The revolt in Syria, now in its eighteenth month, was not caused by Washington or by Moscow. It is sui generis: specifically it is the consequence of circumstances peculiar to Syria; in general, it is another of the several revolts in the “Arab World”.
But some of the commentary in Western circles – especially, but not exclusively, in the USA – is making it sound like a Manichean battlefield of a new Cold War. Perhaps the epitome of this view is John Bolton’s assertion that “Assad remains in power because of Russia and Iran, with China supporting him in the background.” This is nonsense: Assad remains in power because people in Syria are prepared to fight for him. Naturally, the longer the fight goes on, the more outsiders are attracted: recently the government of Iraq claimed that jihadist fighters were leaving there for Syria and it is quite believable that Teheran is involved as well. But this has nothing to do with Moscow or Beijing. Bolton, perhaps to be given an important position should Romney be elected, goes on to advise what should be done; true to his assumption that Moscow is Assad’s prop, he calls for missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, withdrawal from START etc etc (Interestingly, no suggestions of how to pressure China.) As to Syria itself, he suggests Washington should “find Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam”. Given that “war is deceit”, he may be disappointed in his search. But in truth, Bolton’s piece, like many others from the US right, is not really about Syria or Russia, it is an attack on President Obama: “Obama is not up to the job in Syria.” Indeed, many of the pieces that argue that Moscow is to blame are actually attacks on Obama’s alleged weakness or incapacity. “The Security Council’s moral authority is nil with Russia and China in permanent seats” is followed by “shame on Obama”. This throwaway line “Russia’s belligerent support of a murderous Syrian dictator” is from a excoriation of Obama’s activities, root and branch. Russia is just another boot to throw at him. Not everyone in the US conservative camp is so enthusiastic: this speaks of “strategy creep”, this of the unintended consequences of the Libya intervention, this of past failures and confusions. But many of the strongest calls for intervention, and the strongest kicks at Moscow, come from this side of the argument.