It Always Comes Back to Syria

The New York Times Opinions 0 month ago

Until this month, the Syrian revolution-turned-war had largely slipped from the news pages. It bursts into view in snapshots: the image of a drowned toddler, face down on a Turkish beach as his family fled a war that has killed at least half a million people; the black flags of the Islamic State fluttering, and all the barbarity and fear that accompanied them; the Kurdish girls with guns opposing the jihadists. There was always more to it, of course.

Syria is complicated, it is messy, and although it might be “7,000 miles away,” as President Trump recently put it, the world is too small to look away. What has happened in Syria since 2011 has affected what has happened elsewhere, a chain of events that has destabilized the Middle East and the world. And that will be as true of Turkey’s recent incursion, with American approval, against the Kurds as anything that came before.

The Syrian war enabled a resurgent Russia to expand its influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Qatar imported their feud into Syria, backing different rebel groups and fomenting rivalries that in part helped splinter the armed opposition. Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, supported the government of Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah’s domestic Lebanese opponents supported the rebels. At one point in Lebanon, every fourth person was a Syrian refugee.

Jordan, too, has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis. Turkey, the conduit for foreign fighters and munitions into rebel ranks, absorbed 3.6 million Syrian refugees and hosts the world’s largest refugee population. All of Europe, by comparison, is home to about one million Syrian refugees, an influx that has nonetheless upended Europe’s politics.

And then, there was the rise of the Islamic State, and Al Qaeda’s use of the Syrian conflict to rejuvenate its ranks and recruit men and money. Both groups exported horror well beyond Syria’s borders.

The war shattered Syria into slivers. The Islamic State established a so-called caliphate. It was vanquished by Kurdish-led forces who set up their own version of utopia in the same territory, before they, too, were pushed out this month by Turkey, which was never going to tolerate an armed Kurdish canton on its border. For Ankara, Mr. al-Assad is a safer neighbor than Kurds who dream of autonomy.

On Thursday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey outfoxed Vice President Mike Pence, who flew to Ankara to give Mr. Erdogan almost everything he wanted: a cessation of hostilities in the northeast (the Americans called it a cease-fire, the Turks a pause) and a Kurdish withdrawal from the area. Turkey appears to have dodged American sanctions and gained approval to keep its troops in northeast Syria. A day later, Mr. Erdogan said he intended to populate the zone with some of the millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, but how voluntary will any returns be? It’s illegal under international law to send refugees back to a country where they may be at risk, but Syria — where chemical weapons have been used repeatedly — is a graveyard for international norms.

Turkey’s assault has unleashed chaos. Many Islamic State members, captured and held in camps by the Kurdish-led Syrian forces, have now escaped, along with suspected affiliates and sympathizers. They will regroup, accelerating a resurgence that has already made its presence felt in parts of Iraq. What do they now have to lose?

For the Kurdish forces, backed until recently by American power, the loss of clout is especially stinging. Before 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in a country that did not allow them to teach their language. Because of Mr. Trump’s greenlighting of the Turkish offensive, Syria’s Kurds in the northeast were forced to cut a deal with Damascus, which, the Syrian deputy foreign minister said last week, views them as “agents of Washington.” Mr. al-Assad’s forces didn’t have to fire a bullet to regain huge swaths of the northeast. Idlib province, in the northwest, is now the only large part of the country that Mr. al-Assad doesn’t control.

It may be difficult to remember now, but the Syrian tragedy began in 2011 with peaceful protests against an iron-fisted system that has governed Syria for decades. The conflict is now in its eighth year, and although it is nowhere near over, its outcome has been determined: The Assad regime has won. Mr. al-Assad rules a fractured nation of corpses and rubble and tired, traumatized survivors.

To be clear, the Middle East — at least most of it — is not typically pleading for more American military intervention. And ending endless wars, as Mr. Trump claims he wants, is a noble idea. But the hasty, unplanned manner of the White House’s policy has had immediate bloody consequences, not just for who controls what in Syria but also for how the world views the United States.

The Syrian opposition believed that the United States (and the West more generally) had its back, from the earliest days in 2011 when President Barack Obama said Mr. al-Assad must go, to Obama’s empty “red line” warning in 2012 against the use of chemical weapons.

Russia has conducted itself strategically in Syria. The United States? As a Syrian rebel fighter from an American-backed faction named the Hazm Movement told me in 2014, America “doesn’t even know who its friends are or what it is doing.” Russia, he said, is “more honorable and trustworthy than the United States, because at least it is really standing alongside its ally,” Mr. al-Assad. “The United States had people, it had partners in us,” he said, “but I don’t think the Americans are real allies.”

Good luck to the next American leader looking for coalition allies in a Middle East where memories are long.

Rania Abouzeid, a current Harvard Nieman fellow, is a journalist and the author of “No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria.”


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