What Will it Take to Get the American Public Invested in Syria?

Instead of political narcissism, should the U.S. be paying more attention to international politics?

By Laura RiceOctober 4, 2016 12:38 pm

Just a few weeks ago, people were cheering a jointly-brokered Syrian ceasefire between the U.S. and Russia. But now the U.S. has suspended the talks.

It’s the first time Russia has deployed the SA-23 – an advanced anti-missile system – outside its borders. The missiles and associated components are still in their crates and are not yet operational, according to the officials. Russia also announced its decision to scrap an agreement with the U.S. to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium.

The New York Times has been reporting on audio of Secretary of State John Kerry talking to a group of Syrian expats in New York. The recording clearly shows that he wanted the U.S. to take a tougher military role in Syria. But in his words: “I lost that battle within the administration.”

Jeremi Suri, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says this is not a case of the two countries distancing themselves from the other – it’s more of a case of butting heads.

“What we have … is a clear clash of interests between the U.S. and Russia,” Suri says. “Russia is pursuing a very clear policy of trying to increase its influence in the Middle East. And its main ally for doing that is Bashar [al-Assad], the leader of Syria. They’ve been doing everything they can to keep him in power and to increase his power.”

But the U.S. position is that al-Assad should have diminished power within Syria and the Middle East.

“Over the last three to four years, we’ve seen a much more aggressive forward stance by the Russian government,” Suri says. “We’ve seen the U.S. bolster its allies in the areas where we believe Russia is acting aggressively. … And I don’t think we’re going to go back to better relations with Russia anytime soon.”

Suri says Vladimir Putin will need help from the U.S. – it has a weak economy.

“For all the muscle-flexing that we’re seeing from him he’s doing this on a very hollow base,” Suri says. “In the long-run, he will have to come back to us. Time is on our side.”

Suri says we’ve fallen into a “narcissistic political movement” in the U.S. It’s not something particular to this election cycle, but America’s focus on the two candidates has exacerbated this year’s narcissism. The images and the numbers of casualties coming out of Aleppo aren’t hitting the mark strong enough to draw America’s attention, Suri says.

The U.S. should be discussing what will happen in Syria this election cycle, he says, but it’s not happening. At the least, he says, we’ll have to start having that conversation after Jan. 12, 2017.

“We’ve seen this with other conflicts, where the numbers get so large that they become abstract in our eyes. Just to remind everyone: more than five million people have been displaced by the war in Syria, more than 250,000 have died,” Suri says. “What will make us care more again? It won’t be new images. It will be when we actually have a series of prominent figures in our society. Hopefully our next president will stand up and say ‘This is important,’ because it’s about the future of the international system. It’s about the world we want to have.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.