Syria is a ruined and broken country. Five million of its people have managed to flee the place in terror, and half of those who remain—about 13.5 million people—require humanitarian assistance of some kind, and half of them are kids. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, roughly six million Syrians are living in the rubble of bombed out buildings and cratered streets, and 4.6 million people are somehow subsisting in towns and villages under siege, beyond the reach of aid convoys, cut off from the outside world.
You could say, for argument’s sake, that Syria now exists only for argument’s sake. That there’s no such thing as “Syria” anymore, and in its place there is now mostly just a howling wilderness of murder and madness and pain. In whatever way we make sense of how it has come to pass that the world has allowed nearly a half million Syrians to be killed these past six years, the search is on for an ulterior motive, an explanation more convincing than the account U.S. President Donald Trump gave of himself on Wednesday for what had happened inside his own head this past week: “I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, a big impact.”
It is not being too worldly to wonder out loud whether this can be true of a man whose public professions of concern for Syria until now have addressed mainly the constitutionally permissible means by which America’s gates might be permanently barred to Syrian refugees. Then again, Trump stood there in the White House rose garden and confessed: “My attitude toward Syria has changed very much.” He referred directly to the handiwork of Syria’s chief executioner, Bashar al-Assad, in this way: “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
The next day at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence, Trump again expressed his revulsion at Tuesday’s poison-gas massacre of 100 or more people in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun: “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” Indeed, no. Still, expressing this sort of sentiment does seem wholly out of character for Trump, or at least wildly at odds with his caricature.
It could be that Trump has not changed a bit, that he’s still an egoistic, impetuous, grudge-nurturing narcissist, and it’s just that he’d had quite enough of being dismissed as Vladimir Putin’s poodle, and his manliness was on the line. This alone would be sufficient to explain why Trump relayed the order to U.S Navy destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean to release that barrage of tomahawk missiles at the airbase of Al Shayrat, near Homs—the Kremlin be damned.
Maybe it’s as simple a matter as Trump having only lately emerged from the unseemly influence of that Dungeons and Dragons character Steve Bannon, and he’s been paying closer attention to his national security adviser, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, and to his Secretary of Defence, the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, both of whom have been only recently appointed. They’re both proper soldiers. Hard as nails. Principled men.
It could be that the obliteration of Al Shayrat, rather than being just a one-off thing, signals the end of American indifference to Syrian agony, and that Trump genuinely intends to put his back into it, that he will lead NATO, in partnership with the Arab League, and we’ll have our eyes on a horizon with Syria put back together again somehow. Whatever happens, we’ve still got all our work ahead of us.
The isolationists and the alt-right and the anti-imperialists have had their way, ever since Assad first ordered his troops to fire live rounds into unarmed protesters in 2011. Now, in 2017, Syria is Afghanistan in 1994. It’s gangrenous and festering with the Islamic State, just as Afghanistan in 1994 was a wrecked post-Russian countryside pockmarked with the shallow graves of more than a million Afghans. The scourge of the Taliban and Al Qaida spread across the land. We all remember how well that turned out. Or we should, anyway.
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The costs of rebuilding Syria’s ruined infrastructure, its cratered roads and broken sewage treatment plants and bombed hospitals and schools, has been variously estimated at $275 billion, $689 billion and $1.3 trillion. Millions of of stunted and shell-shocked Syrian children have never set foot inside a classroom. A study of Syrian refugees carried out by the International Medical Corps agency in Jordan and Lebanon found half of them to be suffering severe emotional disorders. One in four children suffer crippling intellectual and developmental difficulties.
A great gaping wound has been opened up in humanity. It is going to require healing. It is going to cost a great deal, and the brutes who did this, Bashar Assad, the Islamic State, the Kremlin, the Khomeinists, all of them must be made to pay dearly. But it is going to cost the rest of us, too, and it will cost us one way or another, whether we would want to pay down our debts to the innocents of Syria or not.
That is one thing that was not changed by anything Donald Trump did this week. The burden of the world’s debt to the Syrian people will be borne by all of us, one way or another, sooner or later. We will all bear the burden. The bill will come due. And we will pay it, whether we would want to or not.