By Anne Barnard
April 21, 2017
The world seems awash in chaos and uncertainty, perhaps more so than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
Authoritarian-leaning leaders are on the rise in Europe, and liberal democracy itself seems under siege. The post-World War II order is fraying as fighting spills across borders and international institutions — built, at least in theory, to act as brakes on wanton slaughter — fail to provide solutions. Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are not just riding anti-establishment anger, but stoking fears of a religious “other,” this time Muslims.
These challenges have been crystallized, propelled and intensified by a conflagration once dismissed in the West as peripheral, to be filed, perhaps, under “Muslims killing Muslims”: the war in Syria.
Now in its seventh year, this war allowed to rage for so long, killing 400,000 Syrians and plunging millions more into misery, has sent shock waves around the world. Millions have fled to neighboring countries, some pushing on to Europe.
The notion that the postwar world would no longer let leaders indiscriminately kill their own citizens now seems in full retreat. The Syrian government’s response to rebellion, continuing year after year, threatens to normalize levels of state brutality not seen in decades. All the while President Bashar al-Assad invokes an excuse increasingly popular among the world’s governments since Sept. 11: He is “fighting terror.”
“Syria did not cause everything,” said the Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a secular leftist who spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez. “But yes, Syria changed the world.”
The United Nations Security Council is paralyzed. Aid agencies are overwhelmed. Even a United States missile strike on a Syrian military air base, ordered by President Trump in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held town, seems little more than a blip in the turmoil, the latest unilateral intervention in the war. Two weeks later, the Syrian government, backed by Russia, continues its scorched-earth bombings.
There remains no consensus on what should have been or could still be done for Syria, or whether a more, or less, muscular international approach would have brought better results.
The Obama White House kept Syria at arm’s length, determined, understandably, to avoid the mistakes of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And Western leaders surmised that unlike the 1990s civil war in Bosnia, the Syrian conflict could burn in isolation from their countries.
Moral or not, that calculation was incorrect. The crisis has crossed Europe’s doorstep and is roiling its politics.
“We’ve thrown values by the wayside, but also not been able to act in our own interests, because we let things go too long,” said Joost Hiltermann, a Dutch citizen who is the Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.
The conflict began in 2011, with political protests. Syrian security forces cracked down, and with Western support stronger in rhetoric than reality, some of Mr. Assad’s opponents took up arms. The government responded with mass detentions, torture, starvation sieges and bombing of rebel-held areas. Extremist jihadists arose, with the Islamic State eventually declaring a caliphate and fomenting violence in Europe.
More than five million Syrians have fled their country. Hundreds of thousands joined a refugee trail across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Images of crowds of desperate refugees — and of the extreme violence they had faced at home — were used by politicians to fuel fears of Islam, and of Muslims. That lifted far-right European parties already riding on resentment of immigrants, from Finland to Hungary.
The refugee crisis has posed one of the biggest challenges in memory to the cohesion of the European Union and some of its core values: freedom of movement, common borders, pluralism. It heightened anxieties over identity and culture, feeding off economic insecurity and mistrust of governing elites that grew over decades with globalization and financial crises.
Suddenly European countries were erecting fences and internment camps to stop migrants. While Germany welcomed refugees, other countries resisted sharing the burden. The far right spoke of protecting white, Christian Europe. Even the Brexit campaign played, in part, on fears of the refugees.
On Sunday, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim candidate Marine Le Pen — who wants Mr. Assad to stay in power — could win the first round of French elections. A German right-wing party has Chancellor Angela Merkel in its sights. In last month’s Dutch elections, the far-right party of Geert Wilders performed worse than expected, but shifted the political spectrum rightward, as the ruling party adopted its populist tactics, inciting confrontation with Turkey over immigrants.
The Syrian conflict exposed — and was worsened by — failures of the very systems the right rails against.
The European Union, the United Nations and NATO were set up in the past century, after devastating wars, to keep peace, prevent persecution, hold leaders accountable and provide aid to the most vulnerable. But confidence in them is ebbing when they are most needed. The Geneva Conventions on protecting civilians in wartime — never consistently enforced — are now openly flouted.
Mr. Saleh, the Syrian dissident, worries that “the Syrianization of the world” could get darker still. He compares today’s populism and Islamophobia to the mix of fascism and anti-Semitism in World War II.
“The atmosphere in the world is not going toward hope and democracy and the individual,” he said. “It is going toward nationalism, hatred, the rise of the security state.”
In the United States, as in Europe, lines are being drawn from right-wing nationalism to approval of authoritarianism and violence against perceived Islamist threats. White nationalists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, post adoring pictures on social media of Mr. Assad, who portrays himself as a bulwark against extremism.
Some in the West are pushing to normalize relations with Mr. Assad, hoping that will help the fight against the Islamic State and get refugees to go home. But without accountability or political reforms, those results are less likely.
In my decade of covering violence against civilians in the Middle East, mass murder by states has often seemed less gripping to Western audiences than far smaller numbers of theatrically staged killings — horrific as they are — by the Islamic State and its Qaeda predecessors.
It is hard to escape the sense that Western fears of Islamist terrorism have grown so intense that many are willing to tolerate any number of deaths of Arab or Muslim civilians, and any abuses of state power, in the name of fighting it.
The United States’ own “war on terror” played a part in making violations of humanitarian and legal norms routine: detentions at Guantánamo Bay, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the continuing drone and air wars with mounting civilian tolls in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
Then, too, Syria’s war broke out when the global stage was set for division and ineffectiveness. Russia was eager for a bigger role, the United States was retreating, Europe was consumed with internal problems. Russia and the United States saw opposite interests in Syria, deadlocking the Security Council.
The crisis exposed the flaws of the United Nations system, which gives a Security Council veto to the World War II victors and privileges sovereignty with no provision for states that kill their people. The “responsibility to protect” doctrine, a legal justification for military action to stop states from massacring their citizens, was tried in Kosovo and Libya, with deeply disputed results, and died in Syria.
The “red line” incident in 2013 — the strikes threatened by President Obama but not carried out in response to a Syrian chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people — added to the sense of impunity. Mr. Assad may not even have fulfilled his pledge to give up all chemical weapons.
The United Nations can do little but document war crimes as they become more routine.
Now, the Syrian conflict is threatening the very foundation of medical neutrality in war — a Geneva Conventions principle necessary to sustain global health efforts such as fighting epidemics — the British medical journal The Lancet and the American University of Beirut concluded in a recent paper.
They warned of the “weaponization of health care” in Syria, mainly by the government, with more than 800 medical workers killed in hundreds of attacks, doctors arrested for treating injured protesters, and medical supplies withheld from besieged areas.
“This will repeat in other places,” Dr. Monzer Khalil, a health official in rebel-held Idlib, said a day after treating victims of the recent chemical attack. “If Europe and America are honest, to preserve the values they are defending, they should fight this oppression. There should be political pressure on the regime.”
Anne Barnard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times.