Aleppo's Agony: More than anything else, global opinion is demanding an end to the siege of Aleppo. Surely, who rules Syria matters less than bringing this seemingly interminable and indiscriminate destruction to an end? Why can’t those doing the fighting see that? Why won’t they stop?
THE IMAGES EMERGING FROM ALEPPO are gut-wrenching. Tiny babies, dust-covered and ominously silent, are pulled from the rubble of their homes. The cries of anguished parents mingle with the wailing of ambulance sirens as their broken children are carried away. A young man on Skype warns the world of Aleppo’s “annihilation”. A water-treatment plant is bombed, and in retaliation the only other functioning plant is shut down. Two million people are left without safe drinking water. This is the Syrian Civil War up-close and personal. Unbelievably horrible.
More than anything else, the global audience confronted with these horrors wants the war to stop. Surely, who rules Syria matters less than bringing such indiscriminate death and destruction to an end? Why can’t those doing the fighting see that? Why won’t they stop?
The warring parties won’t stop because they can’t stop. Not until the government of Bashar Al-Assad either triumphs over, or is decisively defeated by, its enemies.
If he chose to, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, whose lugubrious features are so well suited to his repeated expressions of sympathy for the Syrian people, could end the war in a moment. All he has to do is halt the supply of weapons to Assad’s enemies. Yes, that would involve placing a restraining hand on the shoulders of America’s Saudi and Turkish allies. But if his government was genuinely committed to ending the fighting, that is what it would do.
Because Assad’s regime is still recognised as the legitimate government of Syria. Its representatives continue to take their seats in the General Assembly of the United Nations, and its ambassadors continue to be recognised in the world’s capital cities – including Washington DC.
That’s because there was a time when the West was only too happy to have Syria’s friendship. It was 2003, and US forces were busy overthrowing Assad’s fellow Baathist, Saddam Hussein. No one had too much to say back then about the brutally authoritarian character of the “murderous Syrian regime”.
On the contrary, in the decade following the Iraq invasion, the Western powers were at pains to point out how very different Bashar was from his hard-line Baathist father, Hafez Al-Assad. Bashar’s western education was played up, as were the charitable works of his glamorous wife, Asma. The general diplomatic consensus up until 2011 was that a gradual liberalisation of the regime was underway. Elections had been held. Political prisoners had been freed. All Assad needed, said the Middle East-watchers, was time.
He didn’t get it. The Arab Spring of 2011 unleashed a wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East. Assad watched with growing alarm as first Tunisia, then Egypt and finally Libya succumbed to politico-military putsches that saw heads-of-state roll – sometimes literally.
This was the point at which an intelligent American administration would have made it clear to the world that it was committed to preserving the reforming government of Bashar al-Assad. Unfortunately, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, fresh from her “triumph” in Libya, prevailed upon President Barack Obama to figuratively hold the cloaks of the Syrian rebels while they stoned the Assad regime to death.
Tragically, the Obama Administration had reckoned without the Assad family’s grim reputation for holding on to power at any cost. Like his father before him, Bashar looked not to Syrian civil society for salvation, but to the Syrian military. Civil war, with all of its attendant fratricidal slaughter, was unleashed. Syria was ripped apart.
Wrong-footed by Assad’s bloodthirsty response, Obama dithered. As he cast about for a solution that did not involve putting American boots on the ground, Saudi Arabia did all it could to ensure that it would be an Islamic, and not a secular, state that grew out of the rubble of Baathism.
Meanwhile, in eastern Syria, something even more deadly was rising. Remnants of Saddam’s disbanded army had crossed the Iraqi border; ruthlessly eliminated the student groups responsible for the democratic rebellion; and allowed their fanatical Salafist understudies to announce the return of the long-dead Caliphate – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Enter Vladimir Putin. As long-time allies of the Syrians, and with radical Islamic terrorists of its own to worry about, Putin’s Russian Federation was willing to embrace what the Americans consistently refused to endorse – foreign military intervention.
Whatever else they may be criticised for, the Russians cannot be faulted for their grasp of war’s greatest priority: securing victory as swiftly as possible. Were the Americans only willing to immediately staunch the flow of arms to Assad’s enemies, then the slow torture of Aleppo could cease, and its interminable siege be lifted.
In the absence of decisive American action, however, the Russian and Syrian bombers will continue their deadly sorties.
And the awful images of war will continue to assault our eyes.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 September 2016.