Syria: The world shirks its responsibility
Bashar al-Assad acts as he does only because he knows the world will let him get away with it
An image grab taken from a video released by the Syrian civil defence in Douma shows an unidentified volunteer holding an oxygen mask over a child’s face at a hospital following a reported chemical attack on the rebel-held town on Sunday. Photograph: AFP/ HO / Syria Civil Defence
Seven years into a grinding and brutal conflict, Syria still finds ways to reach new depths and shock us anew. This time, the world looks on with horror at the aftermath of a chemical weapon attack on Douma, a besieged Damascus suburb where Syrian government forces have been closing in on the armed opposition. Photographs circulating after the attack, on Saturday evening, showed the inert bodies of children piled on the floor. One image showed a young man who apparently died foaming at the mouth and holding a child. Rescue workers reported that dozens had died and that hundreds more were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to a toxic agent. Medics described an overwhelming chlorine-like smell.
The authorities in Damascus and Moscow dismissed claims that forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible for the gas attack, but coming from an alliance that has shown such disregard for the lives of Syrian civilians, those denials are unconvincing. Human Rights Watch has identified 85 chemical attacks during the war, the great majority by Assad’s army. These include the use of sarin at Khan al-Assal in 2013 and a gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun last October, which killed at least 74 people. When a UN investigation confirmed that the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun atrocity, Russia rejected the findings.
Barack Obama’s Syria policy, epitomised by the failure to act when Assad’s 2013 sarin attack breached Washington’s so-called “red line”, was a resounding failure
The primary responsibility for Douma must fall on the Assad regime. But Assad acts as he does only because he knows he can get away with it. In Russia, he has a partner who in effect gives him carte blanche to wage an indiscriminate killing campaign in return for safeguarding its strategic access to Mediterranean ports. And in the west, Assad has an opponent whose righteous rhetoric is consistently undercut by its unwillingness to take real steps to hold him to account.
Nowhere is the disarray in western policy on Syria more glaring, or more damaging, than in the United States. Barack Obama’s Syria policy, epitomised by the failure to act when Assad’s 2013 sarin attack breached Washington’s so-called “red line”, was a resounding failure. In that sense, Donald Trump represents continuity. “Big price to pay”, the US president announced on Twitter in the wake of the Douma attack. But even if he does respond militarily, as he did by firing 59 missiles at a largely deserted airfield after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, it will be largely symbolic. We know, because he declared as much only last week, that Trump wants to pull US troops out of Syria. When he does, he and the west will have ceded the last bit of leverage they have in the conflict. The postwar order in Syria is being decided by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Western impotence in the face of the Douma atrocity only underlines its increasingly peripheral role among Syria’s real power-brokers.