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On The West's Betrayal Of Syria, History Will Not Be Kind

Ten years after the popular Syrian uprising against the Assad regime, we see the wider impact of both the moral and a strategic error committed by Western democracies to not intervene.

The 10 years of fighting have left nearly 400,000 dead in Syria
The 10 years of fighting have left nearly 400,000 dead in Syria
Dominique Moisi


PARIS — "It's worse than a crime, it's a mistake." As we mark the sad, 10th anniversary this month of the start of the civil war in Syria, the quote attributed to French politician Boulay de la Meurthe comes straight to mind.

It's not a question of comparing the facts of Napoleon Bonaparte's 1804 execution of the Duke of Enghien, a possible heir to the throne of France, with the Western world abandoning the Syrian people at the beginning of the 21st century. But in both cases, the error that was committed is not only ethical, but above all political. It is not just about values, but also interests.

By killing an innocent prince, Napoleon made the Duke a martyr and turned European opinion against him, or at least the French nobility, which he had started to "tame."

By abandoning to its fate a country and a people whose only crime was, at the time of the Arab Spring, not to accept the brutality, inefficiency and corruption of a despotic regime, Western democracies accelerated their own process of historical decline.

Denouncing the blindness of the British political class on the eve of World War II, Winston Churchill told them: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." In the same way for Syria, we were blind and faced "dishonor, then chaos," as we were unable to understand that maintaining the regime was perpetuating the chaos.

The French city of Saint-Lô, which had been almost entirely destroyed by U.S. bombs on the night of June 5, 1944, was described as the "capital of ruins." Today, Bashar al-Assad deserves the nickname "despot of ruins." After 10 years of deadly fighting that has left nearly 400,000 dead and displaced more than half of the Syrian population, he managed to stay in power thanks to the spinelessness and lack of strategic vision of some and the determination and absolute cynicism of others.

Syrians feel completely abandoned.

But Assad reigns over a destroyed, fragmented and desperate country that feels like it became, for the world of the 21st century, what Poland was for Europe of the 18th century: "God's playground," if not a test field for new weapons.

Syrians no longer expect anything from the international community. They have accepted the fact that no hope could come from the outside. They feel completely abandoned. The only question they are still asking themselves is: Why? Why such a lack of empathy and concern for their suffering, even with the power of the information revolution? No one, in other words, can claim they didn't know what was going on in Syria.

A mural in Idlib to commemorate 10 years since the start of the Syrian civil war — Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa via ZUMA Press

The answer to this question lies in three words: ignorance, prejudice and, most probably, fear.

In the shadow of a regime that silenced all forms of opposition and secession with chemical weapons and targeted attacks, the Syrian civil society had become "invisible" for so long, since the Assad family seized power in 1970. On the one hand, there was an exceptionally brutal regime, and on the other, a people, a bit mysterious, whom we chose not to differentiate from its regime — all in order to avoid facing complicated dilemmas.

The only feature of this people that we retained was of course its most familiar element, their Christian minority. It was an understandable choice, but questionable on the ethical level, and even more so on a political level, if it led to turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by the regime against its citizens. As if all the dead were not equal. But above all, there was the fear of ISIS and Islamists.

Lack of empathy is one thing, lack of strategic vision is another. In Syria's case, one led directly to the other. When French President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, he said that "the regime of Assad, unlike ISIS, was not an enemy of France." As if France, the country of freedom and human rights, could not be the enemy of a president who gassed his citizens?

It only takes a moment of negligence or distraction to lose the legitimacy.

Alongside the Syrian people, who are of course the main victims of the conflict, there are multiple losers and very few winners. It is not easy to rank the errors that were committed, but President Barack Obama's is very high on this list. By refusing to enforce the red line that he himself had set, by not sanctioning (or only very little) the use of chemical weapons against Syrians by Assad's regime, the president of the United States became an accomplice of these crimes. As he inherited excesses in the other direction from his predecessor George W. Bush, it was certainly difficult for him to take the risk of a large-scale military intervention.

But by not taking a stand, with punitive airstrikes, he gave the impression of giving up — an irresponsible act, even more so as it followed years of empty statements. From Washington to Paris via Jerusalem, didn't the leaders of the Western world take turns announcing the imminent and inevitable end of Bashar al-Assad's regime? It only takes one moment of negligence or distraction to lose the legitimacy and credibility that we took years to build.

On the winning side are Russia and the three non-Arab regional powers of the Middle East: Iran, Turkey and, somewhat paradoxically, Israel, which has benefited doubly from the growing regional fragmentation and the unifying fear against Iran. On the "losing" side, the lack of strategic vision only reflected an absence of moral clarity.

By abandoning Syrians to their tragic fate, Western democracies have not only betrayed their values but also their interests. The Syrian tragedy will remain an accelerator of the loss of confidence in the democratic West.

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