Instead, the United States joined with Russia, a close ally of Assad, to implement an international solution to the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons, resulting in UN Security Council Resolution 2118 , which obliged Syria to dismantle its chemical arsenal. This outcome had the advantages of dealing with Assad’s crimes through the fabric of public international law and allowing Obama to claim a diplomatic success . But it also allowed Russia to protect its Syrian ally from an armed attack and gave Assad the green light to continue his war of reconquest. In short, the international system worked: all sides got want they wanted—except, of course, the ordinary civilians who remained vulnerable to the predations of the ruthless Syrian regime.
American armaments began to rain down in Syria the following year, but only once the Islamic State (ISIS) had made vast territorial gains in the region. In the eyes of the West, the rise of ISIS transformed the Syrian war from a humanitarian crisis into a bona fide security threat that could no longer be ignored. Not only did ISIS threaten to topple the U.S.-backed government in neighboring Iraq, but the group also claimed several high-profile terror attacks against Western targets. Faced with such a threat, the United States was galvanized into military action.
Even so, the Obama administration took care not to attack Syrian government positions for fear of provoking conflict with Russia. The U.S.-led intervention was specifically targeted against ISIS. Efforts were made to “ deconflict” operations conducted by the United States, Russia, and other intervening parties such as Iran and Turkey. In due course, a situation was worked out whereby external powers would attack the various non-state actors operating inside Syria (ISIS, anti-government rebels) with relative impunity, each tacitly acknowledging that others could and would do the same.
The sovereignty of the Assad government was thus violated but not altogether rejected. No external participant in the Syrian Civil War launched direct, sustained attacks against the sovereign Assad regime. In this sense, Assad’s patrons in Moscow ensured that the rules of the international system stood fast and continued to work in favor of the nominally sovereign government in Damascus.
By the time President Trump came into office in January 2017, it was clear that the international community privileged certain international norms over others when it came to the Syrian crisis. In six years of fighting, external powers had conceded that meddling in Syria’s internal affairs would take place, that chemical weapons usage would be prohibited, but that the sovereignty and survival of the Assad regime would not be challenged. This was the bargain. Nothing meaningful had been done to end the suffering of the Syrian people.
Trump’s two military strikes against the government of Syria are instructive in this regard. In 2017 and 2018 , Trump ordered airstrikes against Assad’s military installations with the express purpose of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. For Trump and his supporters, Assad’s use of chemical weapons was beyond the pale—a barbarous and unlawful act that must be punished by military force. But it is telling that Assad’s other crimes (of which there are many) have never drawn a direct military response from America, its allies, or, indeed, any other external actor. Against Assad, only pinprick missile strikes are possible for as long as he enjoys the backing of Moscow.
This is the stark reality that the Syrian crisis has helped to bring into focus: while international society can agree on the unacceptability of chemical weapons, there is no such intersubjective belief among the world’s governments that action is required to stop half a million civilians from being killed by other means. Mass murders, indiscriminate killing, collective punishments, rapes, starvation, torture—all of these atrocities and more have gone unpunished by the primary stewards of international order because there is no practicable rule for their prevention. It is not necessarily that world leaders do not care about the Syrian people, just that not enough of them have agreed upon a viable set of rules to put the interests of ordinary people first.
Perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the world’s great powers are right to elevate some concerns (the balance of power, stable relations among leading states, the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity) above humanitarianism. Maybe international order, stability, and continuity are goals that truly serve the greater good. But even if so, it is nevertheless important to recognize the present international order for what it is—a bundle of formal rules and loose standards of behavior that has done little to lessen the suffering in Syria and might even have made the humanitarian situation worse than it would otherwise have been.
It is in this monstrous sense that the international system has worked in Syria. Procedures have been put in place to allow non-state (non-sovereign) belligerents such as ISIS and anti-government rebels to be pummeled by external powers. Resolutions have been passed to limit the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons even as thousands are killed by conventional means. And, thankfully, there has been no great power war because of the Syrian quagmire. All of this is a result of the international system working as it should. So too, though, is the immense and ongoing suffering of the Syrian people.