In a G-Zero world, Syria’s civil war will drag on and on

By Ian Bremmer
July 27, 2012

“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:

1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes

The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.

Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.

2. Even without vetoes, the U.S. has no stomach for intervention

It’s messy. It’s expensive. There’s no domestic constituency for it. The U.S. is still reeling from the price tag of the Iraq war, and still extricating itself from Afghanistan. But more important than whether we have the stomach for an overseas campaign is our lack of a solution or an exit strategy. It’s not clear at all who could successfully replace the Assad regime. We don’t know what would come after him. There’s always the possibility that some internal assassination or bombing could take him out. But as long as he has his military apparatus, he’s going to be able to smash any attempt by opposition forces to gain strength against him. There’s simply nothing rising up in Syria that might take Assad’s place. So, the question of freedom for Syrians turns very sadly pragmatic indeed: What, exactly, would we be fighting for?

3. The civil war in Syria has begun, and it’s dragging the region with it.

As in countries across the Middle East, the civil war here is rooted in ethnic identity: Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims. The Shiite minority holds power. The Sunni population has been oppressed. The answer to the question of who should be running Syria, other than that it should not be a murderous dictator, is entirely unclear. What is clear is that other countries are experiencing tensions and internal strife thanks to the bloodshed there. Turkey and Qatar have interests in the outcome. China and Russia, and the United States, have investments and interests in the area. By proxy, U.S. relationships could also face further deterioration as the Syria conflict drags on.

There was a time when the U.S. would race to the rescue, playing world cop on the global stage, and attempt to intervene and end strife. It would lead a peloton of countries toward the outcome it thought was most desirable, and it would commit, in blood and treasure, whatever it took to get the job done. Whether for better or for worse, in our new G-Zero world that sort of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. We can blame the U.N., Russia, China, and Syria itself all we want, but the reality is, the U.S. has decided it’s just not getting involved.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: Syrian soldiers celebrate after their entry to al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus, July 20, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

14 comments

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@ Mr. Bremmer, I usually do not agree with you, but in this piece, you are 100% right.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

I would prefer to believe that, as in other places in the region, the people of Syria are tired of this dictatorship and would like a voice in their government. There’s no shortage of cynics who want to reduce the people in the Mideast to this or that tribe, this or that sect. I don’t buy it. People in Egypt, for example, were simply not willing as their parents were, to stand by while a tiny sliver of the population prospered. What’s different now, too, is communications inside these countries as well as communications to the outside world.

Note, also, the insistence in the article on the false choice of do nothing versus military intervention. I never did understand that or agree with it. Apparently the U.S. is providing help now, and it could do more without intervening militarily. A big problem now is the perception that Obama is weak. Nobody is afraid of him, so the Russians among others have been giving him the brushoff. Perception means a lot.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Mr. Bremmer – Why the great rush with Syria or with Iran for that matter? Are the Iranian exiles getting nervous that they are getting old and may never see or resume their position in that country again? A lot of Cubans had to accept that and they don’t seem as vehement anymore. A lot of us have to accept disappointments in life and we can’t just appoint ourselves vigilantes in the service of our own murky and inconsistent concerns. As a commenter I love to argue with says: “there are winners and looser in life”.

America “the global cop” doesn’t send “the people” as election year rhetoric is fond of saying. It sends it’s massively armed and equipped legions, and their camp followers larded with development contracts, and are now solely staffed by professional full timers. It’s nearly an arm of industry.

We have been more than willing to listen to the turmoil in the Palestinian territories for almost 15 years and few ever mentioned the word “tyranny” in that situation. The UN has issued a long string of rebukes to no purpose. Why the big concern for the fate of the Syrians? We cherry pick the voices we want to listen to.

Can anyone reasonably claim that the Israeli’s are occupying the territories for the good of the inhabitants of the territories? We have had to accept the fact that a heavy hand is sometimes “the right thing to do”. The demands of real politick trump humanitarian concern, at least for many.

We didn’t give a rats’ behind when SH dominated Iraq until it became so important under the guiding hands of the neo-cons. And the media was out-right gleeful at the destruction during the first invasion. They couldn’t replay bunker-busting bombings enough for some. Vampires are a popular media offering and I am beginning to think they are real. Assad may have a point in keeping the media out of the fray because so many have the tastes of voyeurs.and sadists.

Governments seldom act altruistically unless they think they can get something in return. They usually can’t afford to. We the people like to profit on its adventures and even the humanitarian aid. The directors of humanitarian programs don’t make peanuts. It has to benefit the donor in some way. What is the benefit here?

People who say “we the people” must take back the government may forget that the government they have is supposed to have been built by the very same “people”. Any attempt to drastically alter it overnight will mean that they must pick up every stitch of the present fabric of laws and programs and resolve them or the country will unravel very quickly. The beast they hope to tame or control could very easily become so much more angry and wild in the process. That tends to be what happens during periods of revolution. And it did not allow the French to rebuild their economy until about the time of Louis Phillipe. Are you advising us to get there even faster?

One of the aggravating conditions that brought about the collapse of the Tsar, the monarchy of France and the old USSR was the enormous debt they racked up engaged in warfare. The relatives of the dead weren’t very happy about it either. They have to substitute dreams for the losses.

Why the all fired hurry? Say what you have to say to “all the people” in a draft where all their sons and daughters may have to put their flesh on the line and see how popular your concern really is? But our urge to come to the Syrian’s rescue is certainly putting a lot of innocent lives in jeopardy. The US is very good at demolition but has no very glorious record of rebuilding countries since this Marshall Plan. And it is getting a lot more expensive and complicated. Afghanistan could collapse the moment the US leaves and the money dries up. The Iraqi government may bribe itself to death and they won’t remember the USA’s professional suffering unless it imposes itself again. They tend to be preoccupied with their won business. The US is concerned that it can’t leave and wants another excuse to stay. One could liken the situation to the Little Dutch Boy.

Assad is being tarred by his father’s memory. “The sins of the father’s are visited on the sons” only if someone really wants to make that case and its usually for their own interests. People like to kill off the competition but I don’t think Syria is one of our most important competitors. The Chinese and the Russians are.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

In Muslim world, we should always support the losing side with arms. As long as they kill each other they have no time for killing others.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

China uses veto power with caution, if I remember correctly only 3-4 times in last 20 years, 3 times veto against Syria military intervention. The same with Russia, only 4 vetos in last 20 years, 3 times concerning Syria. US arrogance made Russia and China close allies. That is the biggest political strategic US error in the 21st century, so far. It can’t be changed, at least for the next 12 years (Putin in Russia, Putin that hates US. Chinese have own reasons to be forever friends with Russia, till the moment at least they are as strong as US)

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

@Samrch – Which side is the “loosing side?

No government worth the taxes to support it has the right to support the murder – that’s all your comment suggests- of some other country’s citizens or it is a flaming liar. They cannot expect peaceful and law abiding citizens in their own territories but fan chaos in other countries. That is not one of the principals they agree to when they walk into the UN.

No one but itself ever appointed the US the Cop of the planet. And all of the underhanded forces supporting the chaos in Syria are corrupt and underhanded regimes simply because they are doing what they are doing and not admitting it publicly. They would prosecute any person participating in such activities within their own borders. By walking into the UN they agreed that the rule of law they apply to themselves they would also apply to each other.

As a private citizen, I would be charged with being an accessory to murder if I knew about a situation in my neighborhood where people were killing each other and I helped them with more tools for their activities. Only the police are permitted to stop the situation and can only attempt to stop the chaos. They are not permitted to take sides. But in the situation of Syria we are urged to action by popular resentment and unseen actors with very obscure motives. To put it in the vernacular – someone is going to have egg on their face, at the very least.

There are other options for the Syrians. They could have staged mass shut downs of the country. Those who want the downfall of the regime could simply refuse to cooperate with any aspect of its political or commercial life and brought the country to a halt or slowed it down considerably until those they claim unfairly dominate the political and economic life of the country are forced to discuss the situation with them and make the necessary reforms. The government was apparently willing to negotiate. The opposing forces weren’t listening. The video “evidence” of mass protests I have seen, gave no clear indication that any peaceful protesters had been shot or that anyone was being arrested. Everything I can see or learn about the situation is little more than rumor.

BTW – I had an operation under anesthesia a few months ago and had a suspicion confirmed. I was out for an hour and didn’t know it. I was raised a Catholic Christian and was told to expect a life everlasting. There wasn’t one. Not even a dream. There simply “wasn’t anyone home” and my body was under the absolute control of the anesthesiologist. I could have died and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I wouldn’t have known anything at all actually: even the fact that I had ever lived. That insight wasn’t actually unexpected and it wasn’t traumatic either. I expected it. Your brain is the “House of God”. You ought to be very careful what you do with it. Once you’ve lost it – you’ve lost your life and any definition or idea of God you may have had. The slow motion illustration of this fact can also be seen in cases of Alzheimer’s disease.

It just leaves me asking myself – is it worth it at all to pay attention to other people’s blandishments, come-ons and urges to action? Are the swindle or urges to swindle and murder worth it? It is very easy to suggest that nothing one does in life is worth it and one is little more than the vector for one’s own DNA.

You want to throw it or someone else’s away? SUCKER! Better to remove yourself with a bullet in your head – your God – and remove yourself from the commotion and not add too it.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

What does anyone expect to do in Syria that isn’t already being done by the government of Syria, except to add the regime to the casualty lists?

