Reports, in the fall of 2013, of gas attacks in Syria touched off more than an appeal about humane weapons. But exactly what did they touch off? In the United States there was concern that the US would become involved in another Middle Eastern military action that would cost too much and produce too little. The Syrian civil war is a local territorial conflict that doesn’t hold a lot of direct strategic interest for the United States. It’s the collateral issues from that war, like gas attacks, that impinge on American leadership. The use of chemical weapons, while it occurred more than once in Syria, eventually occurred on a large enough scale that if the United States didn’t respond, US leadership would seem complicit in criminal war methods (chemical weapons) merely by allowing their use to continue.
Civil War In A Global Context
For Iran the Syrian Civil War is a territorial concern. Being one of the largest and most powerful states in the Middle East, Iran’s interests are directly tied to the conflict’s events and its outcome. As backers of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, Iran has a dog in the fight. Ultimately Iran wants to see the Assad regime prevail and maintain the Syrian land territory for the Shiite branch of Islam.
Russia and Putin aren’t Shiite but are backers of Bashar al-Assad and Syria. For Russia the real issue is access to territory that will allow them to distribute natural gas and petroleum. In the past there were pipe line routes that reached from Baku on the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, which passed through Syria. Russia has been allied with Alawite power control in Syria for decades. Bashar al-Assad’s family are from the Alawite tribe that seized power in Syria in 1970, after the French pulled out. Russia’s interests like Iran’s interests are territorial although for different reasons.
In an odd way, the United States interest in Syria is more than just concern about chemical weapons; the US is interested for economic reasons. The US economy is finally stabilizing after more than six severe years of recession. Many parts of American society are still reeling from the economic strain. And behind it all is a huge shift in technology. The Untied States, and to a lesser extent Japan and Europe are all invested in a new cycle of economic development. The US in particular is inventing a digital economy that drives a digital society and which has its own cyclical dynamics.
The Direction Of Hegemony Is Now Technical
US leadership is really all about leading the global economy. That’s not the same as leading all the regional economies; the US is not interested in doing that. But the global economy, global shipping and global currency are all centered around US interests. Being the leading edge of how digital technology integrates into and onto existing society the US is forced to move forward. That means the US has to find ways to build a balanced society and economy that attracts other countries, so they also move forward with the United States technology. For the US there is no turning back. The digital economy is now far enough advanced and integrated into U.S. infrastructure that whatever old economy remains is driven by the pace and directions of digital technology.
Syria is important as a challenge to US policy and how US leadership is regarded and evaluated by other countries. It’s not just the chemical weapons, although they were important; it’s that the weapons were an indicator of how the United States handles conflicts as it manages the global economy. If the US overlooked chemical weapons then what would it do when someone begins to use other outlawed weapons? Or, worse yet when another country begins using digital weapons on a large scale. There really is a “red line,” and Obama, this far, has been hesitant to act. The chemical weapons were addressed just enough to get them removed from the conflict and from public awareness.
The symbolism of US leadership in Syria may seem far removed from cutting-edge digital developments, but the way they interact is tricky. The integration of computers, the internet, fiber optics, liquid crystal screens and digital chips has been slowly unfolding. It has not been a smooth ride and in comparison to the last great burst of economic growth from 1945 to 1971 this current economy looks feeble. Other countries are not convinced the American model is where they want to follow. Every international event is a potential referendum on how the US is shaping the global economy and how the US is leading the new digital society. Chemical weapons in Syria were an event to evaluate how the US leads. The larger underlying digital economy is the perspective that gives meaning to that leadership. Is the United States developing a social structure that can be used elsewhere for development, or is the United States stumbling along a clumsy abusive imperialist path?
In contrast, developing countries have to consider whether they might find a different path to develop along —a path that somehow combines some digital technology with older industrial technologies and even older agricultural technologies. Russian fossil fuels are important if you can’t see a path leading directly to a smart grid run on renewable energies and supporting a digital economy. So Russian resistance to US involvement in Syria is a marker for an alternative path forward that isn’t lead by the US., and isn’t so reliant on digital innovation. Iran also plays into this alternative path, although tied to conservative religious leadership and territorial conflict, Iran offers more criticism of US policy than actual path forwards. China, India, and other developing countries have to be looking carefully who to follow. Neither the US path, or the Russian path offers any guarantees.