The Syrian War, apart from its horrendous humanitarian toll, is now for all intents and purposes an international conflict.
Syria’s civil war has reached a magnitude unforeseen by anyone in the conflict’s seven-year course. Not in 2011, when it began. Not in 2012 when President Barack Obama drew his no-chemical-weapons red line and then failed to deliver on one year later. Not in 2015 when Russia deployed air and ground forces to bolster Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces defending the embattled Syrian regime. And not last year when President Donald Trump ordered a punitive attack for Syria’s use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria.
President Trump’s derisive remarks aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, however unseemly and undignified for an American president, nevertheless illustrate the severity of the Syrian Civil War. If more evidence is needed, consider that Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said on April 10 that if Iran follows through with its threats against the Jewish state from Syrian territory, “Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime will be those that pay the price.”
The crisis, apart from its horrendous humanitarian toll, is now for all intents and purposes an international conflict involving the superpower United States, great power Russia and several major regional powers with significant military capability — i.e., Iran, Turkey and Israel. In addition, non-state actors, including Hezbollah, Shia militias from at least three countries, al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State, are also militarily engaged.
This is precisely the kind of conflict the post-World War II rules-based international order sought to prevent. Now, the possibility of major power conflict raises the stakes for all parties. President Trump’s taunts, Russian diplomatic threats to shoot down US missiles, and Israeli-Iranian verbal jousting serve only to inflame an already tense situation in a crisis-wracked nation and region.
Chemical Weapons: a Means to an End for “Butcher of Damascus”
The world should first note what precipitated this latest round in the crisis. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against alleged opposition forces and civilians in the town of Douma outside Damascus is a war crime. Since the end of World War I, the international community has recognized through UN conventions and treaties that use of such weapons is both inhumane and dangerous to international order. Assad has flaunted those conventions, even after claiming Syria’s chemical weapons were removed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons after his use of sarin gas in Ghouta in 2013, which coincidentally neighbors the town where the most recent attack occurred.
As this and last year’s use of sarin gas illustrate, Assad is morally unconstrained in his effort to restore as much of Syria as possible to his control. Russia and Iran, which itself suffered under Saddam Hussein’s repeated chemical attacks during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, appear remarkably, even criminally, indifferent to this major breach in international law and order and the threat it poses.
Left unpunished and accountable, Assad can be expected to employ similar tactics and weapons in the northwestern province of Idlib, where he faces more powerful and numerous opposition forces. After the Douma attacks, Idlib will remain the last redoubt of major opposition in western Syria. (The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the country’s northeast face its gravest threat from Turkey, which fears a semi-independent Kurdish state on its southern border.) As in Douma, Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun, Assad will be unfazed by the large presence of civilian non-combatants in Idlib, many of whom have been forced to relocate there from elsewhere in Syria.
The American punitive missile attack against Syria in 2017 had no marked impact on Assad, or apparently on his Russian and Iranian patrons. It is a useful and, in his perverse view, a necessary and effective tool of coercion and force. One is left to conclude that, regardless of how strong, any second US reprisal attack, as promised by Trump, is unlikely to deter the butcher of Damascus. He will strike again as long as he believes he can achieve his objective.
The Priority: De-escalate Crisis
But justice for Assad may have to wait. Not only is it unrealistic at the moment — unless the US targets the Syrian leader himself — but there is a more important concern at stake, regional if not international order. The US and other powers must find a way to de-escalate this crisis.
Assuming the US follows through with its promise to respond with force, its next if not simultaneous move must be to restart the moribund Geneva peace talks or begin an alternative, this time with all relevant players at the table. Diplomacy is not the American president’s strong suit. But if the horrific humanitarian toll — over a half-million killed and more than 50% of the population either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries, Europe or beyond — is not enough for Trump and the other concerned parties, then the prospect of great power confrontation with no idea of where that would lead should convince them. Military escalation hasn’t ended this conflict and won’t.
A serious effort to revive Geneva may require some distasteful concessions to many. For the Syrian people, the US and most European and Arab nations, it may mean tolerating Assad, if only for a limited period of time. For Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shia militias siding with Assad, it may mean agreeing to remove all offensive forces. And for Assad, it may mean agreeing to step down after a “suitable” period of time. Foregoing justice for Assad, if only temporarily, may perhaps be the most repugnant concession of all.
The most urgent priority must be to ratchet down this conflict and then begin a genuine effort to end it. If that is not done, it will surely grow to something much worse, as it has since 2011.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.