They are ready to throw away the eggs, smash the pots and pans, kill off a lot of the staff, trash the stove and all the while some are claiming the country will be able to feed the people better than the regime that is there is doing now.

Sure you are!

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

both russia and china have rebellious muslim populations seeking autonomy or sharia law ….

today’s reuters report on salafist intrusions into tatarskhan being an example

syrian operations provide russia and china tactical and strategic operations to test against salafist terrorism sheltering inside civilian settlements

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

The USA has ironically chosen the Sunni side in the ongoing conflict they have with the Shia Muslims. Why, no one really knows. Possibly because the conservative. pro-American Gulf countries are predominately Sunni. Of course, so is Al Qaeda and the rest of the Jihad promoters. But then we hate Iran, and Iran is Shia.

What a stupid development!

Perhaps this is because of the string of Western backed Arab despots overthrown earlier this year? We need to find an unfriendly despot so that the “Arab Spring” looks less anti-American? Would you be surprised to learn that such shallow thinking drives American policy in the Middle East? And of course, the only Middle Eastern country that is allowed to greatly influence policy, Israel, does not even get a mention. But then who would think the Israelis would wish their old enemy, the Assad family and the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party, ill?

Just another waste of US tax money. Don’t worry though — it will be mostly borrowed and paid for by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps. The blend will be subject to negotiation between the Democrat wing and the Republican wing of our ruling Bipartisan Party. With Israel’s approval, of course.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

In a G-zero world Bremmer drags on.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

what a bunch of farts all our leaders are

Posted by Jacktherip | Report as abusive

What you apparently do not understand is the US is no longer an Empire, and soon will not even be an empire.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.

The new liberalism, free trade and unrestrained banks are the reasons.

The truth is that — just like real estate — ALL economics is local.

The truth is that there is NO global economy, and we are being flushed down the commode with pleasure by “friends” and “enemies” alike.

I suggest you wake up to the new world reality, Mr. Bremmer!

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

This is an interesting piece. But, perhaps, what is really missing in this rather big picture is the absent influence of the citizens and peoples of the world – who could yield considerable pressure on their governments to act, often on humanitarian bases. Yes, the current gridlock of international politics over Syria is depressing (even disgraceful, for that matter) as its direct consequence has been the humanitarian plight the Syrians are suffering daily inside the beautiful, historic country of Syria.

Isn’t it about time we looked at our humanity more transparently in this world? Isn’t it outrageous to observe that humanity and human misery have become of lower grade compared to our international diplomacy and interests? What may seem or feel like a game of chess to some parties is certainly a game of abuse, torture and dismembering to many innocent lives (slaughtered infants, children, women, men, and even cattle – and destroyed world heritage)… Could a man walking in London, for example, talk of or honestly enjoy civility and modern high-culture when he knows that some miles away from where his stands massacres are being committed with full impunity, and full awareness by the world? How does it feel to belong to the same human race there? Does it ring any bells or raise any eyebrows?

The citizens of the world need to beware of their responsibility in observing humanity not only upon their narrower apertures of interests in their local countries, but also across the wider world, where weaker and less-empowered civilians see nothing of their taken-for-granted access to human rights and dignity. If people don’t put pressure on their governments and politicians, politics will always be what it has always been: a cold game of cold interests, stepping above any human aspect.

I invite you to read the following article/blog, where some local Syrian academics, witnessing first-hand suffering on the ground in Syrian, from their positions amid young students and amid unfolding troubles on Syria’ streets, have posted a new account on the following log:

http://LocalAnalysisSyria.blogspot.com/

http://LocalAnalysisSyria.blogspot.com/

It increases awareness of the daily inhumanity experiences by locals, to the international readership. Many observe that the Syrian suffering is slipping too easily (disgracefully) from the minds of their fellow citizens of the world. News cover latest developments, but such experiences and logs are mind-openers, at the personal readership level, to how it is like to live in Syria today.
The academics contributing had to keep their full IDs anonymous for the safety of their relatives in Syria (the regime has been known for abusing or even killing people who may have a dissident cousin!)

Posted by AnSyriaBlogging | Report as abusive

An absolutely offensive article. Mr Bremmer not only displays his wanton disregard for international law as laid down by the UN but unreservedly promotes US/NATO hegemony in the region. Mr Bremmer cites Russia and China as obstacles, what then of India, South Africa, Brazil who also vetoed, not to mention the 31 abstentions? Shameful to read the lines such as
“..possibility that some internal assassination or bombing could take him out..”
Yes indeed the horrors visited upon nations will continue whilst such venomous articles like this are published.

Posted by yoyo0 | Report as abusive