Column: Syrian crisis a threat to the international order

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaking during an interview with the Iran's Khabar TV, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. (SANA via AP)

The world has been a complicated and scary place lately, especially in the war-torn Middle East. Chaos, destruction, and bloodshed reign in Syria, in part due to the increasingly large cast of characters, each with distinct and often incompatible interests.

The Islamic State continues to commit the vilest atrocities in pursuit of a pan-Islamic caliphate. The dictator Bashar al-Assad struggles to regain control of the country and crush any opposition. Several rebel militias, some of them Islamist, struggle for dominance in the region. Kurdish groups fight for control of their heartland. Foreign militias and terrorist groups have flooded into the region. Russia and Iran have entered the conflict to back Assad’s regime. Western powers, including the United States, have funded and trained opposition groups and attacked the Islamic State, hoping to assist in a transition to a more democratic Syria.

While the country continues to spiral out of control, a flood of refugees have sought to escape the violence and chaos, destabilizing neighboring countries and putting pressure on Europe. The increasingly global nature of this conflict threatens the stability of the international order and is deeply troubling.

Last week, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin traded words at the United Nations, expressing differing visions of how to resolve the Syrian quagmire. Putin argued that the United States has employed a reckless, naïve and shortsighted Middle Eastern policy in recent decades. He claimed that action in Iraq, Libya and now Syria have served only to destabilize the region, providing power vacuums in which extremist groups thrive. He made the point that the United State may be inadvertently supporting terrorist groups in its effort to support moderate Syrian rebels. 

While we should not necessarily be taking foreign policy advice from Putin, he does raise important points. We must consider the possibility that the broad-based moderate force we envision may not actually exist, and that much of our efforts to support militia groups may be cutting against us. Even if moderate militias can be effectively identified, we must consider whether they would be strong enough to lead a stable Syria, or whether they would be vulnerable to conquest by Islamist groups.

While we may act out of sincere goodwill for the Syrians to have a free and democratic government, establishing a short-lived democracy that is quickly overtaken by terrorist groups would certainly not be in our long-term interest. President Obama is right in his U.N. address to point out that Assad is a brutal and oppressive dictator and that the Syrian people deserve far better. Yet if we continue to be involved in this complex soup of violence, we must clearly determine what our foreign policy goal for the region is, whether it is actually viable, and how we plan to achieve it. 

This seriousness of this situation is heightened by developments that may be leading to a Cold-War style proxy war. Russia has bombed CIA-trained rebels in an effort to strengthen Assad’s regime, directly challenging United States foreign policy through military force. Both Russia and the United States are conducting airstrikes in the region and Russia is deploying ground forces. A situation where two world powers are conducting military operations in the same region, each with starkly different and opposing goals is a dangerous and frightening situation indeed. We should be considering these events with extreme caution and concern. 

Thankfully, the United States and Russia have been engaged in talks over how to keep our competing military operations away from each other and ensure the safety of our respective air forces. As reported by CNBC, however, John McCain has criticized these talks, and said, “Unfortunately, it appears ‘deconfliction’ is merely an Orwellian euphemism for this administration’s acceptance of Russia’s expanded role in Syria, and as a consequence, for Assad’s continued brutalization of the Syrian people.”

This statement is dangerously hawkish. The administration’s talks are designed to prevent any conflicts between the U.S. and Russian militaries that could potentially trigger a full-scale global war among superpowers, a horrifying prospect in the modern world. It is vital that we work with Russia to avoid such disastrous consequences at all costs.

Unless Senator McCain is ready for a terribly destructive war with Russia, it is difficult to understand his objection to actions that prevent conflict. Russia appears committed to military action. While that is the case, the United States should try to ensure some peace in this increasingly violent world.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.