The ongoing civil war in Syria is never far from the headlines but has recently become the dominant news story for reasons that are both tragic and infuriating.
The news cycle began with a reported chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria, which was followed within days by a rapid and unexpected US response when a Syrian airfield at Shayrat was attacked using cruise missiles. The subsequent diplomatic faceoff between Russia and the United States and a visit by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to Moscow has thus far produced two outcomes: deadlock in the UN Security Council and a return to cooperation between the US and Russia to prevent their aircraft accidently coming into contact with each other. This is admittedly a reductive explanation of what has occurred, given that the EU and G7 also discussed what to do, and Iran also had its say, coming up with little. The concern of foreign actors in the Syrian quagmire to avoid actually coming into direct conflict with each other highlights a justifiable concern that there is potential for dangerous escalation with regional and global ramifications. The brutal reality is that they won’t, as the regional and global powers are well practised at avoiding a direct military confrontation, yet have far less compunction when it comes to contributing to the carnage that is being inflicted within Syria. The origins of Syria’s civil war are internal, its trajectory since driven by regional and global concerns: whatever the civil war was at the outset is very different to what it is now, or may be in the future. There has already been spill over within the region, and there is a real potential for this to inflame unresolved tensions within the region, but the most likely outcome is that foreign actors will continue to pour fuel on the fire, maintaining the violence, instead of working towards a long and torturous path to ending the violence.
The situation is Syria is very complicated (see the earlier blog on this) and here we will focus the recent events only. That there was a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which was followed up by further airstrikes, is increasingly been proved to have occurred. Yet, the investigations into this had barely begun before the US strike against the Shayrat airbase, and part of the explanation for this is that President Trump and his daughter were horrified by the images of the Khan Sheikhoun tragedy. The Syrian government and Russia almost immediately claimed that Khan Sheikhoun was the victim of either a ‘black flag’ attack by the opposition to provoke the US to intervene or that a government airstrike had hit chemical munitions belonging to the opposition. Mainstream and social media reporting and commentary of events is bitterly divided with claim and counterclaim, substantiated and unsubstantiated, fact based and opinion based, with experts dragged out to support the multiple narratives available. Syria, it seems, fits into everyone’s precious narratives in some way, and there is little thought over the other narratives, except to debunk them so as to maintain one’s own precious narrative, and most certainly not to seriously consider an opposing viewpoint.
The truth? The investigation into the attack on Khan Sheikhoun is very likely to prove that it was undertaken by the Syrian government, which has been accused of using chemical munitions in the past. The opposition, or that part of it which is not Jihadist, would certainly welcome military intervention by the US, but this does not mean that it has either the capacity or the will to use chemical weapons, or that it never does anything brutal. Russia, meanwhile has invested heavily in Syria, and may not be directly responsible for the regime’s actions, but is still backing a government accused of war crimes. Russian power of veto in the UN Security Council means that achieving a UN resolution and action against the Syrian government should the allegations of war crimes be proven is nigh on impossible. Ivanka Trump may have influenced her father, whom has said that he was moved to action by the images coming from Khan Sheikhoun. This, and the accompanying about-face in US foreign policy, are not encouraging signs. It is one thing to be rightly distressed by the images of suffering men, women, and children, and want to do something about it. It is entirely another to be the President of the US and have the power to take uninformed and unilateral action that has had little impact on the ground. At least some common sense prevailed as, apparently, Russia was informed beforehand to make sure none of their people were around to be hurt. Please forgive the italics, I just want to be clear that this is my view, and I want you to agree, but would rather you thought it through first.
So, a lot of talking going on, but not about how to actually resolve the conflict in Syria, more about who is to blame and where the fingers should point, and God forbid that anything is done that impacts on anyone’s interests.
And Syria? Syria is bleeding.
Dr Carl Turner,