The seven-year conflict has marked a tipping point in the balance of power between the US and Russia, and has triggered a strategic disaster whose ramifications are still playing out
It was a sunny morning on Saturday 31 August 2013 – Labor Day weekend in the US – when Barack Obama strolled into the Rose Garden of the White House. The last thing most Americans were thinking about was war in a far-off Middle Eastern country.
But Obama faced a dilemma. The decision he was about to announce would come to be seen as a defining moment for his presidency. It also marked a tipping point for the international strategic balance of power. It was a moment that would transform the civil war in Syria into the epic failure of our age.
One year earlier, Obama had vowed that any use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, would cross a “red line”, warranting direct military intervention. Ten days earlier, Assad had launched just such an attack, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. Sarin nerve gas dropped from the air killed more than 1,000 people, hundreds of them children.
Waiting reporters fully expected a declaration of imminent US action. But Obama blinked. He announced the US would not attack the Assad regime – not yet, anyway. Instead, he would first seek authorisation from Congress.
Obama’s decision surprised even his close advisers. It appeared to have been influenced by an unexpected vote in the House of Commons two days earlier, on 29 August, when David Cameron’s plan to order British forces to join allied military action in Syria was blocked by a narrow margin.
For a risk-averse president pledged to end America’s foreign wars, the reluctance of his foremost ally to repeat the Iraq mistake of 2003 and plunge headlong into another open-ended Middle East conflict was cautionary. Legally, Obama did not need Congress’s consent. But the British vote gave him a plausible fig-leaf.
In the ensuing debate, it became clear much of the American public opposed involvement in another Middle East war. Yet before the issue came to a head, there was another surprise. Russia, Assad’s ally, offered to remove the regime’s chemical weapons stockpile to prevent such outrages happening again. Fatefully, Obama agreed. In effect, he outsourced the war to Moscow.
It was a moment full of dire portents. Obama’s disregard for his own “red line” was interpreted in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and other Arab capitals as confirming a fundamental shift – evidence that a chastened, post-Iraq America was retreating from its global policeman role. Obama’s hesitation gave Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, an opening. It fitted his core agenda: to rebuild Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and make Russia great again by restoring Soviet-era global reach.
It is far from clear what the impact of a US-led military intervention in 2013 would have been. It could have exacerbated the plight of Syria’s civilians without toppling the regime or curtailing the war. It could have escalated uncontrollably – although it is difficult to see how things could be worse than they are now.
But by deciding to hand off responsibility, Obama sent another damaging message: that the US, the world’s only superpower, and key allies such as Britain, were not prepared to fight for a free, democratic Syria, no more than they would fight for democracy in support of other Arab Spring revolts. They tried it in Libya in 2011 and quickly recoiled.
By hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria, restricting themselves to counter-terrorism operations and vain calls for peace, and by failing to punish war crimes, western democracies effectively undermined the UN charter, the humanitarian agencies, and international law.
At the same time, western timidity, divisions and neglect boosted authoritarian leaders from Moscow and Beijing to Ankara and Riyadh, while arguably encouraging the growth of Islamist terror groups.
When the US and Britain did eventually intervene directly in Iraq and Syria, as part of a multinational coalition in 2015, it was to fight the direct threat to themselves posed by Islamic State, not to uphold the universal values they ostensibly espouse.
In short, decisions made in 2013 triggered a strategic disaster whose ramifications are still playing out today. They are the principal reason why the Syrian conflict, which began as a minor local disturbance involving unruly children in the town of Deraa, has become the defining war of our times.
It was always a mistake to believe the Syrian conflict could be kept at arm’s length. Now, due to its complexity, longevity and transnational character, it is hitting home. Syria has permanently changed our world.
The suggestion that the war is winding down after seven years of mayhem gained common currency in 2017. Evidence on the ground suggests the opposite holds true. According to despairing UN statements last week, the scale of suffering across the country has reached unprecedented levels, with access to aid blocked in three population centres and more than 13 million people displaced and in need. More than 500,000 people have died since 2011. But the killing continues unabated.
The UN is demanding an immediate ceasefire, pointing out that not a single request for access to the worst-hit areas has been granted so far this year. Russia has dismissed its call. The US supports it.
The targeting of civilians, especially from the air, has become more ruthless and more routine in recent months, as the Assad regime tries to build on advances over the past year. In eastern Ghouta, scene of the 2013 sarin attack, at least 200 civilians were killed in Syrian and Russian air strikes in a few days last week.
More civilian casualties have resulted from similar, ongoing government operations in Idlib province, where 300,000 people have been displaced since mid-December alone. New fighting has also spread to Afrin, in Syria’s north-west, following an incursion by Turkish troops backed by Free Syrian Army rebels. Meanwhile, despite Obama’s 2013 deal with Putin, reports of continued regime use of chemical weapons are becoming more frequent.
Since last April’s well-documented chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province, when more than 80 people were killed, there have been several incidents in which chlorine gas was reportedly used against civilians. Eastern Ghouta is said to have seen at least three recent smaller-scale chemical attacks, say US-endorsed reports.
The UN’s increasing helplessness in the face of Syria’s human catastrophe has been matched by the abject failure of its peacemaking efforts. Repeated attempts to stop the war and broker a settlement have failed since 2011. UN-hosted talks in Geneva collapsed again in December, partly due to a rival peace process launched under the self-interested auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran. That initiative came a cropper, too, last month when opposition groups boycotted a summit in Sochi.
Numerous plans to limit the human toll have been floated, only to sink without trace. The ideas included safe havens, no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. The latest Russian-backed scheme, for so-called “de-escalation zones”, has fared little better. Eastern Ghouta was supposed to be one such zone. Since its designation, violence has escalated.
