The fall of the Soviet Union pleased America immensely, but the return of its ghost in Russia as a major player on the international stage is a concern. Post-Cold War, the US president could strut the stage at the head of the world's only superpower, able to threaten and appease, give and take in equal measure without fear or favour from anyone.
America became the global policeman and took it upon itself to steer the world in its own favoured direction, with a few exceptions, later labelled as rogue states and the "axis of evil". Successive US administrations have, in their quest for power and domination, co-opted rulers, academics, intellectuals and organisations to spread America's political, intellectual and cultural will worldwide.
In order to prove to the world that it is militarily superior, America invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. It exaggerated Iraq's military capabilities in order to convince Europe, Japan and China that whoever is able to take on Iraq can secure fuel supplies and the world must thank the US for its magnanimity. The message was clear: no one is stronger than the United States of America.
Washington did not make threats and intimidate others as much as it gave warnings about punitive economic or military measures. On occasion, its actions preceded its words. It set "red lines" for the world and threatened harsh action against Syria for using chemical weapons. Military units are trained to find such weapons and Patriot anti-missile batteries have been located in allied neighbouring countries to stress its intentions.
President Obama committed his country to taking military action against Syria and set out to find the evidence to give an attack some degree of legitimacy. Media hype was created to attract international support and forces were deployed pending an attack. The president has the authority to attack Syria without the consent of the US Congress and did not seek such approval for attacks in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe; this time he opted to go to Congress for legislative cover or a cloak to hide behind.
This suggests that America's global leadership of the past two decades has started to fall apart. It can no longer do what it has become used to doing without censure.
At one time America was able to get any UN resolution that it wished to add international legitimacy to its actions. Russia was unable, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to challenge it due to economic, military and social reasons. Moreover, China was not able to challenge the US because it could not back-up its position in military terms, nor could it prevent America from acting against third parties. As such, Russian and Chinese defiance of the US was mild and moderate, sometimes taking the form of abstaining on votes in the UN Security Council.
Although Washington did not get a UN mandate to impose a no-fly zone in Iraq, it initiated the procedure in any case, disregarding the legitimacy it claims to defend. It acted according to what it believed was legitimate without being challenged by anyone. With regards to Syria, China and Russia defied America openly by using their veto three times at the Security Council and blocked UN resolutions to take action against the Assad regime.
Russia has been active in supporting the Syrian regime against the wishes of the United States and strengthened its naval presence in the port of Tartus. It has continued to supply the regime with weapons, including advanced ground-to-air missiles. It is also possible to discern from various Syrian and Russian statements that Moscow provides financial and economic support to the regime in Damascus.
In a clear and open challenge to US hegemony, Russia criticised the Obama administration over what it said were Washington's policies to avoid a Syrian peace conference.
China, meanwhile, is expected to become an economic superpower within the next few years. Although its military capabilities have not yet developed to the point of matching America's deterrence power, it is aware that there is no way that the US would neglect its economic interests for the sake of a Syrian opposition whose membership includes groups who would threaten the US once the Assad regime has fallen. America is not interested in creating hostile conditions and China is aware of this.
Israel's experience with Hezbollah in 2006 was not easy and it pushed for an end to the war with its northern neighbour despite the encouragement of some Arab parties and the continued support of the United States. Israel pressured Hezbollah with all its strength, but was forced to accept military reality and stopped the war in order to avoid mounting moral and material losses. It was then that Israel and America realised that Hezbollah's arms were not primitive and that its military tactics were sound; this is still the case. Hezbollah, therefore, is capable of distracting Israel and America long-term in a conflict which Israel wouldn't be able to endure in terms of its internal morale.
Moreover, Hezbollah's endurance and its ability to hit military targets deep in Israel reflect some of its patron Iran's military and technical capabilities. The question is, if Iran has provided Hezbollah with such weapons, what is it hiding in its own arsenal? America is approaching the Iranian issue with caution, because it doesn't know the answer to that question. This has been reflected in US decisions regarding other Middle East issues.
Does America acknowledge that its "golden age" of unipolarity is over? The current crisis is characterised by the deployment of Russian warships in the Mediterranean, Moscow's announcement that Syria has enough to defend itself, and missiles directed at Israel and US targets in the region. This presents new challenges for the United States. The global scene is quite different to what America wants and it can't adapt to a situation in which it will not have the final word.
Syria is thus a test of the world's polarity: is America still the sole controller or is the challenge posed real with resonance on the ground?
Perhaps the Arab-Islamic region, as well as the global arena, it at the cusp of a historic turning point; either the US proves itself as the sole hero, Russia proves itself to be another pole, rather than just a superpower, or Iran either withdraws and licks its wounds or proceeds to look for more recognition of its regional and international leadership. Maybe there will be a combination of all three.
In reality, America has three options:
- To refrain from attacking Syria; this would be an implicit recognition of its enemies' and competitors' strengths. It will then accept new decision-making partners. This applies in the event that it accepts a deal that dictates the launch of several missiles at marginal areas in Syria in exchange for a lack of retaliation from the other party.
- To bomb Syrian sites to which the regime and its allies will retaliate. If this option is chosen, America will face the choice of accepting the retaliation and the recognition of the opponent's power which comes with it, or to respond to the retaliation and engaging in an unwanted war. With this, America would shrink in the world's eyes.
- To bomb Syria without any retaliation from the other side; this would establish the US as the world superpower.
We have come to expect America to think with its brawn instead of its brain; it makes many mistakes in times of peace and war. It is likely, therefore, to show off its strength and fire its missiles.
Russia and Iran are aware that their failure to face strength with strength will keep them pigeon-holed as countries with limited capacity to act globally or even regionally. They can bother opponents but not deter them. However, both are aware that their standing worldwide will increase if they decide to confront America.
Due to Russia's knowledge of Syria's armoury, its speculation that Iran has lethal weapons and the fact that America is not interested in engaging in a long-term war that may exhaust its own and Israel's morale, the possibility of Russia encouraging Syria and its allies to retaliate is quite high.
America is heading towards missile strikes against Syria, and the other side is aiming to prove its military prowess. This in itself puts the America's standing in a new era that is characterised by its loss of global hegemony. This will weaken even more if a strike against Syria produces hard responses against America and Israel. Russia, on the other hand, will rise in global stature, as will Iran regionally. It looks as if Washington will have no option but to accept that it has partners in international decision-making.
The author is a professor at Al Najah National University, Palestine. This article is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera Net on 9 September, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.