If the war in Syria was truly about Syria or about defeating ISIS, the mess we see in the region today would have been cleaned up already. The recent shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey is classic Cold War politics. We saw this way too many times during the Cold War, in the proxy wars in Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam and Latin America.
What started as a movement for democracy in Syria back in 2011 became entangled in regional power politics between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel on one side, against Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah on the other. Fast forward to 2014, and the global superpowers — the US/Europe and Russia — are also closely involved in backing their proxies.
If the war was about defeating ISIS, how long would it take these global powers and NATO, with trillions of dollars in military budgets, to wipe these untrained and ill equipped ISIS fighters off the map? The problem is not defeating ISIS. The global powers are locked in an impasse over the post-ISIS power structure in the region, meanwhile giving ISIS time to gain momentum, conduct propaganda, recruit militants and attack Western cities.
Under the label of 'fighting ISIS', regional powers have been putting their own interests first. Turkey, for instance, has been more inclined to bomb Kurdish forces than ISIS fighters. The Saudis have aided ISIS indirectly to thwart Iran's growing influence in the region. The Americans, on the other hand, are supposedly fighting against ISIS, yet they support the Saudis at the same time.
The events in Syria reveal a lot about the global power structure and the international order. The war today is more about the colliding interests of the global powers. As such, Syria today represents the Afghanistan of 1980s, Vietnam of the 60s and Korea of the 50s.
The tragedy for Syria and its people is that it is a country where global powers have come in direct confrontation with each other over their 'national interests'. The security emergency that the threat ISIS has provoked is leading both regional and global powers to try to re-frame the post-ISIS power structure in their own favour, while in the meantime millions of Syrians are dying or leaving the country.
Events in Syria demonstrate that despite all the advancement and progress of human society, the global South continues to remain under the hegemony of North. The great powers may no longer have colonies, but instead they have 'national interests' in regions as far off as Afghanistan or Syria. Despite the rhetoric over decolonisation since World War II, the fact is that the Middle East and numerous other former colonies have remained under the shadow of these 'national interests'. The threat from ISIS has allowed swift increases in military and defence spending, but taxpayers have little clue that it's not their security at risk but the security of the 'national interest' somewhere in Middle East.
The crisis in Syria also reveals that the priority for global powers isn't to defeat ISIS but to ensure that the 'right' power set-up is arranged in the post-ISIS regional order. It also reminds us of an obvious lesson: weakening institutions and governance arrangements through foreign occupation, bombing and destruction allows space for terrorist organisations to breed. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and now Syria all demonstrate how the recklessness of great powers has destroyed institutional structures, creating space for militant organisations like ISIS to seize control.
As long as the crisis in Syria is not separated from Cold War-style politics, with the national interests of foreign powers dominating the strategy and discourse, Syria is going to tread the path of destruction. It may even trigger a wider war that will not just be fought in the Middle East, but also on the streets of developed countries, as we saw in Paris.