Since last week, galvanized Syrian regime forces entered into a new phase in the seven-year conflict, trying to quash what is left of rebel resistance in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The capital, the Syrian state argues, has been suffering attacks from “terrorists” living in the suburb and as such has launched an aggressive offensive to asphyxiate what they see as belligerent elements. However, this week was more horrifying than others as it looked more like Aleppo 2.0 given that the number of civilian casualties has been more than 500 people – 100+ of them being children – and more than 2,400 wounded.
As a result, the United Nations (UN) Security Council held emergency talks in New York City this week to try and pass a resolution that would effectively impose a 30-day ceasefire to deliver much needed humanitarian aid and facilitate medical evacuations for those who are critically ill and wounded. After protracted talks that pundits viewed as Russia’s attempt to stall and amend some of the language to the interest of the Syrian regime, the resolution finally passed. And even so, the Syrian regime continued its military offensive over Ghouta which saw an additional nine people die, as well as 31 injured. It should be no surprise that this happened given the history of ceasefires in the Arab country. The last significant event of this kind was with the Aleppo crisis, where the very same day a ceasefire was due to take effect, Syrian forces resumed attacks.
So why are the ceasefires not respected? The question is one that is either ignored or given secondary relevance, and yet, it is one of the most pressing ones now. To begin addressing it, one needs to consider the source and authority of the ceasefires themselves, that is, as stemming from the UN. Because of the current configuration of state power around the world, nation-states (chiefly, Russia) are deploying all their might to make sure Syria transforms into an outpost for their influence, with the United States (US) currently taking a secondary role in the region.
Historically, the Middle East was under the influence of Britain and then after the Second World War most of that domain was for Americans to “police.” Today, however, the so-called “policing” of the region has been altered. There are many reasons for this, one of which being the fact that many in the US now see their role in the area as anachronistic. In the face of that, other geopolitical players like Russia’s Putin have capitalized on the momentum to get “a piece of the pie,” so to speak.
It also has not helped that under the current American administration, a discourse of global anarchy has been further pushed under the aegis of the “America first” mantra, a narrative and policy approach that has seen a putative retreat of the US’ role in other countries’ affairs. And while this is a lie – the US is always involved in clandestine operations globally to subvert sovereign nations – it has had an inevitable effect that has seen not only Russia become more assertive (think Crimea, think the last American election), but also China (think the disputes in the South China Sea, as well as perennial domestic abuses against human rights).
As the architect and main player of the UN, the United States needs to return to the multilateralism that has given it its moral leadership (though this leadership, too, is also very problematic). That means being more robust in its approach towards belligerent and aggressive states like Russia, who have literally put the lives of children on the table this week to get their equivalent of what Israel is for Americans. Geopolitics is a game where the main players see human lives as just numbers, but for those who are being played, it is a whole different story.