A fatal attack in Syria, fatality of the international community?

A fatal attack in Syria, fatality of the international community?

In the aftermath of the reported chemical attack in Syria killing almost 1,000 people last week, President Obama made his intention clear. He still doesn’t want “boots on the ground” in Syria. The split between him and his NATO allies who called for action, namely France, Britain and Turkey, and the split between Western countries and Russia in the United Nations Security Council once again illustrated the radical changes that took place in the international order: The increasingly indirect engagement of global powers and the deadlock of the international community.

Even the U.S. intelligence agencies’ reports affirming the use of chemical weapons presumably by the Syrian government which Obama had defined as a “red line” beforehand, did not change Obama’s position at all. He stuck to the position that was made manifest in his second inaugural speech in January 2013 when he said a decade of war is now ending. Asked about intervening in Syria last week, he said, “immediate action gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

All these statements reflect the fact that the U.S. has come to terms with its own limitations and does not rely solely on its strengths and capabilities anymore. It is scaling down its military and economic engagement. Obama got out of Iraq, kept his troops out of Iran and Libya, resisted pressure to launch an intervention in Syria and puts more emphasis on international law. The Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires and the ongoing Arab uprisings have determined the cornerstones of this new thinking and strategic planning.

However, this new form of intervention does not mean disengagement from Syria and the region. Rather, it reflects an inclination for indirect engagement. The so-called “leading from behind” strategy reduces direct exposure to regional conflicts, relies less on direct power and more on strong regional allies. Washington will continue to exert its leverage in the region as an “offshore balancing power”, relying more on the direct engagement of its regional allies. Hence Turkey’s partnership has become crucial given that many of the U.S.’ longstanding partners such as Egypt face political turbulence and Israel is no more than a cog in the machine in light of regional dynamics. That President Abdullah Gül secured to be the third speaker at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in order to make a strong call to the international community displays Turkey’s determination and embracement for this role.

Yet, Washington cannot pursue this “low-cost leadership” as long as it does not put pressure on the wider international community and take a more efficient role in shaping the political landscape. First and foremost, it has urgently to mobilize the U.N. Security Council which failed to adopt a single resolution on Syria, even during its summit right after the chemical attack. Russia and China have been the scapegoats for blocking a resolution and hence international engagement. However, it is the whole international community that is completely incapable of responding to new challenges and therefore responsible for the current inertia.

There is an urgent need for the setup of a new international order which should skip unanimity thinking and voting and endorse instead regional coalitions of the willing. Otherwise we are all doomed to this perpetual fatality.