The Syria Ceasefire Plan is a Sign of the Decaying World Order

February 14, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

4 thoughts on “The Syria Ceasefire Plan is a Sign of the Decaying World Order

  1. Senator McCain’s concern for Syria in general, and Aleppo in specific, is misplaced. A cursory review of Aleppo would show that those loyal to the Syrian state held control of the largest area of the city, and had been subjected to rebel actions and rebel encirclement. Those neighborhoods that were controlled by the rebels are presently being threatened by the possibility that their arms supply lines to Turkey may be cut off, forcing them to either surrender or to flee.
    Mr. McCain has omitted that the major fighting force in that area of Syria are associated with al Qaeda. The best known is the Nusra Front. These are not freedom fighters, but proven enemies of the United States. The core element is made up of foreigners who crossed the Turkish-Syrian border with the intent to battle Asad and to assert their branch of Islam. Syrian rebels have either been destroyed by al Qaeda when they refused to join, or have been absorbed by al Qaeda, or are willing to join them in battling the Damascus government. One of our efforts to build a rebel force saw it dissolved with some fleeing for their lives, others joining al Qaeda and American arms falling into al Qaeda’s hands.
    It is not a coincidence that Senator McCain is worried about the situation. As the Islamic forces face the potential of having their supply lines cut, the advocates of an aggressive American Mideast policy of regime change and military intervention confronts the fact that their plans may come to naught.
    Mr. McCain would also skip over that the battle over Syria has little to do with Asad. We are more than comfortable with dictators and autocrats as partners. It is nothing less than a struggle over the control of the Persian Gulf oil wealth.
    Senator McCain was from the start an advocate of destroying Asad so as to weaken Iran in this conflict over oil. His policies, so reflective of the neocon Mideast game, have help to perpetuate a the spiraling of violence.

    1. This is a short-sighted view of the situation in Syria. The critical issue at stake is not oil wealth or some kind of American hegemony. The question before the world stage is “what kind of world will the Islamic world be?” It is a question that cannot be solved through force of arms alone. In fact, the question cannot truly be resolved by anyone but muslims.

      But until the question is answered, and in order to help ensure that the answer is one that the rest of the world can live with, some effort on the part of the West is necessary. If the answer arrived at requires the annihilation of everyone else, it will be too late to fight a war of prevention. And so, until the answer comes, we must fight a limited war to help sanity prevail in the Middle East.

      Any answer imposed by the West through massive force of arms will just be a new colonialism. An answer aided by the West, but fundamentally led by Islam itself, may prove more sustainable in the long run.

    1. Untrue. Hegemony remains as long as global peace is better than global conflict. Today is the most peaceful global moment one can find in history. More peaceful than during the Cold War and more peaceful than any moment before it. Anyone who believes otherwise is attempting to sell their own world order, usurp the current global leadership, and plunge the world into the darkness of a new global war.