Aleppo: The Washing of Hands

In Brussels recently, the American secretary of state placed much of the onus for the abomination that is Aleppo on the Syrian opposition. “But the opposition would not buy into a ceasefire; they didn’t want to have a ceasefire. And there was a refusal to embrace the ceasefire, despite many of us saying that’s the best way to get to the table and have a negotiation in order to resolve this politically. But people chose to fight.” The day after Kerry’s statement the White House—of all places—tried to correct the record. “The opposition have agreed [to] the UN’s four-point plan for Aleppo. The regime needs to agree to the plan too.” But damage was gratuitously done.

Secretary of State John Kerry knows that many ceasefire discussions with the Syrian opposition have foundered on the question of what the United States would do to guarantee or at least facilitate the implementation of agreed terms. Washington would guarantee nothing. The Assad regime, Russia, and Iran were thereby freed to do as they wished to Syrian civilians: their hospitals, their homes, and their lives. For the strong to deliberately choose weakness and then blame the weak whose choices are few is disgraceful. It is the ceremonial washing of hands.

As a practical matter, Washington’s leverage in Syria is so slight that the White House and State Department find it difficult to arrange even a conditional surrender in Aleppo to save civilian lives. Moscow’s cold contempt for the Obama administration is palpable and understandable. No one knows this better than the American secretary of state.

John Kerry’s heart is in the right place. He wants an end to the slaughter of civilians. He knows that the civilian-centric methodology of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere makes the argument for Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) as the alternative to Assad persuasive to some. But he has elected to continue fronting for a strategy that wages—if that is the correct word—a slow-motion war on ISIS in eastern Syria disconnected from mass homicide in western Syria; mass murder that breathes oxygen into the lungs of Islamist extremism everywhere. Mr. Kerry knows this and has made his objections to the artificial, self-defeating disconnection known. And no doubt he is as frustrated with opposition disunity and dysfunction as anyone else, including members of the Syrian opposition. But he has no business blaming the victims for what is happening in Aleppo.

Imagine the position in which Syrian opposition leaders on the ground and in exile find themselves when presented with ceasefire proposals, whether by the United Nations special envoy or by a White House staffer. All of these proposals involved the withdrawal from eastern Aleppo of rebel fighters: some or all. Some proposals would have required the Assad regime and lawless Iraqi militiamen raised by Iran to refrain from entering: a reasonable enough request on the part of those seeking to avoid door-to-door atrocities. Who then would guarantee the terms, or at least take punitive steps if they were violated? American officials asked this question discovered a sudden fascination with their own shoelaces.

One may well argue that the armed Syrian opposition should have avoided urban combat altogether. Surely it is worth observing that the opposition should have come up with a plan of its own for Aleppo many months ago. One is free to accept President Obama’s faulty argument that nothing short of invasion and occupation could effectively counter mass homicide in Syria, with all its humanitarian implications and geopolitical ramifications. One may maintain, as this administration does without public acknowledgement, that preserving a nuclear deal mandates no push-back against Iran in Syria. And perhaps it is no crime to take on one’s own head entirely the risks associated with helping Russian warplanes fall from the sky as they deliberately target medical facilities. But does all this misapprehension and self-doubt, clothed as it is in soaring rhetoric about the inadmissibility of what is happening in Syria and ‘demands’ that assailants stop their depredations, really require that the victims be blamed for what is happening to them?

Perhaps it does as people scramble to salvage their reputations. In her magisterial work on similar twentieth century official American behavior in the face of mass homicide, Samantha Power cited blaming the victim as one of the premier alibis of the shoelace gazers. That the abandonment of Syrians should be any different from those abandoned in bygone years is not terribly remarkable, given what passes for leadership in the West. But Secretary of State John Kerry is not the person to do this. It is ironic that the Obama White House, of all places, should set the record straight.

In the end, Russia and Iran need Bashar al-Assad in power far more than the West wants him sidelined. Put to the side whiskey talk about people stepping aside, redlines, and the like. There has been a crippling disparity of interests between those who kill effortlessly and those who sincerely wish earnestly for something different. And it has all been a monumental mistake.

When President Obama’s principal national security advisers told him in the summer of 2012 that Assad misrule and mass murder were making Syria safe for al-Qaeda, they knew what they were talking about. The refusal of this administration to do anything at all to complicate or mitigate—much less end—collective punishment and mass homicide in western Syria raises a real question about its commitment to address the underlying governance issues giving rise to Islamist extremism. It’s all well and good to chase bad guys with drones, airplanes, and Kurdish militiamen. But if one is not going to push back against ‘Caliph’ Baghdadi’s most effective and efficient enablers—Russia, Iran, and Assad—just how serious is this anti-terrorism undertaking?

Trying to shift the blame to victims is unseemly and dishonorable. John Kerry should leave this piece of noxious unpleasantness to others. Kerry has worked hard with precious little with which to work. In the few weeks left to him at the Department of State he should go all out to save lives without dishonoring those who fight—as he once did—for their country.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir