Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Syria snaps back into focus
Remember Syria? If it had slipped from consciousness before April 4, drifting into the miasma of conflict, brutality, misrule and vicious violence that seems increasingly common over the globe, it snapped back into focus then, with as-yet unforeseeable results.
On that date the Syrian air force bombed villages in northern Idlib province, a stronghold of rebel activity. Almost immediately, social media lit up with gruesome videos of the aftermath: men, women and children dead or dying, apparently of exposure to chemical weapons. Following the first strike, the Syrians returned to bomb one of the two clinics available to treat the victims; the main hospital had been reduced to rubble in a previous attack.
Medical personnel at the site of the attack and other observers quickly determined that the chemical involved was not chlorine, which Syria has habitually and indiscriminately used in the rebel-held north, but a nerve agent, probably Sarin. This provoked uproar at the U.N. and across the Middle East. Not only is the use of such agents an international crime, it violates solemn promises by the Assad regime in 2013 to dispose of their stockpile of chemical weapons and assurances by Assad’s protector, Russia, that this had been done. It also gives the lie to undertakings by the Syrian government never to use chemical weapons on civilian populations again — a pledge guaranteed by Russia and Iran in the 2013 Astana peace negotiations.
The latter is of particular interest, since it reminds us what assurances by rogue states are worth. To paraphrase a diplomatic exchange at the beginning of World War I, they are “a scrap of paper.” This must be remembered as Bashar Assad continues to butcher his own people by any means he can; it is also important as we watch Russia, a guarantor of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, continue to pick that state apart by false-flag operations. Or Iran’s continued experiments with prohibited ballistic missile technology. Or North Korea’s obsessive development of both nuclear weapons and missiles, both of which they promised to forego several times in the past.
These and others got a message in the early hours of Thursday, when President Trump sent 59 cruise missiles into the Syrian airbase from which that chemical attack was launched. It was straightforward: If you break your word, if you engage in this level of barbarism, if you encourage or support it, there will be consequences. And I’m not afraid to deal them out.
In reply the usual suspects did as usual: Russia denied responsibility. Syria blamed the rebels for the deaths. Iran made no reference to Assad’s gas attack but called the American response a “violation of international law.” Nevertheless, do not doubt the message was received. As a result there are new opportunities in Syria and across the Middle East.
No, we will not be able to use military force to compel Bashar Assad to leave office. That would involve a bloody struggle over many months and come dangerously close to provoking conflict with Russia which has, for better or worse, become his protector. But we can work with friends and associates in the region to make things so uncomfortable in Syria that Vlad the Terrible might reconsider his commitments. When that happens, Assad is finished and Iran becomes vulnerable. To accomplish that we must maneuver much more astutely than we have for decades.
In the end, Syria will be resolved by Syrians. Assad will depart; war will fade. But to ensure that what follows is at least well-disposed to the West requires working with Syria’s conflictive neighbors Turkey, Iraq, Israel and the Kurds; it also demands involvement from the broader Sunni Arab world, particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This requires deep knowledge, patience and appreciation for ambivalence: Not everyone will agree on everything.
It also wants steadfastness against what will certainly be opposition from Russia, Iran and other countries with an axe to grind or the expectation of some reward. Ambassador Nikki Haley provided an example of such steadfastness on Friday last when she announced in matter-of-fact fashion that neither Russia nor Iran wanted peace in the region. More must follow.
Will Thursday’s missile salvo be a one-off, or will it signal a new, more intelligent engagement of America in the Middle East’s messy conflicts? If the former, it is meaningless. If the latter, it is the harbinger of an era of peace for a region that desperately wants nothing more.
Let’s hope it’s the latter.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News. Email him at email@example.com.
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