The G8’s Syrian consensus

The G8’s Syrian consensus
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Well, last week’s big G8 leaders’ summit in Northern Ireland seems to have been a bit of a bust, at least if the goal was achieving unanimity on the Syria question. Though all eight presidents and prime ministers were able to issue a joint communiqué pledging aid for refugees fleeing the two-year civil war, they remained worlds apart on the big question — namely, which side should actually win the thing.

Or perhaps that’s a bit of a false dichotomy. As the toon hopefully illustrates, seven of the eight G8 leaders are broadly supporting the rebels to some degree or another.

Late last month, under French and British pressure, the EU voted to not renew its ban on shipping weapons to Syria, a move that could allow European nations to eventually arm the militants opposing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Italy was generally supportive of the idea, but wanted to see controls on which militants exactly would be eligible, while reliably peacenik Germany opposed the move, but still has no love lost for the Assad regime (even suggesting the dictator should seek exile in Russia). Off the continent, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been firm but cautious in denouncing Assad while also expressing reluctance over arming the rebels, while Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has echoed similar sentiments. President Obama is obviously the least equivocating of the whole bunch; his is the first government to actually begin shipping weapons, rather than merely contemplating the strategic merits of doing so.

The only outright dissenter of the eight is of course Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who continues to stand by what he calls Syria’s “legitimate government,” providing it with arms and aid to crush the anti-Assad rebels — who, by the way, are a bunch of intestine-eating cannibals, if you hadn’t heard.

In the words of Prime Minister Harper, Putin’s unapologetic willingness to support the “thugs of the Assad regime” only highlighted what a sham the G8 actually is. More like “G7-plus-one,” he summarized snarkily.

In short, the powerful industrialized democracies seem to be edging closer and closer to outright involvement in the Syrian civil war, though with absolutely zero talk of boots on the ground, or even a no-fly zone, the preferred fighting strategy appears to be that of an old-fashioned, Cold War-style proxy battle. Which, in turn, has led to a revival of old-fashioned concern over the dangers of fighting proxy battles in the first place.

As any student of 20th century history knows, this business of covertly (or overtly) arming and funding enemies-of-my-enemies tends to yield mixed results at best. The western powers’ decision to back the supposedly secular and moderate Iraq over Russian-friendly Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s didn’t generate a lot of long-term goodwill or obedience from the Saddam Hussein regime, nor did any similar affinities flow from the Charlie Wilson scheme to support Afghanistan’s fundamentalist rebels in their jihad against their Soviet-backed dictatorship. In Latin America, US aid for sadistic military governments fighting Russian-backed Marxist guerrillas usually just prolonged civil wars and civilian bloodshed. And now there’s much fear that the anti-Assad rebels of today could wind up the Syrian Taliban of tomorrow, particularly given the large role Islamism in general, and Bin Ladenism specifically, is supposedly playing  in their uprising.

The most tragic dilemma of the whole thing, however, is that there doesn’t appear to be a pragmatic centre option in which to escape the excesses of both sides. Most observers have dismissed the idea of a peace conference or “negotiated settlement” to the war as little more than a Russian-backed scam to buy time. With the Syrian regime now responsible for about 100,000 deaths, the rebels obviously have no incentive whatsoever in legitimizing the Assad government as a negotiating partner, but neither does Assad himself have any clear incentive in conferring respectability on a group of armed terrorists — in his mind — sworn to destroy him. The positions of both sides are absolutist — President Assad must either stay or go — and only total victory, secured by wearing down the opposition through an unrelenting campaign of viciously fatiguing violence, can possibly make either goal achievable.

In that sense, I guess there’s a simplicity to the Russian position that’s at least somewhat enviable; by supporting the status quo Putin’s backing the devil he knows, while placing the onus on the west to make the case for some better alternative.

Regardless of who’s sending weapons and who’s merely in favor of doing so, that’s still the argument to be won.


  1. Zulu

    Heh, what's with Harper's food?

  2. ThePsudo

    What's up with Harper's NOSE!?

  3. EBounding

    Yes, I would also like to understand Harper's food, even though it might ruin the joke. Is that the stereotypical Canadian diet?

  4. J.J. McCullough

    The joke is that Harper's weight has famously fluctuated a lot during his time in power. I'm just making a cheap joke about him being a pig.

  5. Kento

    Is Putin's meal a reference (what a horrible word) to Jimmy Carr's joke about Russia's national dish?

  6. JonasB

    The Syria thing isn't something that has a "right" side. Its an internal, if tragic matter, and won't have a resolution that satisfies anyone in the international community. As sad as it is, the civil war is something that just has to play itself out while the other nations try to minimize the damage. Focusing on refugee aid and a post-war reconstruction plan would be a better use of time, in my opinion.

  7. @Cristiona

    Agreed, especially considering the supposed connections of the rebels. This is really a case of "whoever wins, the world loses".

