Syrian Crisis: Soft Balancing Against US

Free Syria Army fighters are reflected in a mirror they use to see a Syrian Army post only 50 meters away as they man a position in the Old City of Aleppo 16 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Marco Longari)

By: Hosam Matar

Published Monday, September 17, 2012

Within the ongoing Syrian crisis there is a central debate concerning the involvement of international and regional powers, mainly Russia and China. Since the beginning of the crisis, many analysts and politicians predicted that both Russia and China would abandon the Syrian regime and accept to support the “Yemen Model” as a solution for the conflict in Syria. However, it is now more than a year on and the two powers seem more committed than ever to the Syrian regime. To understand the position of the two powers a broader approach is needed, an approach that includes the changes in international dynamics and balances of power, the strategic calculations against the US role, the reflections of the Arab uprisings and regional politics.

Since the end of the Cold War, realists have faced many challenges to their theoretical arguments concerning the “balance of power.” The early 1990s did not witness serious attempts from major powers to balance the American hegemony as realists used to claim. Second-tier major powers such as China and Russia have mostly abandoned traditional "hard balancing" based on countervailing alliances and arms buildups-at the systemic level. Many theories were presented to explain this absence of “balancing” against the US, such as the incompatible US primacy, many major powers preferred to “bandwagon” the US rather than to balance it, economic interdependence between the US and these powers, and most importantly, the absence of concern about territorial security for major powers. According to Professor of International Relations at McGill University, T.V. Paul, the US was perceived as a defender of the international status quo and an opponent of forced territorial revisions.

However, since the US invasion of Iraq 2003, major powers began to feel threatened by the US, which was perceived as attempting to reinforce its hegemony with total neglect of the interests of other major powers. This “neo-imperial grand strategy" as recognized by John Ikenberry in the Foreign Affairs magazine, provoked China and Russia – and even some European powers – as they thought the US victory in Iraq would encourage the Americans to practice unlimited imperialism, intensive military interventions and total unilateralism in international affairs. The Bush administration aimed to completely change international law as Noam Chomsky argues, because it considered international law as a system of principles modified continuously by international practice, which means only by American practice. A powerful state has the capacity to create what is called a new norm and the Iraq war was an attempt to create a the doctrine of “preventive war.”

Both Russia and China are losing their strategic spots in the region, they lost the Iraqi regime in 2003, and then Libyan regime in 2011 by a limited military Western intervention under the cover of the “Arab Spring.” The two powers are adopting an increasingly “soft balance” strategy against the US, this is clearly revealed in their handling of the Syrian crisis. Soft balancing can be described as actions that do not aim to challenge the American military primacy directly, but to delay, hinder, and postpone US unilateral policies by using non-military methods such as coalitions in international organizations, economic tools and diplomatic initiatives.

Even this “balance” will not prevent the US from achieving some of its interests and goals, but it will make such achievements more expensive, will bring more damage to US legitimacy and deeper tensions with major powers and allies, and even may cause an economic power shift against the US, according to political scientist Robert Pape. US policy toward the Syrian crisis indicated that Obama is still ignoring Russian and Chinese vital interests in the Middle East.

The American decline led the US to transfer many regional responsibilities to its regional allies, mainly the Gulf States and Turkey, in order to enhance regional balance of power against Iran through regional tools. China and Russia even cooperated with Obama by approving sanctions against Tehran in the Security Council (2010), however, they concluded that the US was pushing its regional allies to take a lead in the Syrian conflict without considering their vital interests. Both powers had no choice but to strengthen their strategic spots on the Middle Eastern chess board, namely in Syria and Iran.

The Chinese and Russian policy toward the Syrian crisis can be described as a “soft balancing” strategy against US, that includes their coalition within the Security Council, using vetoes, building wide agreement about the crisis within the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, offering logistical military support to the Syrian army, and presenting economic aids and technical support with which to face the international sanctions. The political position declared by both countries is constant, a refusal of military intervention and regime change by force and sanctions, while supporting the option of a political process that includes a national dialogue and international guarantees toward a new regime as the Syrian people want it. These are the guidelines for both countries which they will commit to whilst engaging in the regional and international efforts to find a solution to the crisis.

There is the possibility that soft balancing will evolve into hard balancing. Both Pape and Paul argue that the mechanisms of soft balancing become “harder” when American unilateralism increases, and it may change to hard balancing, especially with the US decline at the international level. How and when Russia and China may seek hard balance against the US in the Middle East depends partly on how the Syrian Crisis will end, but what is obvious is that both countries do not have the option of retreating now.

Hosam Matar is a Lebanese researcher of International Relations.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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