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Syria’s bloody downward spiral farther into hell

For some time, the best the media could say about Syria’s gruesome conflict was: “At least it’s grinding to a close.” This supposed light at the end of the tunnel has been the international community’s sole justification for failing to lift a finger to halt the carnage. So how come the UN’s human rights commissioner declared the past fortnight to be one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict?
International negligence has allowed this ugly war to escalate into a murderous new phase on four fronts: Fighting between Turkey and its proxies against US-backed Kurdish forces; efforts by Iranian proxy forces and the Assad regime to consolidate their gains from west to east through central Syria; emerging conflict in the Lebanon-Israel-Golan border region between Israel, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and other factions; and the mutation of extremists into new entities since the displacement of Daesh from its core territories.
This is in addition to escalations on old battlefronts, including renewed onslaughts by pro-Assad forces in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, causing thousands of civilian casualties. Assad and Putin have reverted to old habits of targeting medical facilities and population centers using both conventional and chemical munitions — safe in the knowledge that the world has ceased caring.
The appalling depravity of this endless, mindless war defies comprehension: The baby with its legs blown off rushed to hospital by a frantic father, only for both to be slaughtered when the hospital itself is bombed; teenage girls coerced by mothers into selling their bodies in the flesh markets of Beirut; traumatized and vengeful youths recruited as mercenaries by foreign powers fighting over scraps of Syrian territory; a generation of children knowing only abominable war.
The proliferation of arms and funding for a dizzying number of proxy conflicts adds fuel to the Syrian furnace. Inept American efforts to arm successive rebel factions have allowed heavy weapons to fall into extremist hands with depressing regularity: US arms flaunted by Daesh one day are brandished by Shiite militants the next. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Daesh veterans and foreign profiteers oversee billion-dollar smuggling operations; dealing in advanced weaponry, banned armaments, contraband materials, even trafficking refugees who encounter indescribable exploitation.
Peace efforts have lapsed into farce, with no tangible momentum via UN channels. Russia, Iran and Turkey have been allowed to hijack the diplomatic agenda through their highly partisan Sochi process, which is boycotted by opposition factions and rooted in the assumption of a war criminal remaining in power.
Shifting realities have produced radically new strategic realignments. Russia is torn between close ties with both Iran and Israel. NATO allies Ankara and Washington are facing off in a proxy conflict. Former Daesh fighters have reappeared fighting on Turkey’s behalf. Meanwhile Assad stirs the pot between these warring factions.
If we fail to decisively grasp this filthy, corrupting conflict, it will haunt us for decades to come, further destabilizing the region and spawning even more noxious species of anarchy and global terrorism.
Baria Alamuddin
Symptomatic of Syria’s current strategic disarray was a Feb. 7 confrontation in which US-backed forces killed more than 200 regime fighters who had launched a coordinated assault against rebel positions near the Deir Ezzor oil fields. It later emerged that “dozens” of Russian mercenaries may have been killed in this battle after Kurdish forces called in US airstrikes. By devolving combat responsibility to unaccountable Russian private security firms such as the Wagner Group, Putin can claim to have taken a step back from the conflict. Yet Russian fatalities are increasing — at least 300 since 2015, including 15 in the Deir Ezzor operation.
Russia successfully deployed decisive air power to favor Assad and acquire a permanent Middle Eastern foothold. However, Putin has no strategy for winding down the war and divesting himself of the conflict’s massive costs. Moscow’s policy of “de-escalation zones” is routinely undermined by close allies — and by Russia itself. Instead of Russia reining in its Shiite paramilitary allies, pro-Iranian forces act with growing independence, provoking conflict with Israel and widening Iranian influence at Moscow’s expense.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov risks drowning in his own hypocritical cynicism when he accuses the Americans of wanting to stay for ever. Yet US strategy is indecisively buffeted between Trump’s instincts to avoid foreign entanglements, and the urge to contain Tehran’s expansive ambitions. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley recently warned against naively pursuing peace while “the chief sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East and its terrorist militia are digging in.”
Fluid battlefronts bring new neighborhoods into the line of fire, forcing civilians to flee once again or face starvation in besieged enclaves. Around half a million Syrians are dead, although nobody is counting any more, with 13 million displaced indefinitely. As a journalist you never truly become numb to the incessant stream of images of families torn into gelatinous fragments, and traumatized children with gangrenous stumps for limbs. Outsiders understandably want to shut their eyes to this barbaric insanity. Yet the world cannot look away. The public must shame global leaders into action.
Daesh stands to benefit immensely from this disarray, particularly after Turkey’s blundering intervention. Even before such strategic stupidity distracted coalition forces from prioritizing Daesh, cohorts of extremist fighters had been allowed to depart conflict zones — sometimes in convoys of coaches! While some extremists relocate to reap mayhem overseas, others are regrouping elsewhere in Syria. As past Islamist rivalries (notably between Al-Qaeda and Daesh) fade into irrelevance, there is a risk that extremist movements will be allowed to consolidate themselves, before spreading cancerously across the region, triggering renewed bouts of foreign intervention. Syria may be hell, but thanks to our negligence, this is a hell capable of plumbing entirely new depths of human misery.  
I will not pretend that there is a magic solution; that the conflict can be solved simply by gathering opponents around a table and demanding tough concessions. Diplomacy will need to be more muscular than the international community has hitherto had the stomach for. Long-term rivals such as America and Russia must bury their differences and acknowledge the risks of allowing Syria to fester and deteriorate. Indeed, this conflict will only de-escalate when all foreign belligerents are banished from the Syrian theater — with Iran first to be kicked out the door. Massive funding and effort will be required for stabilization and reconstruction. It will take all of this and much, much more.
But if we fail to decisively grasp this filthy, corrupting conflict, it will haunt us for decades to come, further destabilizing the region and spawning even more noxious species of anarchy and global terrorism. The efforts required to bring peace to Syria are massively daunting. The consequences of failing to act are infinitely more fearsome.
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.