Wednesday marks the seventh anniversary of the ongoing civil war in Syria, and as casualties continue to mount, an end does not appear to be in sight.
The United Nations Security Council's most recent attempt at a ceasefire last month ended in failure. Civilians in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta continue to be massacred, as the Syrian military continues to cut the area off from the rest of the country. More than 1,000 children have been killed or injured in Syria in 2018 so far, according to the UN. Those who are fortunate enough to have survived have grown up knowing nothing but violence. Nearly 3 million Syrian children are estimated to have lived their entire lives in the midst of the war. It is believed between 350,000 and 500,000 people have been killed in total, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Western powers continue to pursue a diplomatic solution, but their efforts have been held up by Russia, a key Syrian ally which holds veto power in the UN Security Council. Russia has frequently used this power to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad diplomatic cover while his Iranian allies continue to help him retake lost territory. U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has put forward another ceasefire agreement, which she hopes will close the loopholes used by Assad and his Russian allies to continue attacks.
"The ceasefire has failed. The situation in eastern Ghouta is dire, and the United States is acting," Haley told the Security Council on Monday.
But even if Haley was able to get Russia to sign on, ceasefires have done little to quell the violence in the past. Additionally, she has made it clear that the U.S. is willing to use force against the Assad regime if it continues to use chemical weapons against civilians.
"We warn any nation determined to impose its will through chemical attacks and inhuman suffering, but most especially the outlaw Syrian regime, the United States remains prepared to act if we must," said Haley.
She's not alone. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently made similar comments while on a trip to Oman on Sunday.
"We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians on any battlefield," Mattis told reporters. "Russia was the framework guarantor that Assad would get rid of all of it. Again, either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad."
Assad was supposed to give up all of his declared chemical weapons in June 2014, per an agreement brokered by the Obama administration and international community. Then Secretary of State John Kerry hailed it as a momentous achievement, but Assad has since been accused of engaging in chemical attacks against civilians numerous times.
It's not just the U.S. that has become frustrated with the current situation. French President Emmanuel Macron recently threatened strikes against the Assad regime if "irrefutable evidence" was found linking the government to chemical attacks on civilians.
Trump has used force to get his point across to Assad before. He unleashed a barrage of cruise missile strikes against Syrian forces in April after the regime was suspected of engaging in a chemical attack. That show of force does not appear to have deterred Assad and his Russian backers, which begs the question: is a diplomatic solution even still possible?
"Potential for a diplomatic solution in Syria won't emerge until different foreign powers that are involved in the conflict are satisfied that they've carved out their spheres of influence," Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security's Middle East Security program told Circa in an interview.
Heras noted that this year the world is likely to see powers like the U.S., Syria, the Syrian rebels, Russia and others consolidate zones of control across the country. These various zones will likely act like "tectonic plates," which will smash against each other, creating conflict between the parties.
There has already been some evidence of this occurring. The U.S. maintains a small presence in Syria in order to combat terrorist groups like the Islamic State. U.S. officials have repeatedly stated they do not seek a fight with Assad, but there have been several instances where the two sides have clashed. In one example, U.S. forces engaged in a strike against Syrian forces that posed an imminent threat. These defensive measures have also not deterred Assad from continuing his provocations.
"The Assad government still believes that it has the capabilities to conquer the rest of the country, even if it takes them a decade or more," said Heras. "So what we should also expect from the U.S. side is an intensification of trying to prevent Assad from winning the war over the aftermath of the war which will emerge after these zones have been consolidated."