The Syrian civil war is in its endgame, and the ‘political solution’ that the leaders of the Western democracy talk about is in sight. That is one meaning of the appalling images from the chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta. In 2011, Western intelligence agencies unanimously declared that Bashar al-Assad was finished, and that it was only a matter of time before he fell. Today, Assad, with massive Russian and Iranian support, has regained control over most of Syria.
After the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta, Arab news sites claimed that the Jaish-el-Islam militia had announced that it was willing to negotiate a ceasefire. This is another meaning to be found in the images of children gasping for air in a bombed-out hospital. Assad knows he can do whatever he wants, and use any method to finish off his enemies. He has known this since he and his supporters called the humanitarians’ bluff in 2013, after Syrian forces killed dozens and injured hundreds at Idlib, probably with sarin.
In 2012, President Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ that would trigger an American intervention. After Idlib, Obama’s failure to follow words with deeds deprived the United States of its most useful weapon, deterrence. Instead, Obama struck a deal with Assad and Putin for the removal of chemical weapons from the Syrian war. This turned the United States into a silent partner in the Syrian bloodbath, and Obama into a no-drama enabler of war criminals.
Containment, the strategic wisdom of the president who was supposed to be the smartest guy in the room, turns out to have been strategic stupidity. More than 400,000 people have died in Syria. Millions have fled, causing instability in the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. After forty years of American dominance in the Middle East, Obama effectively handed the region back to the Russians. Further afield, the fugitive influx into Europe has produced a moral and political crisis in the United States’ European allies, and accelerated the rise of extremist parties.
In April 2017, the Trump administration attacked a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack at Khan Shaykhun. As Trump remained vocally committed to non-intervention, any restoration of deterrence was temporary. Since then, the United States has compounded its march of folly by abandoning the Syrian Kurds, the United States’ only reliable and capable ally in Syria. And now, with no dog in the fight and no presence on the ground, Trump has no traction at all in Syria, and little credible deterrence. So much for foreign policy ‘realism’.
Obama was right to see the Syria crisis as a proxy war between Sunni Islamists and Shia imperialists, framed by the regional ambitions of a neo-Ottoman Turkey and an opportunist Russia. He was wrong to trust that, if he surrendered Syria to Iran, then the Iranians would agree to forfeit their nuclear ambitions. This was folly of the highest order. Rather than stabilising the region, it set the terms for all-out regional war. The shrinking number of people who can recall anything that happened before last week might be reminded of the Spanish Civil War. But that, like the Obama years, is ancient history. This is now Donald Trump’s problem. The Syrian military might pay a “big price” for the attack on Eastern Ghouta, but nothing can now stop Assad from winning the war. Tweeting about “Animal Assad” will not change anyone’s calculus.
This is another meaning to be found in the images from Eastern Ghouta. The end of the Syrian civil war means the start of the bigger regional conflict for which Syria has been a proxy battlefield. The Russians are guaranteeing Syria’s airspace, and the Iranians are all over the ground. The Revolutionary Guards are at the foot of the Golan Heights. The Israelis have been bombing Syrian air bases and Hezbollah supply columns since 2011. The Saudis are buying a new air force.
Before dawn on Monday, Israeli jets reportedly attacked the Tiyas airbase (also known as T-4), west of Palmyra. Yesterday, a Russian spokesman complained that the Israelis had not notified Moscow in advance of the strike, as per Netanyahu’s previous promise to Putin, and that Russian servicemen could have been killed. The nationality of the fourteen killed on Monday’s strike has yet to be confirmed. Some or all can be presumed to be Iranian. Israel previously attacked the Tiyas base in February, after an Iranian operator flew an Iranian drone into Israeli air space.
Lebanese sources had noted intensified Israeli drone activity over the Syrian-Lebanese border since Friday—well before the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta. The atrocity in Eastern Ghouta should be understood in the wider framework of the Syrian endgame. After Idlib and Eastern Ghouta and all the other images of atrocity, we should be in no doubt about what it will be like. There is no way that the United States will be able to stay out of such a war. Perhaps it could have been forestalled during the locust years of Obama. Perhaps Obama and Trump, digging their heads into the sand by public demand, could not have stemmed the collapse of the Sykes-Picot Sunni states. Either way, the United States finds itself morally shamed, strategically impotent, and still slipping closer to a regional war that it doesn’t want and, on recent form, will probably lose. That too is the meaning of the images from Eastern Ghouta.