Commentary: Aid attack deepens the West’s Syria policy nightmare

Those who think events in Syria cannot get worse are “dead wrong”, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday. He’s correct, of course.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Russian actions in Syria during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the situation in the Middle East during the General Assembly for the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Going forward, however, the United States faces a really horrific choice. And it’s very far from clear what the right answer should be.

In many ways, Monday’s air strike on what should have been a protected U.N. humanitarian aid convoy was nothing new. Humanitarian and medical actors have been bombed repeatedly in recent years by both Syrian and later Russian forces on a scale and with an accuracy that looks entirely deliberate.

The death toll in this case was shocking and tragic – an estimated 20 fatalities, including the local director of the Syria Red Crescent Society – but not particularly unusual compared to events elsewhere in the war.

The fact it came so soon after what had been touted as a potentially landmark – if limited – U.S.-Russian deal to stem the bloodshed has, however, ratcheted up its political importance. Indeed, if it was a calculated attack on that particular target – which Western officials seem to believe it was – then it looks and feels like a deliberate challenge, one to which Washington and its allies must now choose their response.

Unfortunately, there are only two real options, both of them terrible. Either the United States takes what happened on the chin without any real response, essentially opening the door to Moscow and Damascus further ramping up action and essentially driving any remaining neutral humanitarian workers from the field. Or it takes action to stop it, perhaps by declaring a unilateral no-fly zone over some key areas and then enforcing it militarily, if necessary. Even if it means blasting Russian jets from the sky.


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The odds of the latter happening still seem relatively slight. Washington has no desire to wind up in a shooting war with the Syrian regime, let alone the Russians. Nor, frankly, should it. If the defining mantra of the Obama administration has been “don’t do stupid stuff”, then relative inaction could easily be seen as the most prudent course.

In striking such a clearly marked humanitarian target so transparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – or whoever made the actual decision, perhaps on a lower level – posed a challenge to the White House in particular. Either act to stop them, or stay out of the way as Moscow and Damascus take the steps they believe necessary to fight the war to an end. (Moscow denies direct involvement in the strike and the truth remains opaque – as it almost always does in such cases.)

In many ways, of course, that’s been the larger picture almost from the beginning. Like authoritarian – and, indeed, many other – rulers throughout time, Assad and Putin have always believed that governments should be able to do whatever it takes to retain or restore stability and order.

That doesn’t mean they are necessarily opposed to providing humanitarian aid, medical relief or other basic services. Indeed, they can be effective political weapons in their own right. Witness Russia’s rebuilding of Chechnya in the aftermath of its bloody secessionist campaign. There, the Russian military and security state wanted to send a clear message: Fighting it would bring defeat, but there were deals to be made and paths to prosperity and peace if the right actions were taken.

Under that viewpoint, however, even neutral humanitarian and medical teams are fair game when the circumstances dictate or demand. If the strategic goal requires crushing a town or driving a population to flee or surrender, deliveries of aid or basic services simply get in the way of that goal. Like local journalists and activists who draw attention to awkward atrocities and truths, they will often wind up targeted.

That is not, of course, the way that the West thinks about warfare. Since the First Geneva Convention in 1864 and founding of the Red Cross 17 years later, the predominant school of thought in Western Europe and North America has been that some humanitarian actors should be protected for the good of all. It’s like the idea that prisoners of war should be treated fairly – an attempt to make conflict that little bit less horrific for all concerned.

In Syria, however, both the government and increasingly the Russians have been determined to push back against the West’s rules. This is one example. Another would be the limited but growing use of chemical weapons such as chlorine.

There is probably a broader agenda behind those pushes as well. If the West in general and Obama administration in particular have achieved anything in Syria, it has been about humanitarian access, removing chemical weapons and clearly establishing that they should not be used. Every time those red lines are blurred, it’s a political defeat for the outgoing president – at least that is how it is perceived.

That, of course, suits Moscow just fine. Indeed, it suits anyone – from Putin to Assad to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who benefits politically from the ever-growing narrative of broader decline in the values and geopolitical power of the West in general and the United States in particular. They like it when the West looks weak, or simply hypocritical.

That hypocrisy is genuinely there. The world is a complicated place, and that’s never truer than in time and place of conflict. That’s why, while the United States could use its overwhelming military force to smash Russian and Syrian aircraft from the skies and devastate Assad’s military machine, that would only go so far. Indeed, if recent history is anything to go by, it could simply prolong the war and leave Syria even more chaotic.

America and its allies probably will beat Islamic State. But the fact the Islamist threat to the West is seen as so much more important than the much greater loss of life in the broader Syria conflict will also have been noticed.

European states, of course, are increasingly desperate for a solution. Syrian migrants will not return while the battle rages – or perhaps not even while Assad remains in control. But that in itself does not bring a solution closer.

The United States has no shortage of civilian blood on its hands – most of it, admittedly, accidental. It has bombed hospitals before in error, inflicted sanctions and opened up wars that have yielded no shortage of other deaths. Indeed, it may have been the apparently mistaken airstrike this weekend, killing some 60 Syrian military personnel, that prompted Moscow or Damascus to strike Monday’s convoy.

The awkward truth is this. None of the sides fighting the Syria war currently have the combat power to win outright. Eventually, it will come down to a deal. But not yet – and probably never under Obama. This close to the end of the U.S. president’s term, the warring parties are already looking to his successor. They have nothing to lose by waiting another four months, even if many innocents die.

If there was a U.S. original sin in Syria, it was tacitly encouraging the opposition to rise up in 2011. If it lacked the will to intervene decisively – which was the case then, and almost certainly remains the case now – it should have signaled that clearly from the beginning, including to those first few revolutionaries taking to the streets.

If Obama joins the war in earnest now, it may well be too little, too late. And even if Washington unleashes all the power of its arsenal, it may just make matters worse.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.