In early August, I wrote about the apparent break through by Syrian rebels in Aleppo. Before the war, Aleppo was Syria’s economic hub and a cultural treasure. Since 2012, it has been divided between regime forces and opposition fighters.
It became the Syrian rebels’ last urban stronghold and, as such, the target of a siege by the Assad regime and Hezbollah forces supported, crucially, by Russian air power.
A few weeks ago, a coalition of rebel forces led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, better known as Jabhat al-Nusra which was al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, but also including the Free Syrian Army, looked to be breaking the siege. As I noted at the time, though, with so much riding, a major counter-offensive seemed likely.
The counter-offensive came. Russian bombing has intensified, targeting apartment buildings, hospitals and clinics, according to the Washington Post. Water has been cut off for hundreds of thousands of people. The United Nations is investigating credible reports that the Assad again has used chemical weapons, in this case chlorine gas.
Russian warplanes are taking off from Iranian territory (with Iran’s permission and, presumably, encouragement). As Sky News says, this is “an unprecedented move which underscores deepening cooperation between two key allies of Syrian president Bashar al Assad.” Charles Krauthammer has more on this all-too-predictable development.
It’s unclear which side is prevailing right now. All that’s clear is the destruction of Aleppo (quite possibly irreparable), the Assad-Hezbollah-Iran-Russia alliance on one side, and the prevalence of jihadists on the other.
What is President Obama’s response. The Washington Post (print edition) describes it as “Deplore. Wring hands. Repeat.”
This, the Post reminds us, is a far cry from Obama’s soaring rhetoric of 2012, in which he proclaimed that preventing mass atrocities “is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” At that time, he promised to “increas[e] the pressure, with a diplomatic effort to further isolate Assad and his regime, so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.”
Today, we know that Syrians who took Obama seriously are the ones who made the losing bet.
At this point, there is probably nothing the U.S. can do. Throwing in with the Russians (and by extension Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran), a “solution” the Russians are talking up, should be a non-starter. That’s one from the Donald Trump playbook.
Obama missed his chance to redeem his 2012 fancy talk when he refused to implement a no-fly zone in Syria. With a no-fly zone, there would be no mass devastation in Aleppo, Assad not have been able to rally so successfully, and non-jihadist rebels would be more of a force.
When Obama first rejected the idea, Russian air power was not a factor in Syria. The Russians filled the void Obama left, just as ISIS did in Iraq.
This void-filling, and the terrorism and devastation it has produced, is the most important legacy of the Obama presidency on the world stage.