Foreign attitudes to civil wars provide a useful way of understanding international relations. The Syrian civil war is no exception, though what it reveals about the current state of world politics is exceptionally dire.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Britain and France were first tempted to side with the Confederates but were deterred by Russia. The Russian-British rivalry of post-Napoleonic Europe, and US animosity toward the former colonial power and enemy, produced a de-facto entente between America and Russia (a collusion predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America). Had it not been for the risk of finding themselves at war with Russia, Britain and France would likely have fought with the Confederates. In 1861, when the American Civil War erupted, Russian Czar Alexander II emancipated the 23 million serfs of the Russian Empire. The war was about emancipation versus colonial rule. Britain and France were eager to prevent the emergence of a world order likely to undermine their power.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the French and British democracies sided (platonically) with the Spanish republicans, while the German and Italian dictatorships actively supported the Spanish nationalists. European powers took sides along ideological lines. During the Yugoslavian Civil War (1991-2001), countries took sides along ethnic and religious lines: Muslim countries sided with the Muslim Bosnians; Russia supported its Slavic and Orthodox Serbian brethren; the Vatican (soon followed by European countries) recognized the Catholic republics of Slovenia and Croatia. In light of the contrast between the motivations of foreign attitudes to the Spanish and Yugoslavian civil wars, American political scientist Samuel Huntington claimed in 1993 that ideological conflicts were about to be replaced by “clashes of civilizations.”
In the case of the Syrian civil war (which started in 2011), we are witnessing a “clash of Islamizations,” with the Sunni Islamic State (and other rebel groups) fighting the Shia Alawite regime of Bashir Assad. Unsurprisingly, Muslim countries are taking sides along the Sunni/Shia divide, with Iran supporting Assad and with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar demanding his departure.
Not only does the Syrian war reveal a “clash of civilizations” within the Muslim world, but also the collapse of the “new world order” that was supposed to have emerged from the end of the Cold War. The fact that NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 without a Security Council resolution was telling about the balance of powers between Russia and the West: the former was helpless and the latter was unstoppable. Today, the situation is almost reverse. Russia’s military intervention is actually helping Assad, while US airstrikes have been unable (for a year) to repel the Islamic State. As for international law, foreign powers don’t even pretend to care about it: neither the United States not Russia bothered to secure a Security Council resolution before using military force in Syria.
Foreign attitudes to the Syrian civil war, in other words, reveal a new global disorder in which the Middle East is the world’s most dysfunctional, explosive, and violent region. Yet even in the chaotic Middle East, people have learned whom not to trust and whom not to fear: the United States of America. President Obama dropped his Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak after the latter shot demonstrators, but when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did just that Obama said it was none of America’s business. The message? In the Middle East, the common practice of killing your subjects will only cost you your job if America is your ally. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, is far less picky. As Assad can testify, making 200,000 victims, millions of refugees, and gazing your own people will not cost you the support of Russia. It is fair to assume that our region’s autocrats took notice.
As Noah Rothman recently wrote in Commentary Magazine: “This is not the Cold War, It’s Worse.” During the Cold War, American and Russian fighters would not have bombed different targets in a same country, and Russian planes would not have violated the airspace of a NATO member (as just happened in Turkey).
If foreign attitudes to civil wars provide a useful way of understanding international relations, then the grim conclusion from the Syrian inferno is that the loss of American leadership in the Middle East is unprecedented and might be irreparable.