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bashar al-assad HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Demise of Western Illusions in Syria

In the absence of viable alternatives, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will necessarily have a role to play in the country's immediate future, despite his brutal crimes. The West must therefore acknowledge reality, abandon its objective of regime change, and commit to serious negotiations.

MADRID – In March 2018, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had himself filmed as he drove his car through the rubble-filled streets of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. At that time, seven years after the start of Syria’s civil war, Assad’s forces were gaining ground from rebel groups who had been under siege there for half a decade. The images, showing the triumphant return of an apparently relaxed Assad, were clearly propaganda. However, they also summarized these tragic years of conflict: Syria has been devastated, but Assad is still there.

Numbers alone cannot capture the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster, but they provide necessary perspective. In 2011, when the war began, Syria had 21 million inhabitants. Nearly eight years later, approximately half a million of them had died from violence (caused mainly by pro-Assad forces), more than 5.5 million have been registered as refugees, and more than six million are internally displaced. These numbers reflect the failure of an “international community” that, in Syria and so many other contexts, has proved unworthy of its name.

Profound divisions in the United Nations Security Council have prevented a concerted response to the Syrian crisis. To a large degree, these are the result of NATO’s military intervention in Libya, which was authorized by the Security Council – with Russia and China abstaining – just when hostilities in Syria were beginning. The intervention in Libya exceeded its humanitarian mandate and became fixated on removing the country’s leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was brutally murdered shortly after rebels captured him.

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