PARIS — The Syrian population continues to endure various armed conflicts. Despite all the attention this war gets from international, political and humanitarian organizations, it is now more than seven years since it began — and Syria is suffering from three open wounds.
On April 9, at dawn, the Tayfur air base, located between the cities of Homs and Palmyra, was hit by missiles, most probably fired by the Israeli army. This military airfield is used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and their friends from Lebanon, Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces fear that troops from a Shia axis operated from Tehran will settle along the Golan Heights, which Israel has been occupying since its victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Between 1982 and 2011, Israel put up very well with the Baathist regime in Damascus, then a guarantor of stability both inside and along its borders. Since 2012, the civil war in Syria has fostered the emergence on its territory of two new Islamist threats to the north of the Jewish state: the Shia one, employed by Iran, and the Sunni one, of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Israel has a bad memory of the 33-day war it waged at its northern border against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Despite inflicting considerable destruction on the Lebanese population, the IDF failed to annihilate the militia of the "Party of God." It had even offered a hand to Hezbollah politically, consecrated in Beirut as the "resistance party." If Trump was to rip up the July 14, 2015, nuclear deal with Tehran, if the Iranians were to decide to resume their pursuit of atomic weapons, and if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to consider striking their uranium enrichment facilities, Hezbollah (and its tens of thousands of missiles ready to strike Galilee) would play a crucial deterrent role.
Syria has become the great battleground of ideologies, religions and powerful states.
The second open wound in Syria is the ancient oasis of Eastern Ghouta, 10 kilometers east of Damascus. The rebel enclave has just been recaptured by the regime, after a making a deal to evacuate the last remaining fighters. On Saturday, April 7, 2018, images of suffocating civilians reached the West after what looks like a chemical attack. Is it the Syrian regime's doing? Is Damascus taking the irrational risk of riling the U.S. up again? Or is it a provocation from the Islamist rebels, who, in the past, have also used mustard gas? At this time, we don't have an independent source of verification.
Finally, the third open wound: the exodus of the Kurdish populations from the northeastern city of Afrin, which continues after its capture by the Turkish army, with the support of Sunni Islamist rebel militias protected by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Syrian territory has become the great battleground of ideologies, religions and powerful states of the Middle East. There are more than 10 different groups taking part in the fighting: the Baathist Syrian Army, the deserters of the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly Kurdish), the Israeli Air Force, the Turkish Army, the Russian Army. The former prime minister of Qatar said that Islamist rebel groups had received more than $100 billion from the Gulf. Civilians are the first to be affected, with more than 100,000 reportedly killed, and nearly 10 million displaced. The Pope spoke of "extermination."
Why didn't the West stop this carnage? It had begun in the summer of 2011 with the bloody repression of peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the respective neighboring Arab springs — and continued as Islamist forces supported by Turkey and the Gulf's petrol-monarchies entered the fray, alongside the pro-democracy rebels.
Westerners have demonized Bashar al-Assad's regime, without going so far as to unseat it with force. They were traumatized by two failed experiences of "regime change" in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both countries, with the help of weapons and by spending hundreds of billions of dollars, they created new institutions and held elections. But the transplant of Western-style democracy never worked. The hardliners won instead.
In 1885, French statesman Jules Ferry praised the "civilizing mission of colonization." It is clear that Westerners no longer have that kind of know-how. Without an iron hand, no one can rule in the land of Islam, the religion of the sword rather than of forgiveness. If, when they entered Baghdad in 2003, the Americans had hung a dozen random looters high on cranes, the Iraqi population would have taken them seriously. If they had chosen a governor who could speak Arabic on television and included the Iraqi army in their proposed renovation of the country, it might have worked.
After World War II, the West decided to let Muslim peoples administer themselves. It will now be very difficult to try to reverse that strategic turning point.