The West Owns Syria’s Disaster
Trump’s green light for Turkey’s assault on the Kurds is appalling. But he’s not the only one to blame.
For much of the past week, from the moment the startling news of the U.S. pullout from the Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria broke, my mind has wandered obsessively to the assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, in 2016.
Karlov’s death at the hands of a Turkish policeman, one apparently radicalized by Russia’s barbarous air campaign against the Syrian city of Aleppo, left me profoundly disturbed even at the time—but most of the world quickly forgot about it. This was in December 2016, only months after the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and not even two months after the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States. To most people in the West, those two events had shaken their faith in an ordered world—not the fifth year of Syria’s war or even Russia’s entry into the conflict on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in September 2015.
Karlov’s death certainly made headlines. It was shocking and spectacular, but it was just another death, after all, in a war that had already claimed an estimated 300,000 lives at that point and displaced millions more. In short, in both Europe and the United States, it was a split-second scene, drowned out in the cacophony of angry populism at home.
Of course, I worried about Brexit and Trump, too. I even compared the troubling parallels I saw in the rise of reactionary populism in the United States and U.K. with the emergence of Slobodan Milosevic, the erstwhile Serbian strongman whose genocidal wars had forced my own family to flee Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it was precisely as a Bosnian that Karlov’s death gnawed at me. Rather than some peripheral event, it felt like history as an ear-piercing shriek. It rang in my ears like the sound of the bullets that shattered my family’s windows in our flat in Sarajevo in April 1992.
Because this should have been a tectonic event. Karlov’s death, much like the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force in November 2015, could easily have brought Turkey and Russia themselves into direct confrontation, not just in Syria but in the Black Sea, even in Ukraine. It all seemed like some perverse redux of the lead-up to the Crimean War, triggered by the expansionist Russian Empire’s attempt to make territorial gains at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. But by early 2017 it was an event forgotten in the West, supplanted by a constant, gluttonous diet of scandals emanating from the White House and Westminster.
And by and large, so was Syria itself, although the wanton butchery of the Assad regime, and its Russian benefactors, pressed on. By the end of 2017, another 33,000 people were dead; 2018 would add 20,000 to the death toll. Chemical attacks, barrel bombs, and systematic massacres and expulsions, all of them primarily targeted at Syria’s civilian population, continued and continues still, nine years into the war. But the war slipped further and further down the front pages. Meanwhile, the so-called anti-war left in the West began to openly embrace Assad, peddling regime talking points about how his was a war against radical Islamists.
Still others reverted to outright conspiracy theories, as so many in the Western left did during the Yugoslav Wars, claiming anti-regime forces in Syria, including the humanitarian White Helmets group, were involved in elaborate “false flag” operations. Most recently, so-called independent journalists such as Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek—both of whom have received funds from Assad regime lobby groups—have even toured government-controlled regions of Syria to whitewash the scale of the atrocities.
This is the context of Turkey’s assault on Syria’s Kurds. The coming maelstrom is not just the result of the United States’ profound betrayal of its erstwhile and long-suffering Kurdish allies. Because as disastrous as this decision will be for long-term U.S. security and diplomatic interests, not just in the Middle East but across the globe, it is only the latest act of mendacity by the West, and the entire international community, in its response to the greatest political, moral, and ethical catastrophe of the 21st century.
Europeans and Americans alike have had nearly a decade to come up with some kind, any kind, of coherent, sustained policy for Syria. Without fail, successive administrations and successive governments on both sides of the Atlantic have chosen not to develop or enact such policies. At every turn, these governments have dithered and obfuscated, invoked every conceivable precedent and rationale—virtually all of them in bad faith—simply to avoid responsibility for this horror.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s claim that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, for instance, would constitute a “red line” for his administration deserves special scorn. When the U.S. intelligence community established that such attacks had occurred in August 2013, Obama responded with a dead-on-arrival request for military authorization from the U.S. Congress. He did this not because of constitutional obligation, as he claimed, but because he wanted to pass the buck on confronting Assad.
After all, when the Obama administration decided to launch attacks against the Islamic State, it did so by invoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the entire campaign against the Islamic State showed that there was international will and capacity for intervention in Syria, including the deployment of significant numbers of Western ground forces in the country. Just not against the Assad regime apparently.
The West even turned its backs on Syria’s refugees, those teeming, desperate masses. We have left them to drown in the Mediterranean, to be savaged by the European Union’s border guards, and when somehow, against all these odds, they have arrived to claim asylum on our shores, we have allowed them to be vilified by far-right demagogues, to be harassed, threatened, and killed by domestic white supremacist extremists.
The developed world failed the Syrian people—Arabs, Kurds, Druze, all of them in their splendid multitude alike—in every conceivable way, at every possible turn, and did so for a simple reason: because we did not want to help them.
Sober realists will invoke the experience of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq or the decades-long war in Afghanistan as justifications. What should the United States have done? Invaded Syria, maintained a permanent occupation, and thus repeated the folly of the state-building experiment in Iraq? But Syria is not Iraq. A far more appropriate comparison is Bosnia or even Kosovo, countries where humanitarian intervention—even when it arrived much too late, as in Bosnia—was widely welcomed. No, not by every group, not by every side, but by large majorities nevertheless and especially by those who had been targeted for extermination and expulsion by the Milosevic regime and its proxies.
Bosnia today has, arguably, the world’s most convoluted constitutional regime in the world. Kosovo’s international status as a sovereign state remains unsettled and contested by a revanchist Belgrade. But Bosnia and Kosovo are at peace, and anyone who has ever truly experienced war knows there is no greater good.
So, yes, the Trump administration’s pullout is a betrayal of the United States’ Kurdish allies. But none of us in the West have grounds for moral grandstanding. We have, all of us, betrayed the Syrian people. The horrors of Syria are a betrayal of our humanity; this war and the international response to it are crimes against humanity. They will never forgive us our inaction nor should they.