Tehran has given Syria's regime political, financial, and military backing throughout the country's seven-year uprising. Photo: iStock
Tehran has given Syria's regime political, financial, and military backing throughout the country's seven-year uprising. Photo: iStock

The Syrian civil war is in its eighth year and there is no sign that a settlement of the conflict is on the horizon. Intense intra-state conflict, foreign interventions by great and regional powers, and the emergence of terrorist organizations have shaped the strategic landscape of this important Middle Eastern state.

Great power’s games have many times overshadowed the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict. More than 400.000 people have been killed in Syria, a tremendous number when you take into consideration that in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), one of the longest interstate wars of the 20th century, 367.000 died.

Chemical weapons attacks

Apart from the general atrocities, one may consider the use of chemical weapons at various times in the conflict. Last Saturday in Duma in Eastern Guta, one of the last pockets held by the rebels, dozens of people were killed in airstrikes carried out by the regime. According to local sources, the victims suffered asphyxia and other severe symptoms indicating that they were exposed to chemical weapons.

At this point, we must remember that on April 4 last year in Khan Seikhoun, a town in north-western Syria, 80 people died in a suspected chemical attack blamed on the Assad regime. After this incident, US President Donald Trump ordered a strike consisting of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian air force base in Homs, from which the Assad regime had carried out the attack.

Great power games 

Let’s return to the present, the attack in Duma. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has exercised its veto power several times at the UN Security Council to defend the regime, said the accusations were false and intended to justify armed intervention in Syria. He also claimed that Jaish al-Islam, a terrorist organization, could have been behind the attack.

The White House said all options were on the table after the Syria chemical attack

The White House said all options were on the table after the Syria chemical attack. In an interview on ABC’s This Week, White House security adviser Tom Bossert said: “Donald Trump’s national security team had been reviewing photos and information about the incident.”
The US president strongly criticized Putin and Iran, “who are backing Animal Assad,” warning that a “big price” would be paid for the atrocity.

At this point, we must recall that the use of chemical weapons was one of the “red lines” drawn by former president Barak Obama, who threatened the regime with the use of force if they were used.
In 2013, after a chemical attack in Ghuta was blamed on the Assad regime, Obama declared that President Bashar al-Assad had crossed the red line, announcing that he would ask Congress to authorize him to use force against Syria. The American armed intervention was avoided at the last minute due to an international agreement reached by the US and Russia on September 14,  2013, that provided for the removal and destruction of 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in Syria.

At the same time, Syria was forced to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The big question is whether Assad abided by the agreement. Did Assad destroy all his chemical weapons? The attack at Duma seems to indicate otherwise. Generally, there are serious doubts about whether Assad complied with the agreement, while many NGOs blame the regime for various suspected chemical attacks, the Khan Seychoun attack in April 2017 included.

Innocent people killed

As the war rumbles on, innocent people, including women and children, are being killed and wounded, and many more are being subjected to unacceptable indignities. It would be a glaring omission to not mention the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced to abandon their homes due to the conflict. Furthermore, ISIS’s emergence in the Middle East – as a byproduct of the general chaos of the war – led to hundreds of rapes and to the destruction of the most significant cultural heritage sites in Syria and Iraq.

The international community must act with an iron will to stop the crimes against humanity being committed in Syria. As we know from history, humanitarian intervention is a complex political process that can do more harm than good and sometimes provides a cover for the nefarious activities of the great powers. In any case, humanitarian intervention is not possible at the moment because of the divergent national interests of the great powers in Syria. However, something must be done in order to stabilize the situation in Syria and save innocent people from becoming “collateral damage.”

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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