Once again, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has shocked the conscience of the world by using chemical weapons on its own people. And once again, the question is asked: When will the world put a stop to this madness?

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against bringing peace to a people who so desperately need it, in spite of the global revulsion at Tuesday’s sarin-gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikoun.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said Mr. al-Assad had “crossed a lot of lines for me.” On Thursday Mr. Trump added that “something should happen” as a result. At the United Nations, American Ambassador Nikki Haley called on the UN Security Council to take action – or the U.S. might act unilaterally.

A few days ago, the Trump administration was suggesting that it was no longer pushing for Mr. al-Assad’s removal, unlike the Obama administration. By Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reversing course, telling reporters “steps were under way” to remove Mr. al-Assad.

The administration’s plan became clear when the U.S. fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base Friday.

But Mr. al-Assad is not going anywhere just yet. He and his main allies – Russia and Iran – have Syria in a stranglehold. This is a war they have no intention of abandoning until they win. They are under no serious pressure to prematurely end it.

After six years of escalating cruelty, there is almost no opening for a negotiated, internal political solution between Mr. al-Assad and his many enemies, who range from moderate nationalists to Sunnis to the Kurds to the Islamic State. And whatever small shot at a negotiated peace might exist shrinks every time Mr. al-Assad drops another bomb on innocent civilians.

External pressure, short of an invasion by a coalition force, is equally unlikely to bring about peace. Firing missiles at a Syrian base, as the U.S. has done, might encourage Mr. al-Assad to more carefully consider which civilians he murders, and how, but it will not end the war.

The war is further complicated by the fact that Russia and Iran are backing the Assad regime, while Turkey and many Arab countries are dead set against it. That has turned this into a proxy conflict, raising the stakes and making peace more difficult to achieve.

Then there is the fact that the West is wary of putting its soldiers in harm’s way in the Middle East. The fallout from the invasion of Iraq and the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan have left countries, including Canada, with limited appetite for incursions into a part of the world where interventions often only seem to make things worse.

And speaking of interventions of questionable benefit, the West is already at war in Syria – against IS. Canadian troops are working just across the Syrian border in Iraq; American planes are bombing IS in both countries. One of the war’s many ironies is that IS is to some extent a response to Mr. al-Assad’s anti-Sunni brutality.

The Syrian war may be, for the moment, unstoppable. It is fuelled by Mr. al-Assad’s need to keep power and by the cynicism of his enablers in Moscow and Tehran. And it is unbearably brutal, a full-colour catalogue of crimes against humanity.

To date, more than 400,000 people have been killed, with civilians making up at least a quarter of that appalling number. Tuesday’s gas attack, which killed at least 70 people, two dozen children included, is just the latest such incident. One group, the Syrian American Medical Society, says 1,500 people have been killed by chemical-weapon attacks, the vast majority perpetrated by Mr. al-Assad’s forces.

Even when not using banned weapons, the Assad forces have shelled civilian targets, including hospitals and schools. They have also used incendiary bombs and barrel bombs to terrorize civilians into abandoning opposition territory.

A 2014 United Nations report accused Assad forces of the rape and torture of civilian prisoners, the summary execution of men suspected of loyalty to the opposition, the deliberate displacement and starvation of entire populations and the forced recruitment of child soldiers.

Mr. al-Assad’s war has redefined depravity, and may also be the most internationally consequential conflict of the past 25 years. The five million refugees who have fled the country have become a flashpoint in European politics. Their arrival in Germany, France, the U.K. and other countries has helped fuel the rise of right-wing, anti-Muslim nationalist parties.

And yet Mr. al-Assad is still standing. The world is trapped by his brutality, and by the extreme complications of the war he crafted. Any heartfelt demand for action runs up against the realities of Mideast sectarian hatreds, Russian and Iranian realpolitik – and America’s diminished credibility. When your best chance for peace lies with Donald Trump, the outlook is bleak indeed.

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Apr. 07, 2017 6:00PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 07, 2017 8:52AM EDT