There is one fact that everyone can agree: the war in Syria is utterly appalling, an eruption of hell that stains humanity. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced from their homes and a magical corner of the Middle East dripping with history has been turned into hell. As the conflict drags into its eighth year, the nation has descended into a blood-drenched field for proxy fights that leave only chaos in their wake.
Remember this savagery began with people demonstrating peacefully for political reform. And never forget that the biggest war criminal involved in this dark saga is President Bashar Assad. He is the leader who turned guns on protestors calling for democracy, deliberately fanned jihadists to undermine his enemies and sanctions his cruel forces to torture men, rape women and drop bombs on doctors trying to save the lives of children. As we have seen again with Saturday’s attack in Douma, he is also the President who unleashes chemical weapons on his own citizens.
For all the frenzied reaction to this latest atrocity, these lethal weapons have been used scores of times in this terrible war. The heroic White Helmet rescue force says it has documented at least 200 cases since the start of fighting. Human Rights Watch says there are 85 confirmed chemical weapon attacks, most launched by government forces. Sadly, this underlines the impotence of the United Nations, which demanded Assad destroy all stockpiles and production capacity five years ago — as does this week’s Russian veto of an inquiry into the latest gas attack.
Chemical weapons are unacceptable even amid this carnage. Yet it is hard not to wonder why these deaths are deemed so much worse than all the others in the Syrian tragedy, such as the hospitals blown apart by barrel bombs and the schools deliberately targeted by government air strikes. Regardless, the question remains the same as it has been throughout this conflict: what can we in the supposedly civilised world do as we watch the horrors inflicted on Syria?
The inability to answer this question agonises the West. The shadow of the 2003 invasion of Iraq hangs heavy over the deliberations, since that foolish and botched intervention remains the direct cause of so many problems scarring the region from the strengthening of Iran through to the rise of Islamic State. The disintegration of Libya after Western forces assisted the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi clouds things even further. Meanwhile Assad deliberately stoked jihadist groups to weaken moderate forces and make this grisly crisis even messier.
The result has been stop-start interventions by the West and its allies, worsened by shifting alliances inside Syria, feuding over control of lucrative border posts and personality clashes among local leaders. This hesitant approach is exposed in No Turning Back, a gripping new chronicle of the war by journalist Rania Abouzeid. She reveals how three years ago a $500m US effort to train and equip a new militia was canned after spending $384m to recruit just 180 fighters. The following year, forces armed by the Pentagon were fighting those armed by the CIA — which serves almost as a metaphor for the West’s chaotic approach.
Stepping into the void on both sides have been actors less bothered by backing repellent forces, let alone domestic opinion in their own country. They include first Iran, then Russia, on Assad’s side. “I don’t think the Americans are real allies,” says one moderate fighter in Abouzeid’s book, whose militia broke up after US backers abandoned them. “I’m not anti-American — on the contrary, I very much wanted the new Syria to view the West as partners. But today I am convinced that Russia is more honourable and trustworthy than the United States, because at least it is really standing alongside its ally.”
This is a damning indictment, one I have heard often myself covering this conflict and the refugee crisis left in its wake. Syrians seeking democracy were left stunned by the West’s failure to support a fight initially for dignity and freedom. The nadir was Barack Obama’s reluctance to enforce his “red line” warning when Assad used chemical weapons in 2013. Among those warning against an intervention then was a brash property tycoon called Donald Trump — yet he carried out punitive strikes last year and now warns he will be making a tough response again.
Trump has been all over the shop with policy on Syria and Iraq, as with many other issues. He gloated recently about “knocking the hell out of ISIS”, although they remain active and there was little difference to the way US-led air strikes flattened cities such as Mosul and Raqaa just as Russian and Syrian forces wrecked Aleppo. Then he told an Ohio rally “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon”. Now he is warning Russia to prepare for a bloody nose, with the terrifying sight of ultra-hawk John Bolton standing beside him as his newly-appointed National Security Adviser.
Let us agree we would like to help the blighted Syrian people. Let us agree Western strategy has been blurred at best so far. And let us agree use of chemical weapons is a gross infringement of international law. Now let us return to that question again: what can we do through force to stop, or even slow, the shedding of blood? And the belligerence of the newly-emboldened Russian bear under Vladimir Putin makes this far more difficult to answer than in 2013, when Labour shamed itself playing cheap political games to prevent David Cameron backing American action.
Certainly Trump could order more Tomahawk missiles to strike Syrian air bases and try to degrade chemical weapon stockpiles. Last year, he switched his stance suddenly on Assad and attacked a Syrian air base after seeing images of children gassed to death. Already he has, in his usual bombastic style, warned Moscow to prepare for another attack on its ally. Russian officials warn that they will respond to any such assaults. Yet a bit of bombing merely slows the Syrian war machine, since chemical weapons can be remade, runways rebuilt and helicopters replaced. In addition, it exposes again the threadbare nature of Western strategy.
Perhaps the strike could be accompanied by re-arming of moderate rebels, pouring in cash to strengthen parts of Syria not controlled by Assad and fresh attempts to build forces against the dictator and the Islamists. But it was Trump’s administration that canned just such a $1bn CIA programme last summer due to all the problems being encountered on the ground, which included a Salafist group linked to al Qaeda “taxing” US-funded groups by taking a cut of their supplies. And it is hard to imagine this would do any more than merely intensify the pain for Syria, since Moscow and Tehran would only ramp up support for Assad in reply.
Some analysts have been suggesting the war in Syria is almost over. Yet as The Syria Campaign points out, this ignores more than two million civilians living in opposition-held Idlib and another one million more in Homs, Daraa, rural Aleppo and other parts of the country. “If the Douma attack is not met with consequences, it is yet another green light for thousands more to be killed using poison gas and explosive weapons,” the group said.
Their anger is understandable. If Trump wants anything more than a symbolic public relations stunt, however, there is only one military response that would stop chemical weapon attacks, challenge Assad and possibly protect those people in places such as Idlib. And that is a fuller intervention such as striking hard enough to threaten the regime, perhaps imposing a no-fly zone or even putting forces on the ground. But this risks only fuelling carnage and chaos on the ground, while there are obvious and grave dangers of this conflict spiralling into something even worse.
A few punitive strikes or some more dollars spent arming moderates would permit Trump to strut around and fire off grandstanding tweets, but will do little to solve this horrifically-complex conflict. As Bob Seely, the Tory MP and member of the foreign affairs select committee who wrote about the conflict for CapX on Monday, told the BBC: “Gesture politics is not good and gesture bombing is very dangerous.” He added rightly that he hoped Trump would reveal a strategy lying behind any US response to the chemical weapons attack.
Assad is an evil monster, responsible for some of the most hideous suffering seen this century. But unless the West is prepared to confront Russia and Iran with military force, with all the cataclysmic potential consequences, politicians should concentrate efforts on finding political solutions and preparing war crime cases. If they want to help relieve suffering, they could even stop assisting another appalling war in nearby Yemen that has displaced another 3m people. Otherwise their actions and words smack only of hypocrisy.