As these lines are being written, countless people in the encircled city of Idlib may be drawing their last breaths. The last rebel-held stronghold in Syria is the target of a lethal ground offensive by Syrian government forces, buttressed by nearly uncontested Russian airpower.
The country’s excruciating death agony has been slowed in recent days by Turkey’s counteroffensive against the Syrian regime. Should Turkish armored convoys be rolled back, however, Idlib, situated near the Turkish border, will likely enter the ranks of place-names in the modern world that have become hallmarks of human suffering and human barbarity: Stalingrad, Phnom Penh, Hama, Halabja, Kabgayi, Srebrenica, Hodeida, and, more recently, Aleppo.
Idlib is a city that has, in the course of the Syrian war, seen its population grow to 3 million, roughly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country. A fair percentage of these new arrivals are battle-hardened fighters, among them al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, ready to kill and be killed. The latter fate seems assured for them, and many others besides. In recent months, hundreds of civilians across Idlib province have perished while nearly a million have been displaced amid bitter winter cold. The crisis in Idlib is one of the worst episodes of the gruesome war that has ravaged Syria for nearly a decade.
The looming carnage in this rebel enclave has lent special weight and force to the old principle of humanitarian intervention—or, if you prefer, human rights imperialism. But the geostrategic and security imperatives in Syria are no less obvious than the humanitarian ones, and so America’s long-running abdication from that conflict has weakened its hand as much as it has disgraced its conscience. Even so, it is not too late for Washington to ride to the rescue of Idlib, which should not be left to its fate. It is unlikely that another chance will arise to save America’s honor in Syria.
When the great crime of genocide erupted in the Balkans in the last decade of the 20th century the New Republic, then the flagship magazine of the now-dormant tradition of liberal anti-totalitarianism, outlined a simple principle to guide America’s response: “When blood is spilled, it is the responsibility of those who spill it, and the responsibility of those who could have stopped its spilling.”
There is no mystery about the forces that bear primary responsibility for the savage war in Syria. Topping the list of this rogue’s gallery is the Assad dynasty, which greeted peaceful demonstrations against its despotic rule in March 2011 with lavish and indiscriminate violence. The official patrons of the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, have conspired to maintain their client in power through great military and diplomatic exertion. Iran’s proxy and auxiliary forces, principally the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, have also contributed their share of firepower to dispersing and defeating the Syrian revolution. The havoc wrought in the course of this unholy struggle by the Islamic state and other jihadist organizations has not been trivial.
But any inquest into the causes of the vast bloodletting in Syria must not stop with those who spilled the blood. It must also take account of those who could have stopped its spilling, but chose not to. On this score, many observers blame an undefined “international community” for not taking action to coerce the belligerents into stopping the fighting. Others cast a harsh eye at the International Criminal Court for failing to put the orchestrators of the bombardment of civilians in the dock. (One strongly suspects that the ICC possesses no more power of intimidation than the British army which, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously quipped, would promptly be arrested by the Belgian police if it ever set foot in Europe.) Still, others point to the United Nations, as if that august body could have found a way to override Russia’s Security Council veto to stop the slaughter (as it failed to do in the Balkans).
A more serious exercise would fix blame for inaction in Syria directly on those who had the ability to prevent or punish this outrage, which is to say, the stewards of American power. As Charles Krauthammer once put it, what protects civilization from barbarism “is not parchment but power, and in a unipolar world, American power.” The only factor that ever stood a chance of protecting the forces of civilization evident in the Syrian revolution, and of checking the forces of barbarism evident in the Syrian regime, has been the credible threat and vigorous use of American might.
In the nine years of Assad’s ruthless repression of the Syrian uprising—or what President Obama called, with unusual callousness, “somebody else’s civil war”—that vital component has been almost universally absent from the scene. This was Obama’s adamant determination. He had entered office declaring that “the tide of war was receding” in the Middle East—a very odd and rash declaration for a leader of a country engaged in a generational conflict to make. He later intoned that the Syrian bloodbath admitted of “no military solution,” as if Assad and Putin and Khomeini and Soleimani and Nasrallah understood any language but force, or perhaps to leave the impression that America simply did not possess the hard power to alter the balance of the struggle. In all this, Obama was endeavoring to forge a new Middle East with Iran as its fulcrum that would allow America to scale back its involvement in the region. This strategy sought to freeze the threat of Iran’s nuclear program but would not permit solidarity with Iran’s masses inflamed against their theocracy, or even robust punitive measures against Iran’s regional allies.
