Syria's tragedy, America's crime: The collapse of national sovereignty

We understand less about the carnage in Syria than we should: Did U.S. intervention cause all this suffering?

Published February 25, 2018 6:00AM (EST)

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense group extinguishing a store during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
Members of the Syrian Civil Defense group extinguishing a store during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Of all the tragedies befalling Syria and its people over the past seven years, there is one that cannot — or cannot precisely — be measured in casualty counts, ruined towns and cities, or the number of refugees now wandering the world in search of sanctuary. This is the collapse of the twin principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Syria is now a gaudy carnival of masks for the anarchic abuse of international law. In my analysis this will echo down the years, more or less indefinitely and well beyond Syria, as a big step down in the decline of global order as the West has shaped and long managed it. If there is a more positive face to put on this, it is the possibility that Syria’s tragedy will prove so dreadful as to force a change in what is considered acceptable international conduct.

A few weeks ago it was possible to posit that the war in Syria was near its end, the usual mop-up phase all that remained to get done. This still seems a valid appraisal of what we have before us. But these final months — let us hope we count in months — are proving godawful in their messiness. The latest testament of this is the escalation since last week of hostilities in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, long a stronghold of anti-government militias with a pronounced habit of hiding behind civilians. Once again, in this apparent horror we must read the original sins of unlawful interventions.

At this point Syria resembles a sadistic circus. Americans announce they will maintain troops in Syria indefinitely even after the Islamic State, nominally Washington’s primary reason for sending in soldiers, is dispatched into history. In the fight against ISIS the Syrian Kurds proved decisive, as is well known, and now the Turks intrude in northern Syria to destroy the Kurds. In the south the Israelis, like clockwork, escalate bombing sorties in Syrian airspace against Syrian and Iranian forces, apparently intent on expanding a new front just as the war draws to a close and peace talks show glimmers of promise.

The three foreign interventions just described now fill daily press reports from the region. Each one is an open-and-shut breach of international law. I mentioned the original sins committed during Syria’s seven-year nightmare. We need to review these to understand what it is we witness now. While one cannot say for sure, I am halfway certain that had those earlier crimes not been perpetrated, the news from Syria today would be other than what it is.

“America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of U.S. efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That is understandable, because U.S. efforts are in blatant violation of international law, which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members’ governments. Much of the carnage that has ravaged Syria during the past seven years is due to the actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.”

That is Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist who now focuses on sustainable development strategies, writing in Project Syndicate last week. I have never quite forgiven Sachs for his role in insinuating calamitous doses of “shock therapy” on parts of Eastern Europe and what had been the Soviet Union after its demise. But it is a pleasure to quote him here. Sachs is the ne plus ultra among thinking liberals. For him to state the case so frankly suggests that we as a nation may finally be inching toward the truth of what we have watched in Syria since the start of hostilities in 2011.

Wouldn’t that be something?

I have only one complaint about Sachs’ Project Syndicate piece. It does not hold that the policy cliques, intelligence services and pols in Washington could conceal transgressions as gross as those the U.S. and its European and Arab allies have incessantly committed in Syria. We cannot possibly talk of an innocent citizenry duped wholesale for seven years. There is a volition question to consider. Distorting orthodoxies have prevailed because too many of us wanted to believe them. Too many of us averted our eyes. The proof of this lies in those few of us who have looked and seen.

*  *  *

Hostilities between the Assad government in Damascus and some Syrians erupted, as they did in numerous neighboring nations, in the course of the Arab Spring. What ensued in Syria could have been termed a civil war only for a brief interim. By 2012, and possibly earlier, the Obama administration authorized the first CIA operations intended to depose the Assad government.

To this we must add Turkey’s interventions, motivated partly by Ankara’s animosity toward the Kurdish minority and partly by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daydreams of a neo-Ottoman restoration across the region. Erdoğan, we learned in the course of things, was trans-shipping weapons to the Islamic State and buying the oil it trucked to Turkey’s southern border from seized Syrian refineries. Then the Saudis and Qataris, intent on turning Syria into a Sunni-Shia battleground to counter Iran’s inevitable rise as a regional power and replace the secular government in Damascus with another religious state. And then, of course, the Israelis, who vigorously oppose Iran and by all appearances do not want to see stable governments endure on or near its borders.

I wonder if it is possible to tote up this many foreign interventions with this mixed bag of motivations in any other conflict in modern history. The enemy of my enemy is my friend has led to what may count as the worst international crisis of the post–Cold War era.

We have known from the first that the Saudis, Qataris and Turks had undertaken their efforts in Syria in behalf of jihadist militias intent on establishing Islamists in Damascus. In the American case, the fiction long prevailed that the CIA and Pentagon interventions were in support of “moderate rebels.” These were first named the Free Syrian Army, but the "FSA” has almost from the first meant whatever one wants it to mean, and its ranks (so far as one can speak of such a thing) are heavily populated with jihadists. Patrick Cockburn, the noted Middle East correspondent for the Independent, pointed out years ago that there is no such thing as a moderate rebel in the Syrian war, and he has never been seriously challenged. At this point, you will note, the Western press covering the war refers only to “rebels,” a term that obscures more than it reveals, just as intended. Every time it is used, speaking as a former practitioner, it amounts to a breach of professional ethics.

I have omitted, by design, two other foreign interventions. The Iranians have been active in Syria from an early stage of the conflict. The Russians surprised us all on Sept. 30, 2015, when they ran their first bombing sorties against the Islamic State and other anti–Damascus targets. In time, Russian support for the Syrian government turned the tide. It is very unlikely the Syrian Arab Army would be as close to victory as it is now without Moscow’s backing for the Assad government.

