It turns out the world could have saved Syria all along

The scale of the death and destruction in Syria is unfathomable. While the United Nations stopped counting the dead in 2016 and the casualties of the revolution-turned-proxy-war are notoriously hard to calculate, it’s an extremely conservative estimate that half a million people have been killed—approximately 2.5 percent of Syria’s prewar population. 

Another 6.7 million refugees, one third of the population, have fled the country and another 6.1 million have been internally displaced, some of them multiple times. All of that was before this latest round of fighting in Idlib. Since December, more than 900,000 civilians have been displaced by the relentless military campaign waged by the regime of Bashar Assad and its allies Iran and Russia. 

Add to all of this the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of physical injuries, the diseases, the starvation, and the fear, and the nearly infinite psychological damage, and Syria easily ranks as one of the most appalling conflicts since the Second World War. 

In a conflict that is unpredictable and always changing, there are only two rules: no matter how unbelievably bad everything is, if you wait a few months it will get worse—and the world will ignore it. 

For nearly a decade the world has watched the horrors of the Syrian war play out on grainy YouTube videos and done little to stop the horror. While some estimate that Assad’s government is responsible for up to 92 percent of the deaths in Syria, the international community has only intervened to fight the terrorist organisation Islamic State, allowing the majority of the killing to go unchecked. While weapons and supplies have, from time to time, been provided by various nations to various groups fighting in Syria, the only outside forces that seem truly committed to winning the conflict are Iran and Russia—and their actions have driven the killing in Syria to new extremes.  

Worse yet, unlike other modern mass killings, Syria is not in some remote area. It is at the crossroads of the world. Each bomb that falls on civilians in Syria is dropped from planes that are within range of NATO anti-aircraft batteries. The Syrian atrocity is like a murder happening on the steps of a police station, where those capable of stopping the killing simply watch through their windows and wag their fingers. 

The international community has had many opportunities to limit Assad’s war-making capabilities, or even to remove him from power. Syria has repeatedly crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons against the civilian populace, most famously in 2013. Each time the response has been little more than a pinprick in the arm of a murderous regime and the crisis is the result of that inaction.

Every time there is such an incident, there are those who offer up excuses for our collective inaction. 

One such excuse is that foreign intervention in the Middle East has brought little but agony and death. If one just looks at Syria’s neighbour Iraq, it’s hard to argue against this point. However, when the whole world failed to intervene to stop the killing in Syria, Iran and Russia intervened to intensify it. The lack of an international intervention to make things better has allowed certain interested parties to intervene to make things worse. 

Another reason given to justify inaction is that any intervention in Syria could risk a wider war with Iran and Russia. Since Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, this is a prudent fear. Who would risk nuclear war with Russia to save civilians in Syria?

There is a moral and strategic problem with this argument: if the possession of nuclear weapons means that a country can do whatever it wants, what is to stop future genocides? Furthermore, isn’t this the perfect argument for every nation to possess its own nuclear weapons?

The second problem with this argument is simply that it’s not true. Israel and Turkey, and even the United States, have repeatedly intervened successfully in Syria without sparking World War III. In the last two weeks alone, both Israel and Turkey have struck the Syrian regime and its allies without starting a wider war.

On Feb. 23, responding to dozens of rockets fired into Israeli territory, Israel struck multiple targets near Damascus connected to the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Israel routinely strikes targets belonging to PIJ, Hezbollah, and even the Syrian regime, and has done so for years. Only once, in 2018, has an Israeli aircraft successfully been shot down, sparking the most direct conflict between Israel and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But that incident was short lived, and since then Israel and its adversaries have fallen back into a more familiar pattern of back-and-forth low-level fighting that has been the status quo for all of recent memory.

The situation with Turkey has been palpably more tense in recent months. In October 2019, Turkish forces crossed the Syrian border and occupied large parts of northern Syria. Since then, Turkey and Russia have been in a delicate dance, each trying to execute its own agenda in Syria without coming to blows. Parallel to this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been building a partnership, cooperating on both energy and security. Most famously, the S400—one of the world’s most powerful anti-aircraft systems, which Turkey procured from Russia —is set to be operational in April, a major slight to Turkey’s NATO allies. 

In recent weeks this balance has once again become untenable. Last week at least 34 Turkish troops were killed in Syria and earlier in February 21 more were killed by Syrian regime air and artillery strikes.

In response, Turkey launched a massive air attack utilising swarms of drones as well as fixed-wing aircraft operating from Turkey. They destroyed significant numbers of Syrian government tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons. They shot down multiple Syrian air force jets and grounded the rest. Turkey, with no international support, managed to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and they managed to do it without sparking a war with Russia.

One expert who has been closely tracking the Turkish offensive is Kyle Glen, co-founder of Conflict News, an organisation that collects, curates, and analyses open-source intelligence from conflict zones. In just a few days, Glen documented the destruction of three Syrian jets as well as countless dozens of armoured vehicles, tanks, and antiaircraft weapons. 

“In a short four-minute video alone I counted 18 vehicles destroyed, five tanks, five artillery systems, four BMPs, and four vehicles which looked like pick-up trucks,” Glen told Ahval. Glen also stressed that there was no sign of direct confrontation between Russian and Turkish forces. Though it is clear to him that Russia is sharing intelligence with its Syrian allies, there were no signs of direct confrontation between the two powers. Russia, like it has so many times in the past, has continued to support its ally Assad but has turned a blind eye to foreign intervention.

Based on Thursday’s ceasefire announcement brokered by Erdoğan and Putin, Turkey may or may not be backing down from enforcing this no-fly zone. But for a brief moment Turkey—without the aid of the United Nations, Europe, or NATO—did what everyone in the world said was impossible: it managed to protect the lives of innocents in Syria without triggering a wider conflict. 

It turns out, we could have been doing that all along.