“The world as we speak is united in horror at the savage assaults,” Obama said. “We have seen a deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging and starving innocent civilians. We’ve seen relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel and entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble and dust. There are continuing reports of civilians being executed. These are all horrific violations of international law.”
Obama’s revulsion is fully justified. UN aid organisers, charity workers, Syrian community leaders, hospital doctors, foreign diplomats, reporters and editorial writers have run out of adjectives to adequately describe the full extent of the suffering experienced by ordinary people whose lives have been destroyed in the six-year-old war. Statistics, although difficult to digest, are still shocking: at least 500,000 killed, 1.9 million injured and more than half the country’s 23 million population forced to flee their homes.
This is a tragedy on a scale that beggars belief. Because it is so hard to comprehend, so horrific, so alien, the temptation is to turn away. But Syria and its people cannot be ignored, if only because their plight keeps getting worse – and because, in our modern, connected, globalised world, responsibility is shared. At a human level, there is no excuse for not knowing what is happening. At government level, there is no escaping a shared duty to try to make it stop. Obama had not finished his remarks before the politician in him took over. “Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone, with the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, and this blood and these atrocities are on their hands,” he said. The apportioning of blame is a principal reason why the conflict is so intractable. It is certainly true that the homicidal intransigence of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s gormless dictator, lies at the heart of this catastrophe. Since initially overreacting to the local, non-violent protests against his minority Alawite regime in 2011, he has used systematic murder, torture, the terrorising of civilians, barrel bombs and chemical weapons to ensure his survival. The ultimate terrorist, Assad took his own nation hostage.
It is also true that the Syrian war has enabled Iran to break free from the shackles imposed by decades of isolation and sanctions. Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, organised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, have increasingly spearheaded the ground war. Pursuing a vengeful sectarian reckoning with Aleppo’s Sunnis, these same militias committed the atrocities reported last week by the UN. Iran’s leaders, in triumphal mood, see in the rebel defeat a victory over their Saudi rivals and the Great Satan itself. They hail a widening “Shia crescent”. Obama hoped last year’s nuclear deal with Tehran might encourage a more collaborative approach to Syria. He hoped in vain.
But it is unconvincing, and far too comfortable, to say, as Obama did, that these partners in crime – Russia, Iran and Assad, the three horsemen of the Syrian apocalypse – bear sole responsibility. Obama must take a share of the blame, for ignoring his own red lines on chemical weapons and creating a strategic vacuum into which Putin opportunistically advanced. So, too, must the US Congress, which opposed any meaningful Syrian military intervention, further tying Obama’s unwilling hands. Britain’s government and MPs, and their European counterparts, also have good reason to ask themselves if they fulfilled their wider responsibilities as guardians and representatives of the international order and international law. Over Syria, to varying degrees, everyone has blood on their hands.
All this is a matter for immense sadness and regret. But in truth, there is little time for backward-looking recriminations. Despite what Assad says, the war is not over. It is entering a new, extremely dangerous phase. The next likely flashpoint is Idlib province, where Aleppo fighters are regrouping. Idlib is a base for hardline Sunni salafists linked to al-Qaida. With the more moderate, western-backed rebel forces in disarray, there is a very real risk of the conflict morphing into a zero-sum sectarian struggle between increasingly radicalised Sunni insurgents and Iran’s fanatical Shia militias bent on extermination, not reconciliation. Iran’s aim seems to be to dominate postwar Syria politically and physically, as it now dominates post-invasion Iraq. This is a perilous prospect.
The third aspect is diplomatic: namely, Russia’s bid to take charge of peace negotiations that until now have been overseen by the UN and largely driven by the US and the EU. Putin’s unilateral announcement of ceasefire talks in Kazakhstan later this month, co-sponsored by Turkey and excluding the western powers, illuminates his ambition to elevate Russia as the Middle East’s premier power-broker and sideline the US and Europe. By posing as peacemaker, Putin hopes to confound those who accuse him of barbarism and war crimes. In Putin’s old KGB playbook about ends and means, a Russian-imposed settlement in Syria, however crude, would justify his brutal and illegal methods. For the world at large, that is the most dangerous outcome of all.