Every once in a while the world wakes up to the fact that one of the greatest human-rights catastrophes ever is still going on in Syria. The Syrian civil war has been raging since 2011, and in that time 500,000 Syrians have been killed, while approximately half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million have been made homeless or driven into exile. While the world obsesses over other conflicts — in particular the one going on next door between Israel and the Palestinians, which over several decades hasn’t produced a fraction of the suffering that has taken place in Syria in just the last seven years — the slaughter in Syria continues without most of the international community paying much attention.
Over the past week, as the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad have closed in on one of the remaining rebel strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus, the vicious shelling of civilian targets has become more conspicuous, which is no small feat in a war that foreign correspondents are generally unable to cover. While casualties are inevitable in any war, the mayhem being carried out by the Assad regime and its Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies is deliberately and avowedly aimed at killing civilians and anyone trying to help them. As the New York Times editorial column noted on Thursday, this indiscriminate murder fits the classic definition of a war crime. But the wait for justice for those carrying out these crimes as well as those who are enabling them may be long.
The headline of the Times editorial read, “Who Has Innocent Syrian Blood on Their Hands?” but the answer to the question goes deeper than just the people firing the guns at Ghouta, where hundreds of civilians were killed this week.
Some of Assad’s henchmen aren’t shy about claiming credit for what’s going on. Syrian general Suheil al-Hassan vowed in a video to devastate the area with fire. Lest there be any doubt about his intention of making civilians suffer, and to deter any intrepid aid workers from rendering assistance to casualties and those made homeless by the fighting, he added, “You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.” That was enough to get the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to denounce the offensive as a “monstrous campaign of annihilation.”
In theory, that ought to mean that the machinery of the International Criminal Court will be getting ready to begin an effort that will ultimately indict a host of players in the Syrian court, in the same manner that was used to bring those who committed atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s to justice. But the problem won’t be just a matter of waiting for the dust to settle after the fighting, which appears to be in its last stages in a war that has been won for Assad by Russian and Iranian intervention. It’s that the guilty parties do not merely include killers such as al-Hassan or even Assad. The list of those responsible for war crimes in Syria also includes the rulers of Iran, as well as the Putin regime in Moscow.
Just as daunting is the fact that the list of those who have, for all intents and purposes, acquiesced in this crime must include the leaders of the United States and other Western governments who decided not to stop Assad and gave Russian president Vladimir Putin permission to do as he likes in Syria.
The Times editorial noted that the Trump administration has, despite success in the war against ISIS (for which it deserves credit that it has been largely denied by most of the mainstream media), “abandoned America’s international leadership role” in Syria.
The opening for Russia and for Assad to butcher his opponents and countless civilians didn’t come from Trump.
That’s true up to a point. Trump’s efforts to ingratiate himself with Putin haven’t paid any diplomatic dividends for the U.S. or caused the Russians to moderate their stance in Syria. Nor has the president figured out how to resolve the contradiction between his open desire for a rapprochement with Russia and his hostility to Iran. While Trump is right to condemn Iran’s adventurism in the region, being soft on Iran’s Russian ally has prevented the U.S. from taking any strong stand against Tehran’s successful effort to convert Syria into a base of operations for a military confrontation with neighboring Israel.
Yet the opening for Russia and for Assad to butcher his opponents and countless civilians didn’t come from Trump. It was the work of President Obama, whose name went unmentioned in the Times editorial. It was Obama who recklessly warned Assad in 2013 that his use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that he would cross at his own peril. He then backed down and not only allowed Assad to escape punishment but punted responsibility, both for tracking down the chemical weapons and for what would follow in the war, to Russia. This happened even though Obama knew that Russia’s goal in Syria was the preservation of Assad’s rule and that Moscow would, as it has done elsewhere when it perceived a chance to start reassembling the old Soviet empire, act ruthlessly to achieve that despicable purpose.
To note these facts is not merely a matter of settling scores with Trump’s predecessor. However, if we are to answer the question about who is responsible for the blood of Syrian innocents that has been shed, we must point out that Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons as well as the atrocities that followed that humiliating retreat should weigh heavily on Obama’s conscience as well as on those who applauded and rationalized his failure.
This does not get Trump off the hook for dealing with the mess he inherited. The fact that Syria has become not only a slaughterhouse but also the focal point for an Iranian effort to create another frontline threat to Israel is now Trump’s problem to solve. If he continues to ignore it, it will not only endanger Israel and increase the chance of a new, bloody Middle East war involving Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries; it will also threaten the moderate Arab countries that look to Jerusalem as a counterweight against an Iran that was enriched and emboldened by Obama’s nuclear deal.
But if anyone is serious about calling out those responsible for the war crimes in Syria that are happening in plain sight of the international community, it won’t be enough to try to arraign Assad and his killers. Russia and Iran are equally at fault, and each has played a significant role in the ongoing massacres.
The sad fact is that those who let Iran and Russia win the war for Assad are in no position to complain when those same powers stonewall inquiries or a tribunal that will be charged with applying what is left of the concept of international law to what happened in Syria. We also know that as long as the U.S. and the rest of the West continue to act as if what happens in that country doesn’t matter, the slaughter will continue and the murderers will never be brought to justice.