Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.
You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington
Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.
And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.
More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.
There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.
Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.
But this analysis is missing some key points.
While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.
From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.
The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.
Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.
When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.
Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.
In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.
If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.
An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.
With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.