All too often in history Great Powers waste money and men for far too long before they are finally forced to concede defeat in a troublesome area of the world that wiser minds warned them to keep away from. Somehow, if they can just get themselves to walk away, they will see that life can go on as a result of bowing out of an impossible situation. The argument always used is that, if you leave, your rival will go in and replace you. But the sensible response should be, by all means, have a go. Look at Afghanistan.
The world is strewn with intractable problems. Only the arrogance of power leads the great and the good to assume they are all capable of solutions. The British think that by dumping vast amounts of foreign aid on corrupt régimes in the Third World they are still a Great Power. The United States hangs on in Afghanistan just in case something goes right, so it can leave with its dignity intact. And so Russia went into Syria to save a bloody dictator. But somehow it is supposed to have left but is still there. And now Russia’s new best friend Turkey remains committed to sustaining Assad’s enemies; so much so that they feel free to shoot down a Russian fighter bomber; the pilot apparently committing suicide to avoid capture.
Political scientists studying and teaching international relations tend to assume, on the basis of nothing but pure conjecture, that statesmen are ‘rational actors’. Of course, that is utter nonsense. No statesman in his right mind before the Nineteenth Century ever believed that. On the contrary, they well knew that governments are driven by all the weaknesses mankind has ever known, not least hubris. And that is Russia’s problem in Syria. It just gets ever more complicated. As the Russian proverb reminds us: the further into the woods you go, the more trees there are. Will President Putin ever be able to find his way out?