A recent Buzzfeed article illustrating the current political exchanges between Obama and Putin regarding Syria via The Hills gifs made its rounds around Facebook. It was actually quite helpful to see Obama assigned the angsty face of Lauren Conrad while Putin was portrayed with the unfortunate malpractice warning that is Heidi Montag. Though most of my Facebook friends were simply tickled to see a blast from our adolescent past and rail against Justin Bobby’s treatment of Audrina, some of us were left wondering what about Syria is so important to these Cold War rivals.
Looking at the headlines about Obama and Putin frostily butting heads Cold War-style was like, “Ooh. That awkward moment when an ex-KGB tyrant stymies a Nobel Peace Prize winner’s attempt at war.” So why exactly this Peace Prize winner is trying to throw down is the question for those of us who have kept more up to date with Buzzfeed articles than with current events.
The very basic gist of it is that Obama is backing the Syrian rebels and Putin is backing the Syrian government. And it turns out that using The Hills was an apt choice to illustrate the conflict because the reasons behind it are full of plotting, maneuvering, and drama on the level of Speidi.
The civil war in Syria has been going on for years, but it recently crossed a line in late August when the Obama administration believed that the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons. War rages on all over the world, but this caught the administration’s attention because while war is common, warfare must be regulated. It’s like the concept of mutually assured destruction we learned about in high school, where several players have got weapons of mass destruction, but it’s game over if a single one of them actually uses them.
For you Game of Thrones fans, Assad using WMDs was like Walder Frey orchestrating the Red Wedding; it may be a bloody, ruthless war, but there are some lines you don’t cross, like breaking the protection of guest right. War is inevitable, but the way we fight has certain mutually understood and respected limits. Chemical warfare falls under use of weapons of mass destruction, which obviously is a huge international no-no.
The United Nations is presented with a couple motions that must go through the UN Security Council in order to do anything to Assad regime. The US is all about that life and pushes for action against Assad to show that use of WMDs will not be tolerated.
Oh, awkward – Russia is one of the five permanent members of the council, and when a permanent member vetoes, a motion is automatically killed. And Russia vetoed all motions that messed with the Assad regime (fellow permanent member China also vetoed because authoritarian homies support each other).
So then the US was left to make threats to disregard UN inaction and say that maybe they’ll just go ahead and confront Assad, which really pissed Russia off. But what does Russia care? Why is Russia so invested in making sure nobody gets in Syria’s business?
Because self-interest. Syria, it turns out, has value to Russia. With this civil war and all, the Syrian government imports quite a lot of military equipment from them, providing a nice economic interest to Russia. As the second largest arms exporter after the US, Russia has a lucrative military export industry. Next, there is a very strategically valuable Russian naval base in Syria. In fact, it’s Russia’s only naval installation in the Mediterranean – obviously a pivotal geostrategic location and compelling reason for Russia to keep things chummy with Syria. And of course, post-Cold War enemies would love to see each other weaken, so the US wouldn’t mind seeing a Russian ally fall that would diminish Russia’s influence in the region, and Russia has a “hell no” stance to more Cold War-reminiscent Western imperialist intervention from the US. Russia has both pro-Syrian and anti-US motivations, but the former dominates by far. Russia needs to look out for Syria as an ally because if it were to neglect it now, all its other allies would see this abandonment and lose trust, zapping Russia’s geopolitical influence.
People ask, “Why is Syria getting so much attention when civil wars happen everywhere and people die every day? Why is the US and Russia concerned with this particular one when there are tons of others?”
In the game of thrones, you either win or you die. Syria has value to each party, while crises like starving children and obscure massacres in poor countries that offer you nothing are not worth the guise of humanitarian intervention. There is no time for selflessness; everything that you do must serve a purpose. You take the actions that benefit you and weaken your rivals.