Ten years after it began, Syria’s horrific civil war has faded from the headlines. Reluctant to get involved, US and European politicians, and the western public, mostly look the other way. Russia plays a pivotal role, but on the wrong side. Interventionist regional states such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran prioritise selfish, short-term interests. The result is stalemate – a semi-chilled conflict characterised by sporadic violence, profound pain and strategic indifference.
Yet this epic failure to halt the war continues to have far-reaching, negative consequences for international security, democratic values and the rule of law, as well as for Syria’s citizens. Whether the issue is human suffering, refugees, war crimes, chemical weapons or Islamist terrorism, the war’s multiple, toxic legacies are global, pernicious – and ongoing.
Syria is the world’s war. Here are 10 reasons why 10 years of unending misery and mayhem have harmed everyone:
Estimates of civilian lives lost since March 2011 vary greatly, from about 117,000 to 226,000 – but the vast scale of this modern killing field is indisputable. “Tens of thousands of civilians arbitrarily detained in Syria remain forcibly disappeared, while thousands more have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention,” the UN reported this month. Syria’s cities and economy are in ruins. Twelve million people face hunger. Such figures may have lost the power to shock. But the underlying moral question still has universal relevance: why is this carnage allowed to continue?
Over half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million is displaced, about 6.6 million abroad. Many are trapped in Idlib, in north-west Syria, caught between opposing forces and prey to Islamist militias. “If the regime launches a military campaign on Idlib, there would be a catastrophe,” said local journalist Fadi al-Halabi. Refugee influxes have upended regional, EU and UK politics, boosting far-right parties and anti-migrant prejudice. Death now comes daily to Europe’s beaches. How is this tolerable?
President Bashar al-Assad and cronies stand accused of a wide range of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilians, rescuers, health workers and hospitals are routinely (and illegally) targeted. The International Criminal Court is stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes. Investigations have been launched into Assad in France and Germany. Members of Syria’s security forces have been prosecuted. But the failure to bring perpetrators to justice, including opposition and Islamist groups, makes a mockery of international law.
Repeated regime use of banned chemical weapons in defiance of global treaties has grave international ramifications. After a notorious 2013 sarin attack in al-Ghouta, Assad supposedly surrendered his arsenal. But the UN has identified over 40 CW attacks since then. Russia has repeatedly hindered investigations, while the US has ignored its own “red lines”. As a result, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention is seriously weakened.
Islamic State (Isis)
A lasting beneficiary of the war is Islamic State (Isis), which overran territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. While an international coalition eventually crushed the caliphate, Isis was behind many terrorist attacks in Europe in 2014-17. It has inspired anti-western jihadist groups around the worldwide and is reportedly rebuilding in Iraq. Captured Isis members, such as British-born Shamima Begum, remain in legal limbo in violent desert prison camps. The western response to Isis redux is dangerously fragmented.
Russia and the US
The war has marked a clear shift in the Middle East balance of power from the US to Russia. After Barack Obama declined to intervene militarily, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, filled the ensuing power vacuum in 2015 – and probably saved Assad’s regime. Joe Biden’s main concern is deterring pro-Iranian militia and jihadists – witness last month’s limited air strikes. The UN-led peace process collapsed in January – and Biden seems to think it’s too late to save Syria. It would be great to be proved wrong.
Western states initially expressed sympathy for attempts to overthrow dictators and authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria in 2010-12. But as events turned unpredictable and Islamists got involved, the west backed away. The window that briefly opened on peaceful reform in the Arab world slammed shut. The cause of global democracy was a big loser. Syria symbolises its defeat.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian president, has exploited events to prosecute his vendetta against the Kurds at home and abroad. Erdogan’s army occupies border areas, partly to prevent further refugee influxes and deter a regime assault on Idlib – but also to thwart Iraq-style Kurdish self-rule in north-east Syria. He has subordinated the fight against Isis to this battle while coordinating with Russia. The Syrian quagmire has undermined Ankara’s ties with the US, Nato and Europe – raising the question: who lost Turkey?
Israel v Iran
Israel worries about the build-up of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and pro-Tehran armed forces in Syria and Lebanon. It has launched hundreds of air strikes on Iran-linked targets there, and has urged the US to do likewise in reply to rocket and drone attacks in Iraq, the Gulf and Yemen. For Israel and Iran, Syria has become a forward battle zone in a multi-front struggle. Its people’s well-being is not their concern. Its chronic weakness suits both.
The failure to end the war has done enormous damage to international institutions. The UN security council in particular has been severely discredited. So, too, have UN peacemaking efforts. Yet if the UNSC’s “big five” had really wanted to stop the conflict, there is little doubt that, acting together, they could have done so. That they did not even try is the Syrian war’s most shameful legacy.