THE CEASEFIRE in Syria is already in tatters, surviving barely a week. The protracted conflict has thus far claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and millions more lie dismembered, tortured, traumatised or displaced.
The image of Omran Daqneesh, the young boy injured after an attack in Aleppo, created a spasm of outrage on social media. But dozens more like him are killed or maimed daily by barrel bombs, mortars and rockets as apartments, hospitals and shops are attacked. This is the humanitarian catastrophe of our age.
The autocratic Bashar Assad, backed by allies in Tehran and the ruthless Vladimir Putin, must take primary responsibility for this ongoing carnage. But western powers, led by President Obama, bear responsibility too for not helping to mitigate this tragedy. Passivity in the face of massacres is a stain on his and other administrations.
Obama promised in 2012 the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line’ for his government. Then Assad’s regime attacked an opposition stronghold in Ghouta with sarin, slaughtering many hundreds of civilians in horrific fashion.
Instead of enforcing his red line, Obama dithered for days as rumours mounted that Washington would authorise token air strikes. In the end, a US-Russian deal was hatched to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Yet according to Israeli intelligence, Assad still retains a residual chemical weapons capability.
It wasn’t just Washington that covered itself in ignominy. In 2013, the UK parliament agreed to ‘lead from behind’ by vetoing military intervention in Syria. Labour leader Ed Miliband appeared jubilant at a vote that effectively gave the mass-murdering Assad a green light for further slaughter.
Not much has happened since. Obama’s administration has done its fair share of finger-wagging as the atrocities have mounted. The president has condemned Assad’s regime as illegitimate and demanded its removal and isolation. While civilians in Aleppo and other cities have faced an onslaught of barrel bombs and heavy weapons, Washington has responded with verbal outrage. Small comfort to beleaguered Syrians.
Not surprisingly, the EU has simply followed the lead of the Anglo-American alliance. Its interventions since 2013 have consisted of demands that Assad step down, followed by promises to forge a new partnership with a post-conflict Syria.
It has endorsed UN resolutions and imposed limited financial sanctions on Damascus. The EU has also thrown its weight behind political negotiations to create a transitional governing body (Geneva II), but, somewhat predictably, these efforts have proved futile.
While little can be done to rectify past policy failures, action can be taken now. One idea being mooted is to set up ‘safe zones’ inside parts of Syria where civilians can flee to safety. In April 2016, Merkel appeared to endorse this notion. She called for the creation of ‘zones where the ceasefire is particularly enforced and where a significant level of security can be guaranteed’.
She was rebuffed by Obama on the grounds this would necessitate a military takeover of parts of the country. In truth, it may not require this.
The safe havens set up in northern and southern Iraq in 1991 (Operation Provide Comfort) did not require a full-blown occupation. A small ground force was backed by the air power of Western forces while continuing aid drops provided humanitarian relief. In many ways, the operation was a success. With sufficient political will, a similar initiative today could save lives and provide some relief from the horrors of the civil war.
Naturally, Russia would veto any such plan were it presented to the Security Council. But the UN was bypassed in 1998 when NATO confronted Milosevic in the Kosovo war and its approval was lacking when the American, British and French governments set up the Iraqi no-fly zones. Blaming the UN is another excuse for doing nothing.
Of course, no form of intervention is ever risk-free, as recent history shows. But such risks must be weighed against the costs of inaction and passivity. Failure to intervene has thus far been a disastrous political choice, with lethal consequences for the people of Syria. Omran Daqneesh and millions like him deserve better.