Is the Syria Conflict turning into International Good Cop/Bad Cop?

The civil war in Syria has been a blight on the Middle East, with far-reaching consequences for the region, even without the 100,000+ death toll, and over 2 million refugees in the surrounding countries. The world stage seems to be returning to a Cold War-era of US versus Russia international relations. The US, led by President Obama, has seemingly been at loggerheads with the Russian government of Vladimir Putin over the best way to resolve the crisis which has now lasted for over two years.

The US stand on Syria

Since the fighting began, the US has frequently manoeuvred on the international scene to oust President Bashar al-Assad and encourage the overthrow of his dictatorial regime. US officials participated in meetings of the ‘Friends of Syria Group’ throughout 2012 and 2013, with the US remaining one of the strongest supporters of its efforts to find a solution to the war via the application of diplomatic and economic sanctions, without ruling out military action. On the 20th August 2012, President Obama in a press conference announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would amount to a ‘red line’, which would lead to increased US military involvement in Syria. They were given political cover in the Middle East by the Arab League, who allowed a representative of the Syrian opposition to take the chair of the Syrian government representative at a meeting in March 2013. The US has allowed some of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons and other forms of aid, despite suspected (and declared of some) ties to al-Qaeda. Through the rest of 2012 and 2013, US government officials continued to denounce the violence of the civil war and constantly maintained that a political solution could only be met if Assad was no longer the President of Syria.

The Russian backing

Meanwhile, the Russian government maintained a robust defence of the Syrian government, denouncing Western intervention in the Middle East and consistently vetoing UN resolutions aimed at limiting or attacking the regime. They refused to countenance Assad’s removal from power, and continued to supply the regime with weapons shipments, including sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems, which could only be used to defend against Western air force attacks, since the opposition forces lack any aircraft. Putin, in his statements to the international media, has positioned himself as a defender against Western intervention, aided by the collective fear on the part of Western governments of a repeat of Iraq.


However, in recent days, perhaps a break-through in relations has been achieved. Russia, after a ‘rhetorical proposal’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry, has encouraged the Syrian regime to give up its chemical weapons to international control (and eventual destruction). This proposal was then accepted by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, who said that his country would give up its chemical arsenal. President Obama, eager to distance himself from the likely defeat in the House of Representatives of his plan for military intervention in Syria, jumped onto the opportunity afforded to him by this diplomatic exchange and stated that should Syria give up its chemical stockpile quickly, then he would not intervene militarily.

Is it possible, that whilst the negotiations regarding Syria occurred during the G20 meeting, that Putin and Obama came up with a plan whereby the US, as the consistent enemy of the Assad regime, continued to threaten military action whilst Russia, a key ally of Assad, encouraged him to give up his chemical weapons in return for not being subjected to US military firepower? This idea of stick and carrot will only work if Assad actually gives up his weapons, and allows inspections; but it has also bought him a little time, and has made Russia (somehow) seem like a mediator, capable of resolving the international political furore surrounding Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. With the announcement that the US and Russia had reached a deal to ensure the control and destruction of Assad’s chemical stockpiles, it seems ever more likely that before these overt negotiations in Geneva went ahead, that there was vast amounts of backroom discussion about how both countries could maintain their entrenched positions, but also work together to ensure a solution.

Ending the conflict

Whilst this achieves the short-term goal of punishing the use of chemical weapons, it does not necessarily lead to an international agreement on how to end the Syrian civil war, which has gone on too long. A political solution must be achieved, and this must include both the West and Russia, preferably with United Nations backing; however, it is difficult to see how a political solution imposed by the international community will be able to settle the massive internal struggle going in Syria, nor how it will repair the damage done to the prestige of the UN as an effective international body capable of resolving global issues. Secretary Kerry recently said that the current time was the USA’s ‘Munich moment’; may we hope that is not the UN’s ‘Manchuria moment.’

[toggle title=”Submitted by William Gerry”]William recently graduated from Oxford Brookes University where he studied History.

Further reading:


Editor: Christos Floros[/toggle]

Sketch by: Valeriy Osipov


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