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Syria looks like a war without end as powers settle scores

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Russia is using Syria as a proving ground for the advanced weapons systems and hybrid-warfare tactics it might well employ in a future conflict with the West.

BY: Hal Brands

For anyone who thought that the winding down of the campaign against Daesh would cause the Syrian civil war to recede from the headlines, the last few weeks have been a rude awakening. Far from abating, the Syrian conflict is intensifying, with a brutal assault - reportedly involving chemical weapons - by the Syrian government on rebel-held areas, sharp aerial clashes between Israeli, Iranian and Syrian forces, and a bloody and one-sided confrontation between American airpower and Russian "mercenaries."

These events do more than simply demonstrate that the Syrian conflict remains an appalling humanitarian catastrophe. More significantly, Syria is the nexus for the destabilising trends that are thrusting the entire global order into crisis.

That order was originally created after World War II, but it reached its full flowering and ambition after the fall of the Soviet Union. The post-Cold War era was characterised by widespread hopes that the forces of order and civilisation were finally defeating those of aggression and inhumanity; that democracy was becoming truly universal; that great-power competition had vanished; and that the danger of major war was receding further than ever before. Nearly three decades later, however, the heady optimism of that period has given way to a darker set of trends, all of which are at work in Syria.

Begin with the obvious: Syria represents an assault on the very idea of moral progress. But it's not alone. Around the globe, longstanding legal and ethical norms are being eroded, and the world is being dragged back to a more ruthless, less-enlightened age. China is chipping away at freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific; Russia has shattered the taboo against wars of aggression and conquest in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Yet Syria is where the erosion is most advanced and the consequences most horrific. The regime's continued use of starvation sieges, barrel bombs and illegal weapons against the civilian population demonstrates more painfully than anything else that the moral gains the world seemed to have achieved are now being rolled back, and the rules of conduct it seemed to have established are now being transgressed.

The Syrian war also reveals a second unsettling feature of global politics today: the return of ideological conflict. This is not to say that the civil war is a clash between entrenched authoritarians and aspiring democrats. Many Syrians who initially protested and fought against the regime in 2011 and 2012 wanted a transition to a more pluralistic system, but most of those moderates have now been killed, radicalised or otherwise driven from the field.

Nonetheless, the Syrian conflict reflects the broader authoritarian resurgence at work. President Bashar Al Assad offers the most brutal and ruthless example of how the world's remaining dictators have not meekly succumbed to the forces of liberalisation, but have instead become tougher and more tenacious in clinging to power.

Moreover, the war shows how ideological differences are again driving global politics. Most of the Western democracies have insisted that the killing must stop and Assad must go. Yet the world's leading autocracies - China, Russia and Iran - have rejected the idea of foreign-imposed regime change and provided various forms of assistance to keep a fellow autocrat in power. The competition between authoritarianism and democracy has been renewed, and nowhere has that competition been sharper than in Syria.

Meanwhile, intense geopolitical competition has also returned, and here too, Syria is ground zero. Iran and Israel are manoeuvering for advantage, as part of their broader regional struggle. More strikingly still, Syria has become an arena for renewed great-power rivalry between the US and Russia. The once and current adversaries do not simply disagree over Assad's fate; they are using their military power to carve out competing spheres of influence and stake claims to leadership in Syria and the broader Middle East.

If one is looking for evidence that the relative international peace of the post-Cold War era is crumbling, look no further than the US-Russian quasi-war occurring in Syria today.

Some wars are remembered less for appalling harm inflicted on participants and bystanders than for what they revealed about the larger state of the world. We now see the Spanish Civil War, for instance, not just as a tragic episode in the history of that country, but for what it demonstrated about an international system under strain. Today, our own international system is fraying at the edges. If that process continues, we may one day look back on Syria as the crisis that foretold the greater unraveling to come.

  • Hal Brands is Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Source: Bloomberg

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