The failure to end the war has done enormous damage to the international institutions that have shaped global affairs since 1945. It has altered the strategic power balance in fundamental ways, permanently changing the world we live in.
The UN security council, in theory the ultimate guardian and arbiter of member states’ conduct, has been severely discredited. This is only partly due to Russia’s vetoes of Syria resolutions.
The council’s ineffectiveness is also the result of its structural deficiencies. The “big five” permanent members – the US, China, Russia, France and Britain – wield huge influence. Too often, self-interest outweighs considerations of the greater good.
When Donald Trump ordered a one-off cruise missile strike on Syrian military facilities last April after the Khan Sheikhun atrocity, he did so without seeking UN consent. Bypassing or subverting the world’s foremost international forum has become a great power norm, following the Anglo-American precedent in Iraq in 2003.
The failure of the UN system and, separately, of the International Criminal Court to uphold binding treaties such as the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention or prosecute alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity has also done lasting harm.
Carla Del Ponte, the experienced war crimes prosecutor, resigned in frustration last August from a UN commission of inquiry. Russian obstructionism was thwarting the search for justice, she said. “It was all about the inaction of the security council … if you look at all the reports we have published, we have obtained nothing … It is unbelievable.”
The human cost aside, Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 at Assad’s request has been a strategic success for Putin and a defeat for the west. Intervention was a logical consequence of Obama’s cop-out two years before and has since turned the war in the regime’s favour.
It has assured a long-term Russian military presence in Syria’s Mediterranean bases. It has re-established Moscow as an influential Middle East player. And it has negative implications for western relations with key players such as Turkey, Iran and Egypt.
The perception that Assad is winning has led some governments to shift position, no longer backing western calls for his overthrow. One such opportunist is Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on paper a western ally. Erdoğan had previously demanded Assad’s head on a plate. He was forced to accept large numbers of refugees. But his policy now is dictated by national interest. If the war has proved anything, it is that among Syria’s neighbours, concern for Syrian lives, territorial integrity, national identity or democratic governance does not rate highly.
Thus Erdoğan’s primary focus is containing and if possible crushing Kurdish self-rule in Syria and Iraq – ignoring Assad and the fact that the Kurds have been the west’s most effective local allies against Isis. By attacking the Syrian Kurds in Afrin last month, Erdoğan directly challenged the US and Nato, supposedly the key pillar of western security. Yet this is not surprising. American dithering over Syria has invited such acts of defiance. As for Nato, the Syrian crisis, like that in Ukraine in 2014, has rendered it all but irrelevant. Direct clashes between Turkish forces and US troops in Manbij, east of Afrin, are now a distinct possibility.
The war has improved the fortunes of two great regional enemies, Iran and Israel. Tehran, like Moscow, has greatly expanded its reach and influence, linking up its forces in Syria with Hezbollah in Lebanon and its allies in the Palestinian territories. It has also been emboldened to confront Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
For its part, Israel’s rightwing government has cleverly exploited fears of an Iranian threat, advancing via Syria, to maximise support from Trump, sideline the cause of Palestinian independence, secure unofficial Arab alliances, and promote its view that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is mistaken and dangerous. At the same time, the Syrian vacuum has drawn the Israeli and Iranian militaries into perilously close proximity, as shown by aerial clashes in which an Israeli F-16 was shot down. The incident dramatically illustrated how foreign states are increasingly using Syrian territory as a proxy battlefield.
The Syria failure has proved a security, political and diplomatic disaster for a divided EU. Despite its pretensions as a global player, it has mostly been forced to look on impotently.
Already split over military action, EU states were torn apart by disagreements over how to manage the big Syrian refugee influxes of 2014-16. This issue remains unresolved, even as a new migrant emergency builds. Germany, Brexit Britain and other European countries are meanwhile struggling to navigate a changed political landscape rocked by rising anti-immigrant sentiment.
It is not all the politicians’ fault. Public pressure on western governments to do more to help has, if anything, declined as the war has raged endlessly. Sympathetic western opinion has been dulled by a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Activists and protest groups such as the Stop the War Coalition tend to focus on easier, often American targets, such as Trump.
And if Europe was hoping for a lead from the new US administration, it has been disappointed. Last year’s one-off air strike aside, Trump has shown no interest in “solving” Syria.
It took a year for Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, to produce a vaguely coherent policy document. And while active in the air war, the US has assiduously avoided ground troop engagements – although a lethal clash last week with pro-regime militia in the east of the country suggested it may be slowly being sucked in.
For Trump, the only war that matters is against Islamist terrorism, a war he claims to be winning. Sadly, his claim is fake news. Islamist terror centred on Syria is certainly evolving following the western coalition’s re-conquest of Raqqa and Mosul, but Isis is not finished. Exploiting the deepening chaos, it is reportedly regrouping in Diyala, Mosul and Anbar provinces in Iraq, while a resurgent al-Qaida is gathering strength in north-western Syria.
Far from being vanquished, Islamist terrorists dream of a second-wave jihad. And this, too, is a by-product of the international community’s collective inability to halt the Syrian calamity. The discrediting of international institutions and international law; the degradation of the west’s moral leadership; the empowerment of authoritarian, rightwing regimes; anarchic, multi-dimensional warfare; and the endless misery endured by millions of blameless civilians – all are powerful reasons to believe Syria is the epic failure of our age.Yet more fearsome still is the thought that Syria is shattering into myriad chaotic, foreign-dominated fiefdoms even as we watch. As the war rages unchecked, one stark conclusion looks unavoidable: because the western democracies could not find the will or the courage to fight for western values, democracy and the rebirth of the Syrian nation, they have fostered instead a permanent state of terror on Europe’s doorstep.