The G20 sent Europe a message this weekend — you’re on your own. Europe was asked to provide for its own future by financing its own stability mechanism; the IMF is not going to use US or Chinese money to bail Europe out. The problem is that Europe is still waiting for various national governments to approve the latest Greek bailout, and it is not clear there will be more money for an expanded European Stabilization Fund. That is bad news, since the latest bailout is clearly not going to be enough to get Greece out of debt trouble. So we will be back to facing a troubled Europe within a few months.
The “Friends of Syria” similarly agreed to do just enough to keep the Syrian crisis going but not take any decisive steps to end it. This is remarkable; fear has triumphed over vital interests.
In 1848, no one was in a position to challenge Russia when it helped the Austrian government, facing revolts in Vienna, Milan, and Hungary, crush those revolts and maintain its monarchy for another 70 years. At that time, weak pro-democracy movements in Prussia and France were defeated, but with compromises that still yielded elections and reforms. Russia’s support for Austria, however, decisively turned back the democratic tide and helped state autocracy survive for decades longer.
Today, Russia (and Iran) are helping Syria resist a democratic revolt at a time when counter-revolutionary forces are striving to minimize change in Egypt, when change in Yemen and Libya is still uncertain, and when reform efforts in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are being harshly suppressed. If Assad triumphs in Syria, there is a real risk that such an outcome could turn back the democratic tide throughout the region and delay democratization for another decade or more.
European nations have fears about a civil war in Syria drawing in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon and destabilizing the entire Levant. At a time when US troops are struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen are still in turmoil, and conflicts are still wide open in Somalia, one can understand the hesitation to open yet another front.
Yet Syria is already at war; the only question is how it ends, and what influence that ending will have on all the current struggles of the region. Refusing to engage in Syria will not change that. It simply risks everything that has been gained in the region in the last year.