The political confusion over the US role in the conflict in Syria was highlighted by Western air strikes against the regime’s targets on Saturday. It is still unclear what the strikes accomplished, and there remain questions over what impact they will have on the seven-year-old war. Coming after multiple prior warnings, the strikes have clearly left important assets of the regime’s military untouched.
The idea, it seems, was to send a strong message to Bashar Al Assad without provoking a military response from Russia and Iran. In that, the US has succeeded.
By now, the civilians at the receiving end of the regime’s shocking brutality appear to view such actions from the West with dismay. The regime has used chemical weapons on multiple occasions, but the resulting number of deaths have been minuscule compared to the number of people it has massacred using conventional means — such as torture in its dungeons; the use of indiscriminate shelling; or through crude weapons, such as ‘barrel bombs’.
However, the strikes also highlighted one key aspect of the situation in Syria: there is no military solution to this political problem. The war in Syria has been a tragedy of our times. When thousands of civilians peacefully rose up against the regime in 2011, demanding dignity and democracy, it responded with bullets and torture. Very soon, the uprising turned violent and attracted a host of non-state actors who were in it for totally different objectives. In due course, regional and global powers got involved, and seven years on, we have more than half a million people dead, 11 million out of a population of 20 million displaced, an entire generation of children left to rot in refugee camps, and a country on its knees.
The situation in Syria is a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, and a geopolitical earthquake. It is clear that Al Assad is on the path to ‘winning’ this war; but it is a hollow victory. He will preside over a broken country and a torn social fabric. His international allies, who made this hollow victory possible, are in no position to provide the kind of help that will be needed to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and its economy.
The future potential donors to Syria should insist on an agreement that allows a genuine sharing of political power. Otherwise, in the medium-to-long term, the Syrian powder keg entails the risks of reigniting.