Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Sen. McCain’s speech at the Munich Security Council, which addressed the recent agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
I wish I could share the views of some of my friends who see this agreement as a potential breakthrough, but unfortunately I do not. I want to be wrong, but I fear I am not. My skepticism rests, simply, on the nature of our adversaries’ ambitions and the basic realities of power and commitment in the world today.
Let’s be clear about what this agreement does: It permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week. It requires opposition groups to stop fighting, but it allows Russia to continue bombing “terrorists,” which it insists is everyone, even civilians. It commits the U.S. and Russian militaries not just to de-conflict but coordinate, which Washington had thus far rejected. And if Russia or the Assad regime violate this agreement, what are the consequences? I don’t see any.
Common sense will not end the conflict in Syria. That takes leverage. Mr. Putin is not interested in being our partner. He wants to shore up the Assad regime. He wants to reestablish Russia as a major power in the Middle East. He wants to use Syria as a live-fire exercise for Russia’s modernizing military. He wants to turn Latakia province into a military outpost from which to harden and enforce a Russian sphere of influence—a new Kaliningrad or Crimea. And he wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project. The only thing that has changed about Mr. Putin’s ambitions is that his appetite is growing with the eating.
So, too, with the Iranian regime. We were told that the nuclear agreement with Iran would empower the so-called moderates and marginalize the so-called hardliners. Well, the opposite appears to be happening. Before the ink was even dry on the nuclear agreement, Iran was escalating its malign activities across the Middle East and testing new advanced military capabilities, all in its bid to establish itself not as a partner of the West, but as a dominant regional power that aims to drive Western influence out of the Middle East—a goal that it will soon pursue with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
Now, when Russia joined with Iran and went to war overtly last year in Syria, some said Mr. Putin had gotten mired in a quagmire, and that soon he would be forced to sue for peace. Instead, Russia has indiscriminately bombed civilians and moderate opposition groups for months with impunity. U.S. intelligence leaders have stated publicly that Russia’s intervention has stabilized the Assad regime and helped it go back on the offensive. And now, as we sit here, Syrian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian forces are accelerating their siege of Aleppo.
It is no accident that Mr. Putin has agreed on a cessation of hostilities when he did. We have seen this movie before in Ukraine: Russia presses its advantage militarily, creates new facts on the ground, uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war, and then chooses when to resume fighting. This is diplomacy in the service of military aggression. And it is working because we are letting it. The only deterrence that we seem to be establishing is over ourselves.
Let me say again: I truly hope I am wrong. I want to be wrong. Because if this agreement turns out to reward aggression rather than punish it, if it comes to be seen as a further embodiment of Western weakness not strength, if it deepens the perception among our allies and partners in the Middle East that we are untrustworthy and feckless, then not only will this agreement fail, but the war in Syria will grind on, more innocent people will die, Western credibility and influence will diminish, the refugees will continue to flow out, the terrorists will continue to flow in, and our citizens will be attacked—or attacked again.
My friends: A rare benefit of my advanced age is that I have had the privilege of attending this forum for four decades. I watched Ewald von Kleist and other giants of our transatlantic alliance come together year after year to address the greatest challenges of their time. They believed in the value of a rules-based international order, because they knew the horrors of global anarchy. They believed in sustaining a favorable balance of power, because they had survived the collapse of it. They believed in the West, and its power. And they succeeded.
It is that vision of world order—our vision—that is under assault today. It is that balance of power that is eroding—in the Asia-Pacific region, right here in Europe, and nowhere more graphically than the Middle East. This is not like a hurricane or a tsunami. It is not just happening to us. It is happening because we have adversaries and enemies that oppose us. It is happening because revisionist powers and terrorist movements like Daesh are testing us, and threatening us, and attacking us, and ultimately seeking to drive us back and displace us.
Don’t we see what is happening? Do we care? What would our predecessors think if they were here today? Would they think we are succeeding? Do we?
The world order that we built, our dearest inheritance, which we tended to and shored up every year here at Munich, is coming apart. It is not inevitable that this happen. It is not occurring because we lack power, or influence, or options to employ. No, this comes down, ultimately, to our judgment and our resolve. And in this vital respect, my friends, we cannot change course soon enough.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Image: Christiaan Triebert, CC