Skip to main content

Last month, it was revealed that U.S. President Donald Trump had quietly ended his government's four-year-old program to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime. The covert program initiated under former president Barack Obama and overseen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had aimed to support the moderate – read non-Islamist – opposition in Syria's civil war. But it never enjoyed the full backing of Mr. Obama and, from the start, lacked the means and political will to make a difference.

"The end of the program thus represents both a pragmatic concession to military reality and a decision by the United States to abandon Syria to Russia," Fabrice Balanche, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. "The most important consequence, however, is the loss of Washington's credibility to its proxies in the Middle East."

The end of the CIA program coincides with the resignation of Carla del Ponte from the United Nations Commission investigating war crimes in Syria. A force of nature, the Swiss prosecutor gained prominence for her dogged pursuit of war criminals from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But in spite of uncovering even worse horrors in Syria, she threw in the towel in the face of the UN Security Council's failure to refer evidence collected by her commission (formally known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic) to the International Criminal Court. Russia's veto on the council made sure of that.

"Every six months, we file a report to the [UN] Human Rights Council. Every six months, we ask for justice for the victims. Nothing happens," Ms. del Ponte said in an interview this week with the public-radio service France Culture. "I don't know what the solution is. [Putting] pressure on the Security Council? I'm doing it at my humble level by resigning."

Taken together, the U.S. decision to end all support for the Syrian rebels and Ms. del Ponte's resignation painfully underscore the West's abdication in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis the world now faces. Now into its seventh year, Syria's civil war has left more than 400,000 dead and displaced half of the country's population, forcing more than six million people to flee their homes within the country and another five million refugees to flee the country altogether, mostly to Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Most will never go home again.

None of this was inevitable. At its outset, in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict pitted the politically moderate Free Syrian Army against Mr. al-Assad's repressive regime. If the West was going to intervene on the right side of history, this was the moment to do it. But a dithering Mr. Obama, reluctant to repeat real or imagined U.S. errors in Iraq and Libya, let the conflict and the voids it created allow multiple terrorist groups to take root. The Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front squeezed out the anti-Assad moderates, leaving the West no good options as Russian President Vladimir Putin's army came to the aid of Mr. al-Assad.

"At the beginning, there were good and bad and now they're all bad," Ms. del Ponte said. "Today, both sides are committing [war] crimes because there is total impunity in Syria."

Apart from Mr. Trump's one-off bombing of a Syrian air base in April, in response to the Assad regime's chemical-weapons attack on civilians, the U.S. administration seems to have washed its hands of the Syrian conflict. North Korea's Kim Jong-un provides a much better foil for an attention-challenged Mr. Trump, who still seems to believe he can be friends with Mr. Putin. Indeed, his decision to pull the plug on the CIA program came after his meeting with Mr. Putin at last month's Group of Twenty summit in Germany. He subsequently tweeted that the Washington Post, which broke the story, had "fabricated the facts on my ending [the] massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad…"

This chronology is important to emphasize, if not to lay blame for the Syrian tragedy – history will take care of that – then to provide a chilling reminder of what can happen when the United States and its allies choose to look the other way as atrocities are committed. No definition of the U.S. national-security interest, no matter how narrow, can justify the United States' inaction in Syria.

"We thought the international community had learned from Rwanda," Ms. del Ponte said in a separate interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick. "But no, it learned nothing."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe