When it comes to Syria, the media has come down with a case of bipolarity. Whenever something horrible bubbles up through the cable news filter, suddenly every anchor goes volcanic with outrage and every foreign analyst appears ashen with somberness. It is resolved that Bashar al-Assad must go, that Barack Obama’s red line was a farce, that the United States must “do something”—and then cut to commercial before the details of that “something” can be hashed out. This goes on for a couple days before the amnesia once again kicks in and the wall-to-wall coverage of Devin Nunes’ ubiquitous coffee cup returns.
So it was when Aleppo was being bombed, and so it is this week, after news emerged that Assad had used chemical weapons against a rebel town in northern Syria. The press flew to the battlements, dashed-off foreign policy cheat sheets in hand (CNN yesterday: “England is our closest ally”), and began to fulminate.
They’re right to do so. The images from that chemical attack—toddlers dead, convulsing men close to it—are painful, and the assurance of the Russian government that this was somehow accidental, triggered when the regime unwittingly bombed a rebel-held chemical store, is absurd. The Assad regime has once again sashayed over Obama’s red line. Yet it’s President Trump who comes in for criticism now. The gas attack came mere days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intimated in Turkey that Assad could stay in power, a departure from Obama’s posture-on-your-posterior strategy and in sync with Trump’s general approach to the Middle East, which favors autocracies as bulwarks against Islamic terrorism.
There’s something to that. In Egypt, the el-Sisi military dictatorship is hell-bent on fighting bloodthirsty Islamic radicalism in the Sinai Peninsula, and in Libya, prospective strongman Khalifa Haftar rails against his country’s jihadists. I’ve argued in the past against the United States taking military action against Assad, lest it create a vacuum into which the jihadists further slip, just as they have in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
But that argument is less relevant today than it used to be. Should Assad be pressured out? The answer as far as Syria’s civil war is concerned is that it probably doesn’t matter anymore. Assad’s government, though to a degree it keeps Sunni terrorists out of western Syria, is really no longer much of a government at all. The regime’s functions have been hollowed out, leaving the military and security services, and even those are desperate for recruits. A friend who has traveled extensively in the Middle East reports that young men are increasingly fleeing Damascus, lest they be caught on the streets by regime agents and conscripted into military service. Civil society, on all sides of the battlements, has crumbled.
Syria, like Libya, has splintered into a game of militias, with Assad’s regime only the largest of those presently fighting the rebellion. Changing Trump’s policy and pulling off the diplomatic triumph of retiring Assad would be a powerful symbolic blow, and grounding the regime’s air force might even do some (extremely) short-term good, but it would little change the course of Syria’s greater war, which at this point is being waged over larger matters than a personality—defenses of towns, the ever-present bogey of sectarianism, that second one in particular. The jihadists are going to fight on with or without their most attractive target and Russian jets will simply pick up whatever slack Assad might lose. And then there’s Turkey, the Kurds, the Iranians, Hezbollah. Anyone who believes the United States can meaningfully change behavior amidst this chaos is deluding himself.
It’s funny, what the media ends up seeing through its Syria keyhole. Assad’s chemical attacks are a reprehensible atrocity; so, too, were the nearly three dozen people slaughtered in Damascus last month by rebel-aligned suicide bombers, yet they merited almost no coverage. Elsewhere, humanitarians often refer to Syria’s “four towns,” a quartet of starving villages that are being sieged, two by the regime and two by the rebels. That symmetry is characteristic of the Syrian civil war, where the images infuriate, the heart aches, but the good guys and the options for availing them are sought in vain.