Chris Doyle outlines the failings of the various actors in Syria’s brutal conflict, how they might cooperate to bring it to an end, and why this is so crucial
The international community has failed Syria like no other country. Every single actor has an abysmal record. Many have ignored the monumental crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian regime, or even enabled them. Many countries promised support to the Syrian opposition, yetthey often failed to vet effectively the groups to which they gave weapons and funds.
Despite meeting 113 times on Syria in seven years, the UN Security Council has barely chalked up a single success. Its latest resolution, on east Ghouta, was dead on arrival. The dark statistics about Syria just get worse with 5.6 million people left refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced. Three million children are out of school.
On April 14 America and its allies carried out a series of cruise missile strikes against three targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians in Damascus. Afterwards President Trump tweeted: ‘A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!’
The strikes were at the most limited end of the spectrum, more in number than last April’s strikes but in no way representing a threat to Russian interests in Syria. The Syrian regime had feared worse, so a sense of relief morphed into a strange celebratory atmosphere. Not only did the regime survive but it was never even threatened.
This whole saga has reinforced Russia’s hand over Syria, especially vis-à-vis the regime. The regime’s other principal backer, Iran, is incapable of providing protection from external attack but Russia demonstrated that its very presence ensured that the strikes by the US and its allies were kept to a minimum. The message was clear: only Russia can keep the regime in power, not Iran. This is useful to President Putin as he attempts to bend the regime to his will and offset Iranian influence.
The strikes may have had a temporary deterrent effect in terms of chemical weapons use. They may perhaps also have degraded the capability of the Syrian regime to use such weapons. But they do not bring the war any closer to an end. Once east Ghouta is dealt with and all opponents are either forced out or arrested, the Syrian regime and Russia will be able to strike at remaining opposition-held areas. This is already happening, with the bombing of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, currently held by Islamist rebels.
The response by America and its allies to the alleged chemical weapons attack suggests that how people are killed has become more significant than the act of killing them. Conventional weapons account for the deaths ofhalf a millioncivilians in seven years. By contrast, around two thousand people may have been killed in chemical weapons attacks.
Soon after the airstrikes, east Ghouta was again slipping down the agenda. The enclave has been under siege since 2013, so its inhabitants expect indifference to their fate. Since March, over 158,000 people have been displaced from Ghouta, according to the United Nations. Around 45,000 are trapped in sites in and around Damascus with another 66,000 evacuated to areas in north-west Syria, most of them forced into overcrowded camps. This leaves anywhere between 138,000 to 200,000 people still in the wreck of east Ghouta. UN agencies face problems reaching them, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401.
For all the arguments about whether a chemical weapons attack did or did not take place –or if was the regime that used the weapons – one fact is beyond question: the entire siege and assault on east Ghouta was an abomination. Urban areas were flattened and hospitals, medical centres and schools were targeted. Airwars, an NGO that monitors civilian casualties in Syria (including by the US and partners in the war against ISIS) says the intervention by Russia into Syria has increased the death toll, with more than 1,200 civilians killed since March.
A US-Russian clash may have been avoided for now but the more immediate fear is of an Israeli-Iranian flare up, with potentially widespread and devastating consequences across the Middle East. Israel has carried out more thanone hundred strikes inside Syria. There has been an upsurge in military activity since September 2017, suggesting that Israeli high command takes very seriously the threat of Iranian military bases within Syria. Escalation could even lead to a direct war between the two countries and bombings of their cities.
Only Russia can keep Assad’s regime in power, not Iran
For this and for many other reasons,not least the terrible suffering of Syrian civilians,the international community must come together to try to end the conflict. The UN-led process aimed at a resolution needs to restart in Geneva but this time it requires genuine political support from the United States and Russia, which must cooperateto lay down the parameters of an acceptable agreement.
One key aspect of all the diplo-talk and the war drum beating of recent weeks was that, despite accusing Assad of using chemical weapons again, Trump, May and Macron did not demand that he left office. The era of seeking regime change is surely over.Many may dislike that but the upside could be that Russian suspicions of a hidden US agenda may have diminished, making it easier for thetwo sides to talk. Turkey, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia will also have to set aside their differences for the sake of the region.
But at the heart of all the efforts must be the Syrians. This time, instead of being beholden to the whims of regional sponsors and their interests,it is Syrians themselveswho need to decide they wish their country to go forward.
Unless an inclusive Syrian-led political deal is forthcoming, we must brace ourselves for a continuing saga of suffering, extremism and further unproductive debates about the need for violent military intervention.