Leader: we cannot escape the consequences of Syria’s unending war

Since 2013, the barbarous Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons more than two dozen times. 

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The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians sickens but no longer surprises. Since 2013, when the barbarous Assad regime first deployed these weapons, it has used them more than two dozen times. The normalisation of such warfare is the most horrific aspect of a conflict that has killed at least 500,000 people and wounded four times that number since 2011; in addition, more than 11 million of the country’s population have been displaced or sent into exile as refugees.

The images of dead children, and others fighting for life, following the Douma attack on 7 April, were grimly reminiscent of those of August 2013. It was then that President Assad crossed Barack Obama’s so-called red line and killed 1,400 civilians in a sarin gas attack in eastern Ghouta. The US’s failure to enforce this ultimatum permanently diminished its standing and emboldened its enemies. Syria’s assurance that it would destroy its chemical weapons, which President Obama, a self-described “tragic realist”, cited as justification for non-intervention, has proved predictably hollow. Russia ruthlessly filled the power vacuum, ensuring the Syrian regime’s survival, and reasserting itself in the Middle East for the first time since the Soviet era. Of Vladimir Putin’s many crimes, that of bankrolling and propping up Mr Assad is perhaps the greatest.

Donald Trump, who sometimes styles himself as an America First isolationist (he opposed intervention in 2013), has opportunistically sought to define himself against the Obama administration. Following the April 2017 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people, the US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in reprisal. However, this act was never succeeded by anything resembling a diplomatic strategy for Syria.

Indeed, the strikes appeared to be a cynical bid to distract from the Trump administration’s domestic woes. As recently as 29 March, after the Pentagon stated that American troops would remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, President Trump declared: “We’re knocking the hell out of Isis. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” It was no accident that Mr Assad chose this moment of apparent retreat to unleash another chemical attack on civilians cowering in underground bunkers.

By any definition, the US’s sudden intervention in April 2017 failed: the regime has not been deterred from using chemical weapons. Mr Trump’s latest vow that Syria will pay “a big price” for the Douma attack (and his rare rebuke of Mr Putin) will not reassure the rest of the world that he is any closer to a strategy for the region.

Without the willingness to deploy military force, diplomacy is feeble. But without a coherent diplomatic approach, force is reckless. As John Bew and Shiraz Maher write on page 24 of the New Statesman, the use of chemical weapons from Salisbury to Syria “has provided the Western alliance with a much-needed sense of common purpose”. In a new era of global disorder, the United States, the United Kingdom and France are unusually united in revulsion at Mr Assad.

The West, humbled by the failures of the “war on terror” and the disastrous Iraq invasion, is rightly sceptical of intervention but it must reckon with the reality that Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel have no such qualms. We cannot escape the consequences of Syria’s unending war.

The IQ trap

There is no longer any doubt, as Philip Ball writes on page 30, that genes affect intelligence. But a recent study of 4,000 pupils goes further, showing that differences in GCSE results are almost wholly explained by genes. The type of schooling the children received made negligible difference to their achievement. For the Conservative peer and Old Etonian Matt Ridley, this proves that “all those talented Etonians were pretty talented to start with”.

The left – which is often squeamish about the role of genes in intelligence, fearful of the shadow of eugenics – needs to accept the science and consider how it can be used to lessen, and not prop up, inequality. Yet those on the right who welcome genetic research should not assume that it supports their ideas of innate superiority. Our society’s brightest children do not always rise to the top – in fact, many at the top are of unremarkable intellect. Many of them even went to Eton. 

This article appears in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war