  8. vonCube

    A heaping plate of poutine probably would have been a better food choice for Harper…

  9. OldsVistaCruiser

    Just a pointer about the differences between Canadian and U.S. spelling – down here, it would be "separate checks, please."

  10. ThePsudo

    Would Putin use Canadian spelling or American spelling?

  11. J.J. McCullough

    Normally I'm not a big fan of ostentatious "Canadian" spelling, but "checks" just looks too crude and vulgar for such an important word.

  12. mygypsiegirl

    That does look like a mighty short table according to that logic,but logic would have yeah at the end I would be guessing to hurry up and leave first,now that your in such a hurry again.

  13. Tim Shaqhmukkah

    Sometimes I love how one can impose themselves,just how clear do they truly intend to be,I mean, if truly is not the sharpest in the shed then why measure such in this instance?

  14. Ann Apolis

    "North Ireland"???

  15. Golgot

    The part of the UK that's north of the Republic of Ireland on the island of Ireland, yes. What about it?

  16. OldsVistaCruiser

    Here in the States, there are bumper stickers that read, "26+6=1." It refers to the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland and the 6 counties of Northern Ireland which are still under British rule. It calls for the unification of all of Ireland.

  17. Vic

    Last time I saw that bumper sticker it was in the hands of a comedian of distant Souix descent, telling an audience that many Americans would proudly support the liberation of lands and peoples enslaved by immigrants 100s of years ago, unless they live in their backyard.

    Quebec, Scotland, Northern Ireland;- People should have the right to choose for their own leaders, and their own destiny (in the best way the flawed democratic system allows). The rest of us shouldn't have a say in it.

  18. Benjamin

    If you say so. I have never in my life seen such a bumper sticker, nor met anyone who even has a strong opinion about Irish unification.

  19. OldsVistaCruiser

    Here's the exact bumper sticker:

  20. Golgot

    I've never seen any bumper sticker like that, but then again the Irish didn't immigrate too heavily to where I live. (or when they did, they were the Scotch Irish, and generally those guys don't seem to be into unification)

    The predominant attitude on that among people from either group appears to best mostly apathy, though, at least around here.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    Okay I'm going to say it. I'm all for stopping a genocidal dictator. However, is this in the best interest of well… any country? Yes a lot of people have died at the hands of Assad. But how many will die at the hands of the rebels if they takeover? Especially with their terrorist connections. Israel is right next door. How many will die in a war between both of them? Especially civilians in terror attacks.

    I was all for arming the rebels since it wouldn't of been Americans fighting. In addition, the Russian and Chinese were aiding Assad. So it is in the interest of the West to counter that Russian and Chinese influence since they are backing a dictator. Now the rebels have some iffy connections to say the least. This could very well turn into a Egypt times 10 (terrorist sympathizers in government). Moreover, Egypt had and has a strong and independent (as far as ME standards go) military to be the check and balance on the government.

    However, Syria lacks that. Maybe the solution is something in the middle. Back someone else other than Assad but still have a strong man presence with someone democratic government. Especially considering the Syrian people don't seem ready for a full democracy. Considering they rather stop and spend time/ammo killing Christians than going after Assad. I can potentially see a situation in which Russia and China force Assad to moderate or replace him in some fashion and do what I said previously. With the West simply looking the other way so as long as Syria remains open to commerce.

    I could be wrong on this but the Syrian situation is a bit different. It's not a nuclear country (it did try) and petroleum is not as big of a factor as in other areas. I could be wrong on that but I think its mostly port access to the Mediterranean, Russia and China want. Most of the oil WAS traded with Europe, now maybe China and Russia can get it for themselves as a result of the Western embargo.

    However, I believe the era of fighting for resources in a direct fashion to be over for the most part (for the major players anyway). Now it's about access to the resources. Most countries will trade, the problem is having a gov't in place that is willing to trade with you. Russia/China seem to want access, especially port access, more so than anything. Again I could be wrong but nowadays it seems a bit more than I want land, resources and a gov't on my side of the table. The world is interconnected more than ever and with free trade, a country only needs to have a limited success in a region to gain it's means. Having complete and utter control is too much to be concerned about, it's much easier to get a few guaranteed concessions.

  22. OldsVistaCruiser

    Off-topic, I'd like to wish a happy Canada Day to my neighbo(u)rs to the north! I'm glad we are such good friends.

    As the Peace Gate says, "May these gates never close."

  23. Patray Baellstero

    The age old detriment of placing sophisticated mechanism in the hands of humans with intents in whatever regard of use in hopes of the greater outcome do we digress upon an old stance in a new day laid waste to such tragedies because human interaction may never graduate to higher level of thinking, anything but peace to be so proletarian in one way of living,yet to advertise such in the manner of which is capable of handling the trust of the people? I am sure it just sounds like another politicians campaign feigned at the people to receive an office in which pretentions of comfy chairs and secretaries to bid there lots for the day,either way the ushering in is founded on behalf of serving the people in whatever region of the sphere of politics it may be.