Nearly five years after Syria’s Arab Spring revolt escalated into a civil war, the conflict has morphed into a wider regional war with no end in sight. Millions of Syrians have fled, and a quarter of a million have died. Now, a devastating new United Nations report reveals that government forces are torturing and “disappearing” tens of thousands of civilians in what amounts to “extermination” and “crimes against humanity.” The U.N. is warning the Syrian army that if it goes ahead with a planned assault on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of Syrians could be cut off from food and face starvation. The international body has also issued a strong statement about residents of another Syrian town, Madaya, who are starving to death as government forces lay siege.
“We haven’t seen a catastrophe like this since World War II, and it’s unfolding before our eyes,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. While those are strong words, the United States has yet to implement a coherent policy regarding Syria.
What is unfolding is a deadlier stage of a war that is drawing in so many actors that it is nearly impossible to keep track of who is fighting whom. And the American mainstream media seem disinterested in digging into the details, focusing instead on breathless coverage of our horse-race primary election season.
Chief among the internal forces in Syria is the regime of Bashar Assad, whose hands are dripping with the blood of innocent civilians. Assad’s main external backer, Russia, has raised the stakes by adding the heavy weight of its ground forces and airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Iran is another external player whose interests are aligned with Assad. Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, is ostensibly fighting several internal forces, chief among them Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose macabre tactics have eclipsed those of other rebel groups. Islamic State is vying with Assad for generating the greatest civilian death toll. But it has been backed, at least in the past, by another external actor, Saudi Arabia.
Now the Saudis and their allies in the Yemen war—the Emiratis—are hoping to get in on the action, by announcing a potential entry of ground troops in Syria. Saudi Arabia is claiming it will fight the very group its money has illicitly spawned: Islamic State. If that sounds implausible, Russia agrees. The Russians suspect that Saudi Arabia will simply support Islamic State against Assad (and Saudi rival Iran) in hopes of gaining regional influence in a post-Assad Syria.
To complicate matters even more, another external actor, Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, might enter into the fray to fight alongside anti-Assad groups. Some are accusing Russia of drawing Turkey into a war against its nemesis, the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Turkey is facing a massive refugee crisis, and the U.N. has urged it to open its borders to Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s killings, Islamic State’s brutality and Russian and U.S. bombings.
The complexity of the war doesn’t stop there. President Obama, who has been reluctant to send in ground troops, has joined the air war on Syria, but he hasn’t been clear about exactly whom the U.S. is fighting. On the one hand, Islamic State is a clear-cut “enemy,” but Assad is too murderous to call a friend.
Like Russia, the U.S. has Syrian blood on its hands. Airstrikes have killed untold numbers of civilians. The U.S. military boasts that it has killed 20,000 Islamic State fighters and only 21 civilians, which is hardly believable. Some contend the number of civilians killed by U.S. bombs is as high as a thousand.
Now that Russia has intervened aggressively, the U.S. has all but admitted that toppling Assad is no longer feasible. For that reason, it appears to be withdrawing support from anti-Assad rebel groups.
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While no student of world history believes the U.S. would ever orchestrate regime change for truly humanitarian reasons, by not going after Assad the U.S. is, by default, on the side of a mass murderer.
To summarize, some U.S. allies, such as Turkey, are fighting Assad, while Russia and Iran are backing his regime. Others, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are ostensibly fighting Islamic State, which puts them on the side of Assad, although they might end up helping Islamic State. The U.S. hasn’t figured out whether to fight Assad and Islamic State or just Islamic State. In the meantime, it is dropping bombs from the sky.
All that is certain is that everyone is killing civilians.
In the 19th century, a long-drawn-out rivalry between the British Empire and Russia over Central Asia that dragged on for nearly 100 years was dubbed “The Great Game.” A new Great Game appears to be playing out on Syria’s bloodstained soil, with intertwined allegiances and deadly firepower on all sides. The political and military threads of the war are so complex that it is useful to visualize them as lines of red crisscrossing the Syrian map, drawing blood from children, women and men.
But the war in Syria is anything but a game. U.N.-sponsored peace talks have failed, and upcoming talks also appear doomed as Assad’s ground offensive in Aleppo looks likely to commence.
The war in Syria (and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen) underscores the fact there is no easy solution to such crises in our current global political system. But there is a common denominator: U.S. interference and military domination. If there is no clear path for the U.S. to take in Syria, it is because for decades Washington has deliberately undermined global multilateral diplomatic arenas and ensured that we are left with no functioning forum or pathway for ending brutal dictatorships or solving humanitarian disasters such as those taking place in Syria—at least not in a way that protects human rights in the short term and democracy in the long term. And so we are left with a trail of blood and misery stretching from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from Yemen to Syria.
Writing about Syria taps deeply into one’s store of superlatives and negative adjectives. For example, The Washington Post used the words “catastrophe,” “uncontrollable” and “disaster” in a single headline about the war.
The numbers of dead and dying are dizzying. But we must confront their suffering. An 8-year-old survivor of a cluster bomb attack in Douma reminds us of the reality Syrians are facing. Nour, whose face bears an unnerving resemblance to my own son’s, lost both his legs. He wants the world to see the place where his limbs once were.
“Show my picture to my friends and let them know about me,” he said. “Show the pictures of my legs and let my friends and their mothers know that I am injured.” We need to know about Nour and the countless unknown dead, dying and injured Syrians that our global political system has failed.