We all know how the first
worldwar started. Individual
acts of violence
cumulatively set in
motion irreversible military operations
that lackedoverall strategic
guidance as well as a larger clarity
of purpose. The rest is history: a four year
slaughter conducted for the sake of
ambitious goals largely formulated ex
post facto by the victorious powers.

There is still time to avert a painful
repetition, this time exploding in the
Middle East, and in Syria specifically. I
supported President Barack Obama’s
initial decision not to use force in the
Syrian tragedy. The use of US power to
remove President Bashar al-Assad from
office—so eagerly advocated by some of
our friends in the Middle East —made
no sense in the absence of genuine
domestic consensus in favour of it either
in Syria or in America. Moreover,
whether we like it or not, Mr Assad was
neither inclined to accommodate Washington’s
urgings that he step down nor
intimidated by helter-skelter US efforts
to organise effective democratic resistance
to his rule.

A breakthrough has since been
achieved, however, in the very difficult
nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which
both the US and Russia co-operated
with other leading powers to overcome
the obstacles. One might have thought,
therefore, that the next phase in coping
with the Syrian problem might involve a
renewed effort to resolve it, this time
with the help of such important signatories as China and Russia.

Instead, Moscow has chosen to intervene militarily,
but without political or
tactical co-operation with the US—the
principal foreign power engaged in
unseat Mr Assad. In doing so it launched
air attacks at Syrian elements that are
sponsored, trained and equipped by the
Americans, inflicting damage and causing
casualties. At best, it was a display of
Russian military incompetence; at
worst, evidence of a dangerous desire to
highlight American political impotence.
In either case, the future of the region,
and American credibility among the
states of the Middle East, are both at
stake. In these rapidly unfolding circumstances
the US has only one real
option if it is to protect its wider stakes
in the region: to convey to Moscow the
demand that it cease and desist from
military actions that directly affect
direct, if not very effective, efforts to
American assets. Russia has every right
to support Mr Assad, if it so wishes—but
any repetition of what has just transpired will prompt US retaliation.

The Russian naval and air presences
in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically
from their homeland. They
could be “disarmed” if they persist in
provoking the US. But, better still, Russia might
be persuaded to act with the
US in seeking a wider accommodation
to a regional problem that transcends
the interests of a single state.

Were that to happen, even some limited
American-Russian political and
military collaboration on the Middle
East might prompt a further positive
geopolitical development: constructive
engagement on the part of China incontaining
the dangers of a wider Middle
East explosion. Beijing has a significant
economic stake in the prevention of a
larger Middle East conflict. It should not
only be interested inpreventing the further
spread of chaos but also in increasing
its own regional influence.

France and Britain can no longer play
a decisive role in the Middle East. The
US is finding it hard to play such a role
alone. The region itself is split on religious,
political, ethnical and territorial
lines, and slipping into widening violence.
This calls for outside assistance
but not for a new form of neocolonial
domination. US power, intelligently and
decisively applied in pursuit of a new
formulafor regional stability, isneeded.

China would doubtless prefer to stay
on the sidelines. It might calculate that it
will then be in a better position to pick
up the pieces. But the regional chaos
could easily spread northeastward,
eventually engulfing central and northeastern
Asia. Both Russia and then
China could be adversely affected. But
American interests and America’s
friends—not to mention regional stability—
would also suffer. It is time, therefore,
for strategic boldness.

Financial Times (Royaume-Uni)