As Syria plunged into the abyss, there has been only sporadic and short-lived departures from American indifference. Washington has given only negligible support to armed militias fighting valiantly (against both the secular tyranny of Bashar al-Assad and the religious tyranny of the Islamic State) under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. In April 2017, President Trump ordered pinprick strikes against the Shayrat Airbase, which had been the platform for poison gas attacks, and launched an attack one year later against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities that the Obama administration had once boasted of having destroyed. In October 2019, the United States killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a daring raid on the ISIS caliph’s safe house in Idlib.
What started as a civil protest quickly devolved into a civil conflict, since the House of Assad showed itself prepared to employ the most obscene measures to remain in power. After innumerable declarations by the American president and other world leaders that “Assad must go” came and went, it became clear that the Syrian people and their revolution would be left undefended as the regime brought forth the worst instruments of modern warfare. After releasing jihadist inmates from prison en masse in order to clothe the revolt in an unappealing Islamist garb, the regime dropped barrel bombs and cluster bombs on bread lines and hospitals. It plumbed the depths of depravity when it made ample use of its plentiful supply of chemical weapons against civilian populations.
To stem such carnage, the United States ought to have immediately and firmly insisted that it was willing to take the lead in supplying arms and equipment to the Syrian revolutionaries while defending Syrian civilians from being pulverized by their own government. In the process, it would have been upholding the prohibition against genocide (which this mass slaughter qualified for in spirit if not in letter) as well as the sanctity of the taboo—endorsed but not enforced by President Obama—against the use of poison gas. It could have discharged this responsibility by establishing a safe haven large enough to accommodate any Syrian who needed a secure place to stay, which would have prevented the flow of refugees while also allowing the millions who had already fled to return.
U.S. air power could have been brought to bear, as it was in the no-fly-zones of Iraq after the Gulf War to protect Kurdish and Shiite minorities. If this measure proved insufficient, a limited contingent of ground forces would probably have been necessary to secure the safe haven from raids by Assad’s forces, and this garrison could also gather intelligence and coordinate military operations against Assad’s forces or jihadist movements (or both).
Critics of such an approach to defend civilized norms and strategic interests in Syria have always fallen back on one objection. They have advanced it again during the siege of Idlib: What are the unintended consequences of such a policy? This is casuistry. Neither I nor John McCain, who was one of the few members of Congress able to find much to say on behalf of America’s interest and America’s duty in Syria, ever possessed a crystal ball that might help answer this query. But the intended consequence of such retribution would have been the destruction of Assad’s war-fighting capabilities. If the regime in Damascus or its great-power sponsors then chose to retaliate, they would be inviting the wrath of the world’s sole superpower.
In the discussion of unintended consequences, we are almost never invited to ask who predicted, in March 2011—when Syrians began pouring into the streets to demand democracy from their illiberal and unelected government—the parade of horribles that soon engulfed Syria and was rapidly exported abroad. Since the outbreak of the people’s revolt, the enormity of Syria’s tragedy beggars the imagination.
Since then, more than half a million Syrians have died; some 6 million have been displaced and nearly 6 million more have become refugees. The rise of the Islamic caliphate presented a significant and enduring security threat to the dar al-Islam (the domain of Islam) and the dar al-Harb (the domain of war—that is, the lands of unbelief). The neighboring societies of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have strained under the weight of vast refugee populations that are often kept in unimaginably squalid conditions. Europe, by attempting to absorb its own migratory influx, has fatally undermined the economic and political basis of the European project. Iran has expanded its regional dominion, bolstering its revolutionary “axis of resistance” from Persia to Israel. Russia has emerged as a global power, projecting its influence in the Mediterranean and across the Levant. There is a growing risk of great-power conflict as Turkey becomes drawn into the fight. Meanwhile, American power has become an afterthought in the region, and its prestige is a shambles.
This mayhem and misery is the residue of American inaction in Syria, and it will be remembered by history with scorn. The consequences—unintended or not—of this abdication will be with us far into the future. The catastrophe of Syria has broken the Middle East, but it has also sent fissures throughout the world beyond. Even if it is too late to undo the massacres, it is not too late to prevent more of them. Idlib should be the place where America takes its belated stand in defense of its own vital interests and human rights alike. Throughout this ordeal, a prostrate Syria has never been an occasion for sentiment. It has been an occasion for solidarity, and action. At this hour in Idlib, it still is.