Seven years of conflict in Syria… and more to come?

Perhaps it is time that the West stop pretending it cares and just let Assad win.
Sunday 18/03/2018
A child sleeps in a bag in the village of Beit Sawa in eastern Ghouta, on March 15. (Reuters)
Forced to flee. A child sleeps in a bag in the village of Beit Sawa in eastern Ghouta, on March 15. (Reuters)

After seven years of conflict in Syria, the scale of the tragedy is simply staggering. Approximately 470,000 people have been killed. At least one in every ten Syrians is either dead or injured. About 6 million Syrians were displaced within Syria and another 5 million became refugees.

On March 15, the conflict entered into its eighth year. That was the day in 2011 that major unrest began in Damascus and Aleppo. Seven years on, it’s hard to see how the fighting will end, when it will end or if it will end. World leaders promote peace treaties that don’t bring peace; truces have only seemed to intensify the fighting and sideshows such as Turkey versus the Kurds and the United States versus the Islamic State (ISIS) have complicated the situation.

Worst of all is the way the world has grown used to the conflict in Syria. Chemical attacks no longer seem to provoke outrage. The international media largely ignore the bombing of hospitals and schools by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies. It happens so often that it’s just not news anymore. The US media are occupied covering the presidency of Donald Trump.

In the seven years of conflict, there have been two profound shifts among the countries involved in Syria. First, the fading of the United States as the primary “great power” and mediator in the region.

The shift began under President Barack Obama. He felt that the United States had spent too much time and resources in and on the Middle East for little gain. His desire was to pull back from entanglements in the Middle East and focus on China and the Pacific Rim, a region that he saw as more important to America’s future and security.

The Russians stepped into the void. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has not only been actively involved in supporting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, it gradually extended its regional influence.

Let’s not forget China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. That venture and other economic programmes may help China exert influence.

All this while the Trump-led United States continued to decline as a major player. Experts say that it will take at least two decades to rebuild American influence and that’s if it is still possible to do so.

The second shift is perhaps even more profound than the rise and fall of influence in the region. It is the West’s abandonment of the idea of interventionism. We saw the notion at work in NATO’s operations in the former

Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999, as well as in the no-fly zones established in 1991 to protect Kurdish refugees in Iraq from reprisals by Saddam Hussein.

However, no one in Syria believes the West is coming to help. Talk of no-fly zones or creating safe areas for refugees has been ignored by Putin and Assad. They are aware that, in the words of one pundit, the West is basically a group of “paper tigers.”

Western impotence and unwillingness to act can be traced to Obama’s failure to fulfil his promise that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was a “red line” and would provoke a response. Nothing happened and that was the beginning of the end.

Internationally, the rejection of Syrian refugees by the United States and by many European countries drove another nail in the coffin that holds the remains of that positive idea — liberal interventionism.

While photographs of the drowned bodies of young children on Mediterranean beaches moved many around the world, it proved to be a short-lived sentiment. Instead of offering a helping hand, most Western countries withdrew sharply and blamed the victims. Right-wing Western ideologues sensed the fear of the “Other” among predominantly white populations and invoked images of “cultural genocide.” Far too many in the West have been willing to accept that narrative without a second thought.

Perhaps it is time, as one expert recently suggested, that the West stop pretending it cares and just let Assad win. It may be the only way that the mass murder and displacement of Syrians can be stopped.