The tactic of placing civilians on the bullseye has sent shock waves of destabilization radiating well beyond Syria, thereby placing the national security of the United States and its allies at risk. This deliberate targeting—by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran—continues. The threat it presents to Western security endures. There is no end in sight.
There are no silver bullets—no easy fixes—for the global security consequences of the permanent cross hairs fixed on millions of Syrian civilians. Yet the beginning of wisdom on this problem from hell resides in Americans and their allies acknowledging that none of the outrage inflicted on unarmed, defenseless Syrians since March 2011 has stayed inside Syria.
If it had, the question of outside intervention might have been framed exclusively in moral terms. That it has not presents the West with a practical choice: self-defense or acquiescence.
The Assad regime and its external allies have been by far the principal perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Syria. Yet they have not been alone.
To its credit, the Obama administration responded forcefully to a 2014 genocidal ISIL assault on a Syrian-Kurdish town (Kobani) in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey. It then pursued, with coalition partners, a military campaign to destroy the ISIL ‘caliphate’ in Syria east of the Euphrates River; a task completed by the Trump administration.
Likewise, other Islamist extremist groups in Syria—including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and various sectarian actors opposing the Assad regime—have abused civilians in hideous ways. But none of their crimes approaches the scope and the depth of what has been perpetrated by the clique still owning Syria’s seat in the United Nations. This is the clear conclusion of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria and other objective observers.
The West is defending itself militarily against ISIL. The United States has struck terrorists protected by HTS. Yet the response of the West to an Assad regime crime wave whose human consequences have inspired ISIL and surged through Europe all the way to Scandinavia has been generally muted in all ways but rhetorical. With rare exception, American and European officials decrying and condemning regime depredations against defenseless civilians have coupled their rhetoric with nothing of substance; something that adversaries of the United States (led by Russian President Vladimir Putin) could not have failed to notice.
Only twice—both times during the Trump administration—has the United States responded militarily to Assad regime terror attacks on civilians. Both cases involved the regime’s use of illegal chemical weapons. The Trump administration has, in effect, upheld the chemical munitions ‘red line’ announced by President Barack Obama in 2012.
When faced with a massive regime chemical assault on civilians in August 2013—one that killed over 1,400 civilians (including many children) and one preceded by upwards of a dozen smaller Assad regime chemical attacks—President Obama rejected a military response in favor of what he hoped would the complete removal (under United Nations supervision) from Syria of all chemical weapons.
Yet not only did residual stocks of chemical weapons remain under regime control, but Assad’s military forces escalated their civilian mass homicide campaign with every other munition at their disposal, including high explosives packed into large metal barrels filled with scrap metal (and sometimes chlorine canisters).
These would then be dropped from hovering helicopters onto densely packed populated areas. Barrel bombs—indiscriminate weapons of mass murder—have been a hallmark of the Assad regime’s war on civilians. Assad denies they even exist. To the extent precision has been employed by Russian and regime air forces, targets have often been hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and mosques.
Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, his intervention in eastern Ukraine, his periodic harassment of NATO allies, and his interference in Venezuela and the 2016 American electoral process were likely encouraged by his perception of the wide gap between Western talk and action in Syria.
The constant Western mantra about there being “no military solution to the crisis in Syria” surely encouraged him to believe there would be no substantive Western opposition to him seeking a military solution. He noticed what was obvious to all: American and European rhetoric about the unacceptability and inadmissibility of systematic regime war crimes and atrocities in Syria was unaccompanied by action; Syrian civilians were left totally unprotected.
More measurable in objective terms is the effect on European politics and unity of a massive flow of migrants—sixty percent Syrian—surging across the continent in 2015. Russia barely disguised its delight as the politics of several European states—NATO and European Union members—were deeply roiled by the arrival of a million migrants. Pro-Putin nationalists were the beneficiaries of the social challenges presented by the migratory wave, and even though the United Kingdom was barely affected by it demographically, the wave itself contributed to a referendum result mandating Brexit.
What is also beyond dispute is the critical contribution of Bashar al-Assad’s civilian-centric survival strategy to the rise of Islamist extremism in Syria and beyond.
For ISIL and Al Qaeda, Assad’s minority status and his slaughter of civilians (mainly Sunni Muslims) have been recruiting gifts of the highest order, both inside Syria and far beyond. This gift from one homicidal terrorist to others has magnified and deepened the threats to Syrian civilians and the exportability of the Syrian crisis far beyond its place of origin.
Syrians struggling to establish civil society, rule of law, and decent local governance in areas beyond regime control must deal not only with a homicidal regime, but with the criminals of HTS and those of other non-governmental, armed sectarian actors. Moreover, HTS harbors individuals fully prepared to engage in acts of transnational terrorism, while ISIL—with tens of thousands of armed activists still at large—long ago demonstrated its willingness and ability to cause mass casualty events in Turkey, France, and Belgium. Indeed, with what appears to be an international franchise-like system inspired in considerable measure by the Assad regime’s homicidal focus on Sunni Muslim populations in rebel-controlled areas, ISIL inspires massacres (such as the Sri Lanka Easter atrocities) around the globe. The Assad regime has helped catalyze an Islamist terror threat global in scope.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.