The Syrian Crisis and the rise of BRICS: an economic and geopolitical Argument against Intervention
Two Israeli air raids last week against Syrian military facilities, are said to be responsible for killing 42 Syrian soldiers, adding considerable tension to an already highly volatile Syrian crisis. The air attacks, which Syrian officials said used depleted uranium shells, came just days after the White House and the EU discussed what to do about purported evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons. While there are doubts about those claims, given that Carla Del Ponte from the UN Commission of Inquiry on violations of human rights in Syria, has suggested the evidence points to the rebels having used the nerve gas (sarin), the Syrian civil war has created a far more international and dangerous scenario. The question has extended from whether NATO and Washington will intervene, as some US politicians (from both the Democrat and Republican camps) have demanded, to whether or not Israel will help the Syrian rebels (which include many Islamist factions) and how Syria and the Arab League would react.
Nobody has taken any decisions yet for the time being but the anti-interventionists in the West will face an even steeper uphill battle. The interventionists have been using the argument that the fall of the Syrian regime would be a blow to Iran to strengthen their case, worried that some of the regional powers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia will then be left with a greater role in Syria after the inevitable changes that will come in the post-Asad era. So far, the main argument offered by the anti-interventionists is that nobody knows just what turn the Syrian crisis could take. The lessons of Iraq are fresh and ten years after the collapse of the Baath dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, April was the deadliest month in that country since 2007, when the US military was still heavily engaged.
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While the Western countries and the U.S. are struggling against the most serious crisis of the century, countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa (the BRICS) are continuing to see strong economic growth, which is allowing them to compete with the United States, the European Union and Japan while also enabling them to stretch their influence in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and South America. The BRICS bloc has also taken exception to Western foreign policy and the economic contest has also taken on some decidedly geopolitical overtones, of which one of the most crucial at present is the Syrian crisis and the response to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Given, the international and counter-opposed forces at play, The Syrian crisis fits into the phenomenon of the ‘Spring’ as the test-bed or catalyst for just what kind of an economic effect the ‘Arab Spring’ will have at the global level.
The rise of the BRICS, which extends to cultural and social aspects as well as economic ones, has implied the end of the unipolar world that was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. That collapse left the world lopsided and such largely unilateral interventions such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were largely enabled by this imbalance. The rapid growth of the BRICS has made unilateral interventions more complex especially in the strategically and economically sensitive – due to its vast energy resources – Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. NATO’s support to Libyan rebels, for instance, was made possible because Russia did not veto the no-fly zone that virtually prevented Qaddafi’s air force from maintaining control of the territory. However, Russia and China have vetoed intervention in Syria and there is no hint of any possible change to this stance in the horizon. The one way the West could circumvent the UN – and the Chinese and Russian vetoes – is if the now formally recognized opposition Syrian National Council were to establish itself as the legitimate government of Syria.
The BRICS have added a financial challenge since last March, proposing to establish a Development Bank to serve as an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF. Whereas the United States has set a series of ‘red lines’ (that appear to be rather ‘flexible’) the alternative BRICS development bank is a financial threat that could be used in case of a NATO intervention in Syria. This ‘red line’ was drawn in the context of another failure of the European Union and Russia to reach an energy agreement. Russian diplomacy has asserted its objection to intervention in Syria, tying any violation to not so veiled warnings on energy security. The current European policy of reducing the amount of energy generated from nuclear reactors has made Europe far more dependent on Russian gas and Russian controlled pipelines in Central Asia – one of these was in the process of development when the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011. Evidently, the EU, which is struggling with a debt crisis and with an unprecedented economic decline, can ill afford to endure energy blackmails from Russia. Syria is the pivot point and its crisis is international rather than local. The rise of the BRICS means that the United States or NATO can no longer act lone; the Western bloc will have to consider the position of the BRICS, which are currently trying to stabilize the Middle East more than they are supporting the Syrian regime in any militarily tangible way.
There is yet another argument that suggests the non-interventionist camp will prevail. Despite the White House’s recently revived Middle East peace initiative – Secretary of State Kerry has been holding talks with Israeli minister Tzipi Livni to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – China has added diplomatic weight to its economic expansion in the region as well. Moreover, very quietly, despite the efforts made to secure energy resources in Iraq, evolving technology in the extraction of shale gas has left the United States much less dependent on Middle East oil and gas. In other words, Washington has fewer strategic reasons to embark in another Middle East adventure. The only strategic motivation would be if Israel were to come under real threat from Syria, which is highly unlikely. While the USA is heading toward becoming a possible exporter of gas, China has become the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil; it is China, which now that has the biggest incentive to manage the Middle East situation; and China’s energy needs will grow in the short term, even as it plans to build 100 nuclear reactors to meet fast growing internal demand. Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern continues to navigate through American patrolled waters.
China is also building ties to Israel even as it maintains strong relationships to Israel’s enemies such as Syria (Netanyahu started a six day tour of China on May 6 and is expected to sign an agreement for a joint green technology fund ) and the Palestinians. This visit China’s growing role in Middle East peace and the Middle Eastern geopolitical balance. And China cares deeply about stability because the Middle East and North Africa have been gradually shifting their import and economic links from Europe and North America to China and the BRICS. China needs to ensure a stable market for its goods, a stable Suez Canal and a stable Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf. Europe’s current financial weakness, the United States’ growing incentives to stop acting as the policeman of the Persian Gulf and the BRICS and China’s growing economic and diplomatic influence in the region should keep gamblers betting on the side of non-intervention. Yet, this is the Middle East, land of prophets, miracles, plagues, legends and genies in lamps: anything could still happen.