Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The US moral dilemma in Syria

Having stepped in, with US air strikes, it is now beholden upon Washington to follow through and see an end to Syria’s debilitating civil war, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed

The 100th anniversary of the United States’ reluctant plunge into World War I was marked 6 April 2017. Fearful of foreign entanglement, America stood watching for three years while on the other side of the Atlantic young men slaughtered each other. Finally, Congress gave the go-ahead and president Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany on 6 April 1917. 

One cannot be sure if President Donald Trump was conscious of this historic backdrop when he ordered the US missile attack on Syria last week, on 6 April, effectively ending the US policy of “non-interference” under president Barack Obama. 

I have never been a big fan of Western interventions. But God knows if there ever really existed a legitimate case for international intervention to save lives, it is Syria. 

Home to one of the oldest civilisations, Syria has been relentlessly burning over the past seven years with half a million lives lost and around 11 million people — more than half of the population — being forced to live as refugees in neighbouring countries. 

Obama’s hands-off approach also gave birth to the monster called the Islamic State (IS). Of course, in deciding to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and not getting involved in yet another Middle East war, Obama’s intentions had been noble. But then the road to hell is paved with many such noble intentions.

The US left behind a dangerous power vacuum, allowing Shia militias and IS terrorists to effortlessly step in. Again, US reluctance to get involved in Syria was interpreted by Bashar Al-Assad as a licence to kill, bomb and gas his own people.

This is why even though Trump’s rhetoric and absurd Muslim ban set off strong emotions in the Islamic world, his decision to bomb Syria in response to the horrendous recent gas attack has been greeted with an audible sigh of relief. Trump’s outrage over the killing of nearly 100 people in Idlib, many of them young children, appeared genuine.

The Idlib attack, Trump pointed out, crossed many “red lines”. But then over the past seven years, many such red lines have been crossed and all the international community has done is to sit around.

If only the world had acted in time, half a million lives might have been saved in Syria. Thousands of Syrians, including the two-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his family, wouldn’t have perished on high seas or on the long, treacherous routes across Europe. Still, better late than never. 

The US strike on Syria has understandably revived the spirits of America’s Arab allies who have been most upset with Washington’s rapprochement with Iran under Obama. The nuclear pact with Tehran is seen as the greatest betrayal.

With this one decisive strike, Trump has gone from zero to hero in the eyes of America’s Middle East allies and even that of his domestic base. Arab media, especially Arabs and Syrians on social media, cannot stop cheering “Abu Ivanka Al-Amreeki”.

In the words of Middle East watcher Linda Heard, Trump has made a deafening shout-out that America’s capacity to project power is back up to speed. Simultaneously, he has muted allegations that his campaign officials were in bed with Moscow.

The US involvement may not produce any dramatic, instantaneous results on the ground, but it will certainly make the Syrian regime think twice before targeting helpless, unsuspecting civilians. 

Secondly, it sends out a loud, clear message to Russia and Iran that there will be a price to pay for blindly supporting Al-Assad. Washington has asserted that Al-Assad cannot be a part of any solution to the Syrian conflict. 

The US missile strike on the Shayrat Airbase has also catapulted Washington into a dangerous confrontation with its Cold War rival Russia. Moscow boasts a key military base in Syria and has advisers on the ground, aiding and advising the Baathist regime. 

Indeed, under Obama, the US and Russia had been closely cooperating in Syria, ostensibly to wipe out IS but actually targeting the main opposition or the rebels supported by Turkey and Arab states.

Apparently, the US had alerted Russian forces ahead of the missile strikes on the Shayrat Airbase and carefully avoided hitting Moscow’s Special Forces and helicopters, stationed as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Al-Assad. Also, it’s inconceivable that the Russians who have propped up the regime all these years would have been ignorant of the chemical attack.

Besides, how can anyone believe that a regime that has a long history of indiscriminately using the deadly barrel bombs, targeting crowded markets, hospitals and schools would hesitate to use the most lethal chemical weapons against its own people? Especially when it has repeatedly done so in the past, the last one being in 2013 in Ghouta, conjuring similar heart-rending scenes of young babies dying in their dozens.  

Yet the Russians remain characteristically blasé, defending the indefensible and accusing the US of damaging their relationship.

Interestingly, only days ago, in the thick of the storm over Trump campaign ties to Russia, with the FBI launching an extraordinary probe, the great dissident philosopher Noam Chomsky had warned that the president might start a war, a la George W Bush, to deflect attention from the domestic front. 

Even if there is a semblance of truth in the accusation, let’s hope that US involvement will finally help spur this conflict towards a final resolution, not perpetuate it further. 

Now that the two superpowers and their allies are stuck up to their necks in the Syrian quagmire, the international community must push for an early resolution of the conflict. If it is not done soon, it could degenerate into an endless, all-consuming war of epic proportions. Already there are too many warring sides in this most frustrating of conflicts, easily the most complex since World War II. 

There must be a clear strategy and long-term plan to put an end to this conflict and build a new Syria under the leadership of the UN. One-off US strikes, however impressive and deadly in impact, cannot end Syria’s misery.

Having presided over this unmitigated disaster all these years, Al-Assad has to go, paving the way for a national consensus government, perhaps supported and monitored by the UN and world powers. Syria has witnessed too much bloodshed and death and destruction. It deserves better. It deserves a fair chance at peace.

All sides that have exhausted themselves in this directionless conflict must demonstrate greater understanding and forbearance for the sake of peace. America once again faces a moral dilemma in the Middle East. It must do what is right, beyond the transient considerations of popularity ratings and the interests of its all-powerful military-industrial complex.

The writer is an award-winning journalist.

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