Amid the diplomatic debacle surrounding Syria over the last few weeks, Russia, and in particular President Vladimir Putin, has appeared the major player on the global stage. After decades of American hegemony internationally, is the order being reversed? Are we witnessing – if not a complete switch in roles – a return to Cold War days of parity between the two powers?
Upon his first election, U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to represent a new era for American foreign policy: the promise of an administration which would be nuanced and calmer than the preceding years, based on decisions led by reasoned thinking and reflection.
Instead, on Syria at the very least, Obama has stumbled and fumbled his way through the last few years: he has dithered, and flip-flopped, never genuinely seeming to know what he believes. He has issued seemingly black-and-white ultimatums, which, in the end, were apparently not ultimatums. His secretary of state, John Kerry, has spoken in similarly hazy or amateurish language. Ahead of assumed military strikes on Syria he said that any action would be “unbelievably small.” What then, the U.S. public, and indeed many advisers and actors within his own administration, were left asking, was the point?
This diplomatic weakness has left those in the Kremlin hardly believing their luck and given Putin the impetus to take the initiative. The Russians have thus been able to climb back up the superpower ladder, in a region which has always been so important to them, while simultaneously claiming to have the Syrians’ best interests at heart through stalling the threat of airstrikes. But in reality they are pushing for a U.N. resolution without teeth, one which will do nothing to limit the regime’s power, chemical or otherwise, and have no effect on the rate of killings, which have actually appeared to have increased since the Geneva deal was struck.
Putin, with almost admirable stealth, clearly realized that revenge was a dish best served cold. Years of resentment over the collapse of the Soviet Union coupled with divisions within the U.S. administration – between Obama and Kerry, the president and defense chiefs and between the president and Congress – have allowed him to manipulate the current situation to his own ends.
This Syrian chapter – quite apart from the thousands of deaths, the destruction of a country’s infrastructure and the millions of lives uprooted – will forever be a black mark in the annals of American history.
And this latest incident – the use of sarin gas to kill hundreds of people on Aug. 21 – will perhaps be a turning point in America’s standing in the world. A regime which has committed crimes against humanity, the U.N. tells us, is, it appears, about to get away with mass murder, yet again, a red line which Obama himself drew. Assad and his backers are aware that the forest is full of paper tigers.