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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

The strikes sent one message to Assad’s regime: continue killing Syrians but don’t use chemical weapons

The backers of the abhorrent Syrian regime care far more about protecting it than anyone else cares about protecting Syrian civilians

After the Syrian regime retook control of 95 per cent of Eastern Ghouta through a deadly air and ground assault, many of those remaining were evacuated from the rebel-held pocket. Nazeer al-Khatib / AFP
After the Syrian regime retook control of 95 per cent of Eastern Ghouta through a deadly air and ground assault, many of those remaining were evacuated from the rebel-held pocket. Nazeer al-Khatib / AFP

In a town called Binnish, in the northwest of Syria, a supporter of the Syrian revolution drew some graffiti in the aftermath of the latest strikes on the country by western forces. Loosely translated, it means: “Abu Ivanka, may God guide you! Your strike is like a rooster's wind”.

It’s a glib statement. But it is one that is actually more insightful than most of what passes as commentary and analysis at the moment.

On the strikes themselves, there would have been three positions: in favour, against or undecided. And no moral depravity is proven by taking one position or another. There are very good reasons to support the airstrikes because the Syrian regime is, without question, a brutal and revolting dictatorship, that continues to be the main source of death and destruction in Syria. There are also good reasons to be against the airstrikes because of various tactical considerations and assessments of where things might lead. And for those that can’t firmly choose between either of those two positions, it’s not moral cowardice to remain undecided.

But there is a moral question involved here, and that is something that we do have to address, because it pertains to the wider issue of Syria and the future of Syrians. We have avoided that question for years, in the absurd hope that it will simply resolve itself. But it won’t. It will burn on, taking more Syrian lives, which should be our ultimate concern.

Yet we don’t put Syrians front and centre at all. Indeed, we almost never provide platforms for them to speak. They are talked about but they rarely get to give their own stories. They are props for too many in their ideological agendas, but it is Syrian lives that ought to be at the heart of any agenda we have.

It’s that focus on average Syrians, rather than of proxy wars of big powers that is the critical moral issue that we all have to address. So many times in the past seven years, the issue of Syria has come up in international media and the analytical arena and so rarely has it been raised with Syrians at the centre of discussion. Instead, the discussion turns to concerns about Iran, Russia, the US or regional powers; and so it goes on.

But Syria is about Syrians. Bashar Al Assad’s barbaric regime is a problem first, second and last because he is responsible for the overwhelming majority of Syrian deaths. Extremist groups in Syria – many of whom were funded by countries who should never have gone near such groups with a 10-foot pole – are disastrous first and foremost because of the suffering they wrought on Syrians.

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Read more from HA Hellyer:

It is not for the West alone to define universal human rights

Russia is using the same playbook in Ghouta as it did in Aleppo

Syria: a massacre unfolding in the shadow of UN resolutions

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This goes far beyond the issue of assigning blame and reaches policy design and clarity in identifying what is the core interest in Syria that has to be achieved. And that clarity has to be about the people of Syria – all of them.

As we centre that concern at the core of any analytical frame, here is what we know. The strikes, at least thus far, send only one message to the Syrian regime: continue killing Syrians if you wish, but don’t use chemical weapons. Barrel bombs or other maniacal methods will do just fine. If this is “mission accomplished”, as the American president noted, then to any Syrian suffering under Mr Al Assad’s rule, it is a rather paltry and pathetic mission indeed.

There is an argument to be made that, therefore, more strikes need to happen and to be wider, if only to force the regime and their backers to the negotiating table.

There is a just a very simple problem with that. If that were to happen, it would be a Trump White House at the heart of it. Are there many responsible military strategists that would feel comfortable with any strategy led by a presidency of this nature? Indeed, more than a few analysts argue today that the Trump presidency itself is a destabilising force for American democracy, the Nato alliance and world politics.

But as an analyst, I pause. Because the nature of the discussion is so repugnant, it makes it difficult to have a real analytical assessment.

On the right wing, we have many who reject allowing any Syrian refugees into their countries. Much of that same right wing banged war drums in Iraq and excuse Israeli repression of the Palestinian people. Are they truly so concerned about Syrian lives?

And on the left wing, the situation isn’t much better. There are so many who are up in arms about the airstrikes that focused on a tiny number of military targets, but had virtually no word to say about the thousands of attacks at the hands of Russian, Syrian government and Iranian forces. How are we take their sudden concern about Syrian lives? Where western imperialism is atrocious, but Russian or Iranian imperialism is fine?

And that is the core of the issue: concern about Syrian lives. As an analyst, I may have a number of recommendations for what would might resolve the situation in Syria but none of them are even worth proposing because there is a basic element missing. And that is the element of interest.

If the international community was ever truly interested in protecting Syrian lives, that interest has long since passed from the scene. This latest set of military strikes doesn’t change a basic truth: that the backers of the Syrian regime care far more about protecting that regime than anyone else cares about protecting Syrian civilians. And while that remains to be true, there is no solution in Syria – except where all Syrians eventually lose.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London