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The Syria Memory Hole Is Opening Up a Bigger Danger

The Syria Memory Hole Is Opening Up a Bigger Danger

Monday, 26 February, 2018 - 09:15
Sometimes the biggest events are those that don’t get the most publicity, and the lack of notice itself is part of the story. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes referred to the dog that didn’t bark as a telltale sign that something unusual was going on during a horse theft. The relative lack of attention being paid to the news that US-backed forces killed 200 to 300 Russian mercenary soldiers this month in Syria seems like a non-barking dog to me.

In many years, this might have been the most disruptive story, holding the headlines for weeks or maybe months. Circa February 2018, it didn’t command a single major news cycle.

What outsiders know about the event is still fragmentary, but it sounds pretty ominous. One Bloomberg account notes: “More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by US and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.” It is described as the biggest clash between US and Russian forces since the Cold War. It seems that the Russian mercenaries are pretty closely tied to the Russian government.

One Russian commentator called this event “a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis.” American foreign policy expert Ian Bremmer noted, “At some level, it’s startling that isn’t the biggest news of the year.” Yet I have found that I know plenty of well-educated people, with graduate degrees and living in and near Washington, who aren’t even aware this occurred. The story has fallen into a memory hole, in part because neither the Americans nor the Russians wish to escalate the conflict.

Is this unusual affair a one-off, or an indication of a more basic shift in the world? I am starting to believe the latter.

It could be argued that the international order is now less fragile, that a minor clash can occur without major escalation. This is both good and bad news.

The good news is that when such conflicts arise, they may dwindle into insignificance. That seems to be the case with this fighting. Politicians think that larger values are at stake in the international world order, and they don’t want to disrupt peace because of a single unfortunate incident. For a variety of reasons, which of course may include state control, the news media in both countries have gone along with this decision.

In essence, this is the opposite of a world where a minor diplomatic slight can lead to a war, as with the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870.

This newfound international robustness may also be showing up in the North Korean crisis. US President Donald Trump’s insulting tweets, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “short and fat,” are extremely unusual by the standards of any recent diplomatic era. I don’t approve of these communications, but it’s quite possible that they won’t much affect the final outcome of the two Koreas dilemma. For better or worse, the world is learning to ignore much of what Trump says and does.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in human affairs, the bad news is very closely tied to the good. If the world is developing a greater robustness with respect to armed conflict and diplomatic slights, perhaps that’s because it needs to. The fundamental underlying determinants of international order may be growing weaker, and the greater tolerance for bad events reflects a broader decline. There is some evidence -- admittedly fragmentary -- that international conflicts are starting to become more violent, and hardly anyone believes that Pax Americana is what it used to be.

As for American voters and social media activists, they seem far more interested in a continuing series of culture wars and debates over President Trump. That’s not a good sign for American international influence.

But it is worse yet. As the tolerance for particular instances of conflict rises, the temptation to allow or initiate such conflicts rises, if only because the penalties won’t be so large. Eventually more parties will experiment with violent sorties. Do we really think that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ordering the summary execution of the Russian “rogue” attacking forces, as Stalin might have done? Probably not.

The sorry truth is that a world tolerant of conflict will probably end up as a world full of conflict.

So is the Russian attack in Syria the biggest story of the year? Probably not. But our deliberate disavowal of its newsworthiness is the true novelty, and it is a disturbing one indeed.


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