The heart wrenching photo of a five year old boy startled and wounded by bombing in Syria has been a wake up call the world of the ugliness and violence of the continuing Syrian civil war. Unfortunately that one boy stands as a symbol for many more children who have been killed or badly wounded in the daily atrocities against the civilian population.
Russia is playing a larger military part today than the west. It is doing so because it does not share the West’s worries about helping Assad, still the head of the official Syrian government, to put down ISIL and other rebels and enemies. Russia is able to do so as an ally of Iran, with access to safe military facilities close to Syria. The West has to recognise today, as it does, that any involvement in Syria needs to be discussed with Russia to avoid clashes or misunderstandings.
The West’s policy to Syria has been beset by at least three major obstacles. The first is that whilst the West is strongly against ISIL, it is not in favour of the Syrian government regime which also wishes to defeat ISIL. The West sees the violence and damage being done by Assad against his own people and country and is appalled.
The second is the West wishes to support the creation and military success of a moderate opposition to the Assad regime which also opposes Muslim fundamentalism. It has proved difficult to identify and nurture such a moderate opposition, and to turn a moderate opposition into a tough fighting force capable of defeating both Assad and ISIL. There are other violent extremists in the country organised loosely into fighting forces who do not fly the flag of ISIL to complicate matters. It also does not help if the West arms apparently moderate rebels, only to see the weapons fall into less friendly hands one way or another.
The third is the West is understandably reluctant to cause yet more casualties and devastation by its bombing, and even more reluctant to send in many ground troops. The electorates of the West are concerned about the results of some past military interventions where unpleasant dictators have been successfully displaced, only for there to be a failure to establish a better democratic government in their place. The West is seeking high standards of evidence before unleashing any military strike, as it is very damaging if Western bombs end up hitting a school or hospital or wedding party instead of known extremist forces.