Whether it be left-wing activists of the so-called "peace" movement or libertarians who think that foreign policy should mean immediate withdrawal from the world, the recent events in Syria have demonstrated that when the USA, and with it the Western world, decides to withdraw from being involved in other countries, that others will fill the vacuum.
So it is that President Obama, who ridiculed Mick Romney's claim that Russia was a rising threat, has left the opponents of the Marxist/militarist hereditary dictatorship of Bashar Assad wide open to being attacked, by the air, by Vladimir Putin's unashamedly expansionist military.
|Dad and son, and their personality cult|
Had Obama been true to the neutrality that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had presumably rewarded him for "ex.ante", he would have said that there is no Western interest in what happens to Syria. For indeed, his pitiful actions (a few airstrikes against Islamic State) have demonstrated not much above it. In fact, I would have respected, if disagreed, with a position that replicates that of the nihilist libertarian isolationists who want the USA to withdraw from the world, and let Islamism grow, tyrants take over its friends and do nothing, until the first missile, bomber or terrorist controlled airliner strikes US soil (actually scrub that, for when the latter happens, even they think the response is NOT to attack those who harboured them).
If the so-called "land of the free" wants to withdraw from the world, then those of us who bear the consequences of that withdrawal better be prepared for the cost of this, but let's not pretend that the USA gives a damn about other peoples wanting to be lands of the free or escape tyranny. That's their battle, and if others want to join in their oppression, don't pretend that it matters.
So to Syria.
Syria has been run by a brutal authoritarian dictatorship under the Ba'ath Party, under the Assad family since 1970. It holds Soviet style "elections". All press and media are firmly under the grip of the Party (or monitored by it for compliance), and any dissent is punished with imprisonment, and sometimes torture or summary execution. The four secret police units have untrammelled authority to enter any property and detain anyone indefinitely, and use torture as necessary to frighten those said to be opponents or extract information from them.
The best that can be said is that Saddam Hussein was more brutal and erratic, but Bashar Assad and his psychopathic father Hafez, have run Syria under their jackboot for 45 years (although it is cold comfort that Bashar's elder brother, Basil, died in an accident before his father died. Basil was as notorious as Uday Hussein). The best that can be said is that, yes it is nominally secular, as religious minorities face no more oppression than anyone else, partly because the Assads are of the Alawite sect. Alawites have done very well from the Assad dictatorship, other Syrians do well according to who they know and how well the pander to the regime. By the way, the Assads were firm allies of the USSR in the Cold War, and so it continues under Russia. Indeed, Syria is the only country outside Russia (notwithstanding the annexation of Crimea) to still have a Russian naval base.
So Putin has decided to defend his friend. His first victory was getting the US to accept Russian monitoring of Assad's dismantling of his chemical weapons arsenal, which is very much a farce. Assad has been undertaking crude chemical attacks on rebel areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army and other non-Islamic State insurgents (some of which are Islamist, some who are not). Assad has killed tens of thousands of civilians in rebel held areas by air attacks, including chemical attacks. This has helped Islamic State recruit fighters, as young men whose families are killed by the Assad regime are easily seduced by the most well armed and funded opponents of the regime.
Remember Obama's red line? That it was "unacceptable" for anyone to use chemical weapons to attack civilians? Well it didn't exist. The dated chemical weapons were withdrawn, but by no means have the stocks been destroyed. Dictatorships have a funny way of not caring about rules set by someone else that are backed up by no force at all.
Meanwhile, the US (and the UK and others) have provided low level logistical and material support (if not military) to non-Islamist opponents to the Assad regime. It is those opponents to Assad that Vladimir Putin is now directing over 95% of his airstrikes.
Putin asserts his airstrikes are "legal" because they are authorised by the Assad regime, which strictly speaking in UN terms, is the "legitimate recognised government" of Syria. This is correct in the same way that Kim Jong Un leads the "legitimate recognised government" of the DPRK, Idi Amin did the same for Uganda and Pol Pot for Cambodia. It is the formal legitimacy asserted by tyrants.
Assad wants to put himself in the position of being the only opponent to Islamic State, so has Putin's help in wiping out the moderate opposition. The allies of the West, and perhaps only hope of moving Syria to the sort of pluralism that is nascent in Lebanon, are now being systematically wiped out by Russia - and all the US does is express regrets and concern. What surprise is there if opponents of Assad in Syria think that the only way is Islamic State? For all of the talk about rights and freedom the truth is that the Obama Administration will do absolutely f-all to protect those that might offer a way with much less tyranny, let alone have a foreign policy with objectives.
So it is Pax Rus.
Assuming Obama continues along this line, Syria will become a binary game. The chemical weapon using tyrant Assad, and the stoneage expansionist eliminationists of Islamic State. The US may think it doesn't pay any real price for letting Syria burn, but Europe is paying a price, as Syrians flee and as it is on the doorstep for Islamists willing to take on the West.
Putin wants to be taken seriously internationally, and once the non-IS opposition is effectively wiped out, he can turn on Islamic State and be a hero. Russia wont think twice about civilian casualties, it wont face domestic protests on any great scale against war, and of course the far-left "peace" movement in the West wont bat an eyelid, as it almost never protests military action by any regime other than a Western one, including Israel.
What could be different?
Well the US and its allies could start by accepting the invitation of the Iraqi government to use all means necessary to wipe out Islamic State from Iraq itself, to protect the Kurds, to help ensure Sunni Iraqis are protected and discouraged from joining Islamic State. At the very least, the West owes Iraq protection from invasion.
However, for Syria it needs to have some clear objectives. It could have imposed a No-Fly Zone over Syria to stop the Assad regime from using chemical weapons and dropping barrel bombs, but that is impossible now. What it should do is arm and protect the non-Islamist opposition and provide it with air support and make it clear to Russia that it is with it, in attacking Islamic State, but will not tolerate air strikes on areas governed by the Kurds or the Free Syrian Army. It should take all steps necessary to wipe out Islamic State, which has eliminationist objectives towards the West, and following that establish a peace process to transition Syria away from rule by the Assad regime.
The problem is that this requires taking on Russia. Obama (and Bush before him) refused to defend Georgia from Russian occupation, nor Ukraine, even when Russian backed rebels shot down a civilian airliner (but that was Malaysian, which was unimportant to the US). Putin is currently facing tough economic times, which he is evading by spending literally US$1billion of reserves every month, to prop up pensions, the military and uneconomic industries. He can afford to do this for perhaps two-three more years without having to implement serious levels of austerity. However, if the price of oil remains below US$60 over that time, it will prove tougher. Putin's actions smell of a leader seeking a distraction, in the hope of buying time until oil prices recover at a level appropriate for his kleptocracy.
The odds that the US will take on Russia in Syria are small, because Obama has demonstrated no interest, at all, in taking any lead or keeping to his word with allies. It is a policy of cynical withdrawal from the world. A withdrawal that is dangerous to some of the US's allies, but also one that is fundamentally dishonest.
The choice is simple. Either the US embraces the doctrine of Ron Paul, and openly decides that it is no longer interested in being a superpower or standing by previous commitments to allies, or it stands by its allies and has a positive, pro-active foreign policy based on its interests and those of its (true) allies.
While we all wait, enjoy "Pax" Rus, after all you're comfortably far away from the consequences of it all, aren't you?