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.