A country house in the hills west of Damascus symbolizes for me the futility of Syria’s war, seven years old this spring. A friend had saved for years to build the chalet, where he and his wife and children enjoyed weekends and holidays. Rebels broke into the empty house at the war’s outset to fire from the roof at Syrian soldiers. The troops responded with automatic weapons and mortar rounds that set the house ablaze. The rebels fled, the house burned, and neither side offered compensation.
I noticed on regular visits to Damascus the evolution of my friend’s perspective. He directed his anger first at the soldiers for overreacting, then at the rebels for invading his house without permission or the possibility of defending it. As the war progressed, he chose to forget the house, just as he tried to ignore the war. That house represents Syria, its inhabitants at the mercy of forces they cannot control. My friend lingers on in Damascus to run the family business, but his wife and children have joined the mass exodus of Syrians overseas.
Many Syrians among the 5 million or so who escaped hope to return when the war ends. It should be over, but it isn’t. Instead, Syria’s skies have become a shooting gallery for Kurds hitting Turkish helicopters, Israelis downing Iranian drones, a Russian Su-25 succumbing to jihadi surface-to-air missiles. On the ground, Syria has long since slipped into the Lebanese trap of shifting shapes, altering alliances, and outside interference.
Lebanon’s civil war lasted 15 years, a precedent that points to another eight for Syria. The antagonists in Lebanon at the outset in April 1975 were the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Christian Phalange Party. No one then foresaw that Israeli tanks would roll into Beirut seven years later, or that US Marines and America’s Mediterranean fleet would become part of the equation. In Lebanon, the conflict evolved into a hydra-headed monster to become, in Hobbes’s famous phrase, a war of all against all: right against left, Syrians against Muslims, Christians against Syrians, Israelis against Palestinians, Palestinians against one another, Druze against Maronites, Israelis against Shiites, and Shiites and Druze against Americans, ad infinitum. The fighting ended with a foreign-brokered agreement in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1989. Along the way, 150,000 out of 3 million Lebanese died; many more suffered physical and psychic wounds; and perhaps a quarter of the population fled.
Lebanon then, like Syria now, confirmed Nuremberg prosecutor Hartley Shawcross’s observation: “It is the crime of war which is at once the object and the parent of the other crimes: the crimes against humanity, the war crimes, the common murders.” The defeat of the rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial center, in December 2016, along with the Assad regime’s subsequent territorial gains and the impending elimination of the Islamic State’s territorial base in Syria and Iraq, implied a denouement. Yet the war is flying along on its second wind: Turkey is attacking the Syrian Kurds; the United States has promised to establish a 30,000-strong Border Security Force of Kurdish warriors and Arab tribes in the northeast to “contain Iran”; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is raising the stakes, declaring, “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself”; and some voices in the West demand not reform and reconstruction, but renewed war.