Leader: The forgotten Syrian tragedy

The malevolent swagger of the Assad regime is the consequence of grievous Western policy errors.

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For nearly a decade, the Syrian Civil War has been a mark of shame on the international community. Since 2011 the conflict has killed an estimated 500,000 people, injured more than one million, and forced 12 million – almost half the country’s prewar population – from their homes. 

Yet even after such violence and destruction, the tragedy is deepening. In Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave, one of the war’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes is unfolding. Faced with a murderous onslaught by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, around 900,000 people have been displaced from their homes and shelters in the past two months and 300 civilians have been killed. 

In pursuit of “complete victory”, Syrian and Russian jets have bombed hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries. As international aid groups are forced to flee the region, some of the horrors unleashed remain unknown to the world, but others do not. On 18 February, Save the Children reported that seven children – including a seven-month-old – had died from freezing conditions in Idlib camps. 

But the Syrian civil war is already a forgotten tragedy. Civilian massacres of a kind the West once vowed never again to tolerate have become normalised. As David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee and the former UK foreign secretary, has observed, the war is symptomatic of an “Age of Impunity – an era characterised by the total disregard for the rule of law and an equally grave deficit of international diplomacy”. 

The malevolent swagger of the Assad regime is the consequence of grievous Western policy errors. It was in August 2013, after the murder of 1,400 civilians in a sarin gas attack in eastern Ghouta, that Syria crossed Barack Obama’s supposed red line. The US’s failure to enforce this ultimatum permanently diminished its standing and emboldened its enemies. 

Donald Trump, who opposed intervention in 2013, opportunistically sought to define himself against the Obama administration when the US launched air strikes in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in 2017. But Mr Trump has never devised anything resembling a coherent Syria strategy. Indeed, in a squalid betrayal, the US abandoned the Kurds in the country’s north-east, forcing them to reach an accommodation with the Assad regime. Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, revealed the insouciance with which the US now views Syria when he declared on 11 February: “What are we supposed to do to stop them? We’re supposed to be a global policeman and hold up a sign and say ‘stop this Turkey, stop this Russia’?”

Faced with what the historian Nigel Hamilton has called an “Amerexit”, the democratic world is devoid of leadership. The UN Security Council, which numbers Russia among its permanent members, is impotent. The European Union, consumed by internal woes, is a hapless bystander. The UK, for all the lofty rhetoric of “global Britain”, has never been more marginal to a geopolitical crisis. To the disbelief of allies, no senior British minister, including the foreign and defence secretaries, was present at the annual Munich Security Conference earlier this month. 

Yet neither the UK nor Europe can escape the consequences of Syria’s unending war. The displacement of nearly a million civilians from Idlib threatens to revive the migrant crisis that absorbed the EU in 2015-16. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees under a dubious deal with Europe, has vowed to accept no more. But a divided EU is unprepared for a new influx of refugees. Mindful of this, both Russia and Turkey will now seek to exploit Europe’s weakness by issuing geopolitical demands in return for cooperation. 

In a globalised world, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is no longer applicable. But heedless of this, the West has sought comfort in the illusion of isolation. The Syrian catastrophe, however, will soon force a reckoning.

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics

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