NEW YORK – The G-20 has concluded its meetings and dinner discussions of what to do about charges that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used poison gas to kill more than 1,400 of his own people. France, Britain, Turkey, and Canada expressed varying degrees of support for US President Barack President Obama’s call for military action, while Russian President Vladimir Putin called US Secretary of State John Kerry a liar and claimed that the evidence against Assad is inconclusive. Russia and China insisted that the US cannot take action without approval from the United Nations Security Council, where they will veto any such move. From the sidelines, the European Union and Pope Francis warned that no “military solution” is possible in Syria.
In other words, it all went exactly as expected. The Americans, French, and others continue to push the Russians to accept that Syria’s government has used chemical weapons; the Russians, anxious to protect their Syrian ally, reject the evidence as inconclusive; and the carnage continues. The focus of the fight now moves to the US Congress, where a rare coalition of liberal Democrats and isolationist Republicans will try to block the president’s plans.
Those who would seek to halt the bloodshed have no good options. That is true for Obama, for Europeans preoccupied with domestic political headaches, and for Arab leaders eager to see Assad’s government collapse but unwilling to say so publicly.
British Prime Minister David Cameron says that his government has new evidence against Assad, while Parliament has voted to withhold support for a military response. France is ready to follow, but not to lead. The Arab League wants the “international community” to end the carnage, but without using force. Obama will ask Congress to approve limited air strikes that may deter the future use of chemical weapons, but will not shift the balance in Syria’s civil war.
Assad, Syrian rebels, Americans, Russians, and Arabs all merit criticism. But finger-pointing misses the point: Syria’s situation is the strongest evidence yet of a new “G-Zero” world order, in which no single power or bloc of powers will accept the costs and risks that accompany global leadership. Even if the US and France struck Damascus, they would not end the conflict in Syria – unlike in the former Yugoslavia, where they halted the Kosovo war by bombing Belgrade – for three reasons.
First, there are too many interested parties with too diverse a range of interests. While bombing would give Assad plenty to think about, it would not force his surrender or encourage his allies to turn against him. Nor would it clarify how to restore stability and build a more stable and prosperous Syria, given the need for cooperation among so many actors with conflicting objectives.
The US and Europe want a Syria that plays a more constructive role in the region. Iran and Russia want to retain their crucial ally. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar want a Syria that keeps Iran at a distance and does not become a source of cross-border militancy. As a result, Syria is most likely to become an arena in which regional powers, with the backing of interested outsiders, compete for leverage.
Second, the US – the one country with the muscle to play a decisive role – will continue to resist deeper involvement. Most Americans say that they want no part of Syria’s pain; they are weary of wars in the Middle East and want their leaders to focus on economic recovery and job creation. Obama will tread carefully as he approaches Congress and, even as his Republican opponents vote to offer limited support, they will make his life as difficult as possible.
Finally, the US cannot count on its allies to help with the heavy lifting. In Libya, it was relatively easy to bomb Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armies as they advanced through open spaces. By contrast, bombing Damascus – which remains a densely populated city, despite the flight of refugees – would undoubtedly kill a significant number of Syrian civilians.
As in the Balkans a generation ago, when Western leaders moved to end the bloodiest European conflict since World War II, the French are ready to send planes and pilots to Syria. But Britain is speaking with more than one voice on the issue. Moreover, most of Europe’s leaders are preoccupied with the domestic fallout of the eurozone’s ongoing struggles. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel will avoid unnecessary risks ahead of the upcoming general election.
Likewise, Arab leaders – mindful of the turmoil in Egypt, rising violence in Iraq and Libya, and the threat of social unrest within their own countries – will not openly invite Western powers to bomb a Muslim country. Even Canada will sit this one out.
This G-Zero problem will not last forever. Eventually, the political wildfires that are allowed to burn out of control will threaten enough powerful countries to force a certain level of cooperation. Unfortunately for Syrians, their suffering alone will not be enough.