There are two things to note about these interventions. One, they are legal: Russians and Iranians are in Syria at the request of a sovereign government. Moscow and Tehran have observed international law scrupulously throughout the Syrian conflict and, indeed, the Russians have made a point of saying so on numerous occasions. I see a couple of reasons for this. Practically speaking, neither the Iranians nor the Russians can afford to lay themselves open to charges of lawlessness, given the war of images the West has long waged against both. In addition, to judge by the discernible realities, Tehran and Moscow view international law as fundamental to a sustainable resolution of the Syrian conflict (and others, we might add).

This leads to the second point. What do these two nations want to accomplish in Syria? One can go straight to self-interest to find the answers. Syria hosts a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, and Moscow will no more give it up to a U.S.-installed puppet government than it allowed the same to deprive it of naval facilities in Crimea after the U.S.-cultivated coup in Ukraine four years ago this month. Iran vastly prefers a secular government in Damascus to a Sunni-nationalist regime — hardly a point that is difficult to reckon.

One must cut through dense jungles of mis- and disinformation to see the broader point, but there is one. I see little evidence that either Tehran or Moscow holds a bright candle for Bashar al-Assad, but they are committed to stabilizing a region now descended into riotous disorder due largely to the aforementioned interventions. Moscow’s efforts to enlist Tehran and Ankara to lead peace talks parallel to the UN’s ever-faltering efforts can be interpreted no other way. The Iranians have long urged the Saudis and other regional powers to negotiate regional security agreements that put an end to long-running animosities and distrust.

There are interventions and there are interventions, in short. It is our responsibility to distinguish between what is legal and constructively motivated from what is neither, even as we have virtually no help from our media in doing so. The paradox is this: The soundest judgment we can make begins with the recognition that sound judgments are difficult, given how poorly informed we are — this altogether by design.

*  *  *

This brings us back to Eastern Ghouta. What do we now witness?

We read all last week that the Assad government has once again launched a merciless attack on noncombatants trapped in a war zone with no way to exit. Women, children, hospitals, nonstop air strikes, barrel bombs: All the familiar tropes are there in the Western coverage. And we must not forget this one: The primary sources of these reports are anti-Assad activists, aid workers, the “White Helmets” and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a one-man operation in Britain that harvests information via telephone from the same sources. None of these sources can be counted impartial. All of the week’s press reports, so far as I can make out with no exception, were written remotely. None I read cited a Syrian government official as to what is going on and why.

What is going on is harrowing: I have seen no account of the past week’s events arguing otherwise. The death toll runs into the hundreds. We are supposed to think Russia is in denial about this. We are supposed to think its UN envoy “dismissed the reports as disinformation and propaganda” in an emergency Security Council session on Thursday, according to a New York Times report. This, in a phrase, is disinformation and propaganda by virtue of what it leaves out. Vasily Nebenzya did nothing of the kind. He merely complained that “the mass psychosis in global media outlets acting in coordination … in no way does anything to help improve understanding of the situation.” This is very different and appears to be closer to the truth. A senior official in the Russian Defense Ministry described the situation as “getting critical” the same day Nebenzya spoke. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced a similar judgment repeatedly during the week.

What is it Nebenzya thinks we need to understand beyond what we read? This is the logical question.

By the Russians’ account, what we read is purposely exaggerated and grossly incomplete. The air campaign, they maintain, is in response to steady rocket fire from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus. The civilian death toll in the capital is considerable and mounting, by non-Western accounts. The anti-Assad rebels — and this is hardly new if rarely reported — often operate from schools and hospitals. They include known terrorist groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra. They have refused to cooperate with Russian efforts to establish a ceasefire and safe corridors for the evacuation of civilians (as they did and as the Russians did in Aleppo just over a year ago).

Western press reports include the merest flicks at rebel rocket fire into Damascus, but even these passing mentions, always well buried, suggest there is more to what we think we understand. One of the only balanced reports in the Western press, and the best by far, was written by Robert Fisk, another noted correspondent at the Independent, and published late last week.

Things did not appear much more hopeful at the UN last week.

Late on Saturday the Security Council adopted a resolution, drafted by Sweden and Kuwait, calling for a month-long truce and safe passage for humanitarian aid and medical evacuations. This ended several days of intense negotiation. Earlier reports suggested the U.S. refused to accept amendments proposed by Russia to guarantee a halt to the rocket fire from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus. There is no such guarantee in the final resolution. Nebenzya, unsurprisingly, voted for the resolution with no apparent enthusiasm and skeptical that anything that did not restrain the militias in Ghouta would make much difference. “Utopian” was Nebenzya’s term for the final document.

Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had earlier asserted that the Swedish–Kuwaiti resolution was drafted to shift focus from the peace process, sluggish as it may proceed, and to preserve the militias in Eastern Ghouta as a force to continue acting against Assad. Nebenzya repeated this view Saturday. Given what was omitted from the resolution, this assessment is at the very least plausible enough to deserve our consideration.

*  *  *

If ever we have needed a reminder of how deeply in the dark we are as to events in Syria, last week has provided it. But I draw another, larger lesson. Syria’s tragic fate has made the enforcement of international law as a commonly recognized norm an urgent need. At the same time, it underscores how far from reality it probably is to expect UN institutions to serve as the technology to get this done. Nation-states are the inventions of a previous age, but observing the conventions of sovereignty remains essential to global order. If there is success somewhere far down the road, Syria will stand as a painfully achieved mile marker — the point where the era of foreign-sponsored coups ended, the point where multipolar solutions to international conflicts became a 21st-century imperative.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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