Chemical Weapons. Missile Strikes. Political Tension. Retaliation.
These words have run rampant through headlines recently. The bloody and hellish results of the Syrian Civil War once again found themselves in newspapers and television reports the world over.
This comes after the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria came under attack, with at least 74 people killed as a result of chemical weapon poisoning. In response, the US government launched a cruise missile strike directed at the Syrian armed forces, consequently adding another dimension to this horrific war.
Chemical weapons have routinely proven a sore spot amongst the international community. Their use is prohibited by the United Nations and their outlawing propagated by many western powers, and yet again and again they are used – this is the second time in the last few years they have been linked to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Again and again the West is outraged and yet little more than harsh words of condemnation are seen in response.
However, just a couple days ago we saw more than words from US President Donald Trump as US Destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea launched around sixty tomahawk missiles at the Syrian airbase reportedly responsible for the chemical attack. It was the first combative military action taken in Trump’s presidency, and also the first against Assad’s regime after a similar crisis in 2013 failed to lead to any decisive military action under then-President Barack Obama.
Ripples promptly coursed through the international community as many rushed to pledge support or condemn Trump’s swift and possibly hastily calculated attack. It has quickly become a flashpoint in the international community and the numerous foreign powers with vested interests in Syria.
It became clearer as it has ever been, that the war in Syria has morphed and degraded over the years. What started as a result of the democratic fervour of the Arab Spring and an oppressive, authoritarian political family, has devolved into a ‘proxy war’ between the democracies of the West, an ambitious and expansionist Russia, a sectarian Shiite Iran, and unavoidably, the Islamic State and their so-called caliphate.
A ‘proxy war’ is a war where the nations at odds with each other never make contact. Rather they fight through intermediaries, through another’s conflict. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. Shadow wars have been carried out for decades – centuries, even. Even now, Syria is only one of numerous examples where international powers with vested interests meddle in what is inherently a national conflict.
Many would suggest the Syrian Civil War, one which has proved increasingly bloody and barbaric over the years, would have been over by now had Russia and Iran not intervened. President al-Assad would have been ousted and whatever was to follow would take his place, though what form that would take is highly debatable in its own right. But Russia have their own interests in reinstating Syria to Assad’s control. They need an ally in the Middle East, a port to the Mediterranean and secured lines of oil production. Equally, Iran has eyes on a sectarian Shiite Middle East. The West, too, have interests in Syria. The likes of the United States and England rightfully fear the influence of the Islamic State in Syria, where the self-appointed caliphate first broke off from the Al-Nursa front to form their radicalised and relentless force.
The West has routinely committed airstrikes over Syria, hitting Islamic State targets, though not without civilian casualty and never a boot on the ground. Russia on the other hand has deployed troops and strike fighters – the latter of which has had the odd effect of mostly hitting anti-government rebel targets. Iran, too, have men in Syrian borders.
Such has become the problem with Syria and ‘proxy warfare’, exasperated and exemplified by this week’s missile strikes. That the lives of innocent civilians have been caught up in global politics and the original ideological motivation for revolution has become twisted and obscured by international concerns.
Whether President Assad retakes power or not, Syria has collapsed into a chaotic boiling pot. It is at a state from which they may never recover. In fact, it is nearly impossible to see a solution to the conflict at this point. When President Assad used chemical weapons then-President Barack Obama called for action, and yet it was not taken. Why? Because mixing Russian and United States airplanes over an unsecured airspace, and the United States firing at targets where Russian boots may be, would as likely spark an international conflict the world is not ready for, between its two most historically influential and antagonistic allies, as it would prove a retribution or a solution to the use of chemical weapons and President Assad’s authoritarian regime.
Some have suggested President Assad’s use the Sarin nerve agent was an intentional testing of what response the Trump administration would have. But at what cost? The dozens of rebel fighters and innocent civilians snuffed out in a vile act of violence. Equally, what will the US missile strike really accomplish? Will it be a deterrent to future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, a threat of further conflict, or continued loss of life by the hand of distant foreign powers. It is hardly a stretch to understand the discontent of western intervention in the Arab world.
An end to the fighting is far from reach. Peace talks between rebel agencies and the Assad regime have thus far concluded with little more than continued fighting. As long as President Vladimir Putin proceeds with his expansionist Russian foreign policy it’s hardly likely the United States will neither remove themselves from the conflict altogether nor commit to any conclusive military action. Iran appears unlikely to be stepping down its influence. Neither is the Islamic State abandoning its efforts in light of losses in Iraq. The violence will continue and what will it accomplish. How many Syrian deaths will it take to solve issues of international diplomacy?