Why is it so hard to end the violence in Syria?

The World
Smoke rises from the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 5, 2016.

Smoke rises from the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 5, 2016.  

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

The news and images coming out of eastern Aleppo, Syria, are unsettling. It seems the rebel enclave there is being pounded into oblivion by government forces and their Russian allies. Some Americans want to help and want their government to do something. But what?

Why is Syria such a tough nut to crack?

Max Fisher has given the issue a lot of thought. He’s a writer and editor for the Interpreter column at the New York Times.

“Syria is a really unusual case,” he explains, “because the number of outside foreign interventions has just suspended the usual laws of nature there. Things that would normally lead one or both sides to exhaust by this point, or even long before this point, just aren’t present."

So long as the warring factions within Syria continue to receive arms and aid from outside the country, fighting will go on.

“So what you see is these outside actors just keep pushing against one another,” Fisher says. “No one is strong enough to push anyone else over. But everyone is strong enough to keep the war going.

“We’re all just fighting this down to the last Syrian.”    

The United States is one of those players. It supplies a lot of weapons to rebel groups. It’s enough to keep the rebels fighting, but they lack the strength and unity to win. Even if the US pulled the plug on that support — as it might if a future President Donald Trump were to seek reconciliation with Russia — then other actors, like Saudi Arabia, can keep the arms flowing.

“American power is limited,” Fisher says. “This is a taboo in America that we don’t like to talk about, don’t like to acknowledge.”

“We have this idea built into our mythology that we are such a powerful country and that our power is fundamentally moral and values-driven, that we really can fix anything. So what you’re going to see for the next however long this conflict lasts is politicians promising that they have the answer, they know how to lead us through it, and then the war is just going to keep going.”

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