When Bashar Al Assad responded to his people's aspirations with brute force seven years ago, the world looked the other way. Remonstrations against the regime's brutality were accompanied always by a reluctance to act in any meaningful sense against it. Bluntly put, the unexpressed feeling that governed the world's reaction to the Syrian nightmare seemed to be: this is someone else's problem. The consequences of that attitude are before us: a once-stable country is in an advanced state of decay and disrepair, a proud people have been plunged into the deepest depths of human despair and hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead and millions displaced.
And yet there seems to be no end to Syrian suffering. Far from abating, the conflict Mr Al Assad ignited rages on with the participation of his allies and adversaries and as the Israeli airstrikes on alleged Iranian military installations inside Syria on Saturday presage, now threatens to escalate into a full-fledged international war involving multiple powers. If the lethal contest for spoils by the regime and external aggressors continues in this manner, the flames currently devouring Syria may soon become uncontainable and engulf the world that once sought to look away from it.
Iran arrived in Syria to shore up the regime of Mr Al Assad, its client, and has exploited the crisis in the country to advance its strategic interests. It has used Syria both as a testing ground for its proxy forces in Hezbollah and as a conduit to smuggle arms to Hezbollah's leadership in Lebanon. Tehran has even coerced desperate Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Iran to fight in Syria, deploying them as cannon fodder in Mr Al Assad's frontlines. Syria, effectively, has been used by Iran to send a message to the rest of the Middle East that it will go to any lengths to establish its hegemony in the region. The chief victims of the Iranian leadership's quest for imperial dominance, other than ordinary Iranians themselves, have been Syrians. Their land, already besieged by competing powers, is now exposed to assaults from all sides. Israel has frequently rained bombs on Syrian territory on the pretext of self-defence. On Saturday, however, one of its F-16 jets was struck by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile after carrying out yet another bombing raid. But instead of pausing, Israel responded with further airstrikes, staging the biggest air attack against Syria since 1982.
Israel says it was targeting Iranian and Syrian assets. But to get a sense of the recklessness of Israel's action, imagine what the consequences might have been had one its missiles landed on Russian troops stationed in Syria. The potential for an abrupt eruption of large-scale war is immense. That is why Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has called for an urgent de-escalation and a political solution to the Syrian crisis. A proposal for a 30-day ceasefire to help deliver aid and evacuate the sick and wounded is already before the UN Security Council. There can be no justification for voting against it. The world once had the luxury of being able to ignore Syria. The spectacle of jets dropping from the skies should jolt it into action.
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