The war in Syria hasn’t improved; Americans have just forgotten about it
Over the last week, the Russian and Syrian government forces have committed the same sort of war crimes that they’ve been committing daily since 2015 at an exceptional rate in and around the Syrian city of Idlib. More than a hundred airstrikes were launched over the course of a three day period. Warplanes have targeted hospitals and open markets, just as they have on a daily basis for the last many years. According to the Syria Campaign — an organization that I will return to in a moment — at least 1,648 civilians, including 392 children, have been killed since this escalation began in April.
The left-wing, anti-intervention reporter Max Blumenthal wrote an exposé about the Syria Campaign in Alternet a few years ago. He wrote that “behind the lofty rhetoric about solidarity and images of heroic rescuers rushing in to save lives is an agenda that aligns closely with the forces from Riyadh to Washington clamoring for regime change.” This was in September 2016, at a time when warplanes were targeting Aleppo, “destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days,” according to a New York Times report. That report also cited a view by many analysts that “Russia and its Syrian government allies...could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy” to force rebel forces to ally with jihadists, thus defeating the spirit of any civilians who would otherwise be sympathetic to them and further complicating any western desire to intervene.
One wonders whether, when a state is intentionally butchering civilians, ‘regime change’ is such a bad thing to clamor for, or whether Blumenthal’s correct observation that opposition forces in Aleppo were connected to jihadist groups might, in light of the analysis I just quoted in the Times, be inconveniently if not inevitably aligned with the interests of the butchers. But I don’t have any better answer. This is not a column to suggest that there is or has been in the past an obvious solution to this conflict, or to suggest that the inevitable costs of intervention are worth it. I, a comfortable college student peaceably living out my armable years, am not in a position to suggest that we send other Americans my age off to die. And at this point, the best approach may be the one suggested by Max Boot in the Washington Post almost two years ago: “To save Syrians, let Assad win.” There are no easy answers here.
However, since I do keep receiving updates from the Syria Campaign about the siege in Idlib — daily numbers of children killed, and regular in-memoriams of White Helmet volunteers — those genuinely heroic rescuers who swoop in after bombings to rescue survivors under the rubble — it seems worth reminding people that there was a time, not so long ago, when Syria was something we cared about. Hillary Clinton, who knew a thing or two about this conflict, endorsed a no-fly zone in Syria, and there’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t have executed one had she been elected President. There are a lot of what-ifs bound up in that election, but it seems that this is one we don’t recall often enough. Not just Clinton, but most of the competent Republican candidates as well would have shot down Russian warplanes in Syria: Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and others. Had our political system not derailed the way it did, the United States and our allies might have done something to prevent these open-air war crimes.
But because things happened the way they did, the crimes continue. There have been new sanctions on Russia, Syria and Iran for crimes in that war. President Donald Trump has signed those sanctions into law. But he has, at the same time, worked to relieve sanctions on Russia, just as he has endorsed Russia’s interference in American politics and by extension, the politics of Europe. This is a connection that is not made explicit often enough: Russia, it is well documented, has been supporting nationalist movements across the West, including a rising Neo-Nazi movement in the United States, as reported on Feb. 2 by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. This is Putin’s preferred means of destabilizing Europe and weakening the liberal world order. His preferred wedge issue is refugees. It is not hard to imagine that Putin has been intentionally forcing Syrian civilians to flee their homes for the last half-decade, not only for the purpose of assuring Assad’s grip on power, but also in order to ensure a flow of desperate people on whom the slightly-less desperate can turn.
One wonders as well whether Putin had something to do with President Trump’s decision last October to withdraw American troops from the ‘safe zone’ that Kurdish-led troops and their American allies had established in Northern Syria. For months prior to our withdrawal, the United States had been negotiating between the parties of the conflict in that region, and the Syrian Democratic Forces that protected it had been dismantling their fortifications at our behest, assured repeatedly that we would protect them from the Turkish threat to the north. All of a sudden, inexplicably, we didn’t. And this too is a story about the exploitation of Syrian refugees for expansionist goals: Erdogan hopes not only to annex this part of Syrian Kurdistan, but also to flood it with repatriated, non-Kurdish Syrians from the South who have for years been seeking refuge in Turkey, thus cancelling out its autonomy twice-over.
And, of course, the United States, under the administration of a President who is friendly with both Putin and Erdogan, has slammed its doors to those being butchered in Syria, even though, as complicated as it might be to solve the problem militarily, there is little the United States has more experience with or owes more to as a national practice than absorbing immigrants and refugees. There is no hope on this front as long as Trump is President. But it’s something that we shouldn’t forget about as we go through the process over the next ten months of choosing and attempting to elect a successor.
Every day that Russian bombers have targeted Syrian children unmolested has been, and remains, a failure of the liberal world order and a threat to its continued viability. Just as the fascist powers of the 20th century used Spain as a training ground, destroying promising experiments in democracy as a prelude to threatening the entire free world, we ought to expect the authoritarian powers that have used Syria as a laboratory to be stronger and more practiced when confrontation with them is no longer avoidable.
But on a human level alone, the Syrian war is one we will be reading about for the rest of our lives. The trauma of an entire nation will have consequences. And though there may not be much that the U.S. can do until we sort out our own problems, we should remember as we sort them out that sooner or later we will have to look a generation of Syrians in the eye. If we want to live with ourselves as a country, it’s worth coming up with something useful to say, or, better, to do, even if it’s something that, inevitably, falls far short of any sort of redemption.