Are we witnessing again matching flash backs of the Cold war? This is what the international community might surmise if we are to weigh the current rift between Russia and the United States in international politics more specifically in the Syrian crisis.
In 2011, the Syrian conflict began in a bid to oust President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime by opposition groups which led to a rift between the Western powers and the United States. Russia supported a political solution that would be driven by Syrians themselves and opposed the western powers support of the opposition faction. The United States lead a coalition to aid the opposition although there was no clear indication of who the opposition was.
There were failed International efforts by the UN through the Geneva Talks and mandates to provide for special envoys to be sent to Syria. The UN Security Council resolutions sponsored by the Western powers for sanctions on Syria were vetoed by Russia and China. The questions linger on. Why did multilateralism fail to solve this crisis? The simple answer is that world opinion was divided on the issue, with world powers supporting both sides of the conflict.
The United States pumped in large sums of money to train the so called moderate opposition groups although several factions within the opposition are listed as terrorist entities such as the Al Nusra Front which is the Syrian Al Qaeda branch. The situation has put the United States and its allies in a difficult position as they try to define who the enemy is. In the meantime the vacuum created by the power struggles within the opposition groups has paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State in Syria. ISIS was not a new initiative but rather an existing political movement that retains support due to the chaotic environment.
Russia maintains its position that without a political settlement driven by the Syrian themselves, Syria is vulnerable and the door will be open for the same scenario we saw in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Foreign intervention multiplies existing problem and fans the flame of instability.
Likewise, divisions in the Middle East do not help solve the Syrian conflict. The oil rich Arab countries in the Gulf have their own agenda for a Sunni regional architecture; the Western powers defend their so called democracy and their bid against authoritarian regimes which do not apply to their allies in the Gulf. Israel is protecting its national security and Iran is ensuring the survival of its closest ally and a fellow Shiite state in the region.
Critics now say that Russia and the United States are escalating the situation in Syria. One might question their intentions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world is of the view that Russia has lost the Cold War race and the United states is by far the only hegemon in the international system. Russia’s perspective is different. Only the ideology failed during the Cold War, but Russia’s military power and its ability to maintain the status quo is still intact. This is why Russia feels comfortable standing up to the United States. As Putin says, Russia is a strong and self-reliant state, we have what we want, we have our resources but we do not want to create any empire. This statement clearly depicts Russia as already powerful domestically, and it does not need to conquer beyond its borders to enhance its power and authority.
Russia is a Cold War foe of the United States and they can read the latter’s strategic capabilities and foreign policies well. For Russia, there needs to be a check and balance mechanism that regulates the conduct of International Relations, and in most cases, Russia tends to step in to ensure this role is implemented. This is obvious in their veto powers at the UN Security Council, or their fixed and firm positions in other flash points in International affairs, such as on the North Korean nuclear issue, Russian intervention in Georgia and recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Iran nuclear issue, the annexation of Crimea and its involvement in conflicts in the pro-Russian territories of Ukraine. Russia also created its version of Pivot to Asia following the United States’ re-engagement in the Asia Pacific.
The Syrian crisis has seen the two countries put their perspectives into action. Russia is now launching airstrikes using its fighter jets and helicopters in Syria. The United States and its coalition do the same. Both parties targeted ISIS but Russia has gone beyond by targeting all opposition targets that are waging the fight against President Assad. For the United States, the world has to know that a dictator must go and a democratic Syria must be forthcoming. For the Russians, the world has to know a political settlement is needed to ensure that stability in Syria and the Middle East is maintained.