, with no clear strategic aims. (The UK and France may still fitfully dream of past imperial grandeur, but merely provide a bit more muscle to America’s lost causes.)
No-one I have spoken to can explain to me why Russia will not get its way in Syria and, by extension, how President Assad could be removed from power, unless President Putin wills it.
This may not be a desirable state of affairs but, unless I am missing something profound, it is the state of the world in which we live.