Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
January 9, 2017
What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends,
and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world;
to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors,
and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.
Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
letter to his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, 1864
There is, perhaps, no better metaphor to describe the failure of the West in terms of a Middle East foreign policy than the tragedy that is Aleppo, its consequence for the people of Syria, and the refuge crisis it unleashed on Jordan, Turkey and Europe. It opened the door for Russia, emboldened Iran and further divided and already divided Middle East between Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and Shiites by Iran.
The bombing ceased in mid-December, but atrocities continued as Bashar al-Assad’s forces swept through former rebel strongholds in the eastern part of Aleppo. The battle for the city began a month before President Obama proclaimed on August 20, 2012: “…that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Thirteen hundred tons of chemicals were subsequently removed, but not before Syrian helicopters launched at least two attacks using Chlorine gas, a chemical first used as a weapon by the German army in the First World War during the Second Battle of Ypres. We allowed that “red line” to become a sea of blood.
Syria’s civil war masked the arrival of ISIS. Distinguishing between rebels who wanted out from the oppression of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial control and ISIS fighters whose aim is a despotic caliphate is difficult. That confusion aids ISIS. The year 2011 gave rise to the “Arab Spring.” Democratic-leaning forces (or, rather, different totalitarian forces) toppled the heads of Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt that spring. In March of that year, peaceful protests began in Syria. President al-Assad responded by imprisoning thousands and killing hundreds of demonstrators. Nevertheless, by July military defectors had formed the Free Syrian Army, whose aim was to overthrow the Syrian government. Civil war had come to Syria.
Aleppo is an ancient city, located in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. Before the First World War, it was the capital of Aleppo Province, which then bordered the Mediterranean. Prior to the current civil war, it was Syria’s largest city, with 2.3 million people (more than 10% of Syria’s pre-war population), and it was the country’s commercial hub. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, dating back thousands of years. Excavations at Tell as-Sawda show the area was occupied 3000 years before the birth of Christ. The city was a strategic trading center between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Mediterranean, which lies 75 miles to the west. The Province was the western terminus of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia, on its way to the Mediterranean. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, trade was diverted to the sea and Aleppo began a long decline in terms of its commercial significance.
The city is renowned for its architecture and its cultural heritage. Within the 13th century citadel are palaces from the Ottoman period, remnants of 6th century Christian buildings and evidence of even earlier Greek and Roman street layouts. Many of these structures were damaged or destroyed, with each side blaming the other. The minaret atop the 12th century Great Mosque was ruined. Just ten years ago, in 2006, the city of Aleppo was named the Arab Islamic Capital of Culture. Much of it is now in rubble.
Over five years of civil war, Syria, a nation of 21 million, has seen half its population displaced, with between four and five million people leaving the country. An estimated 450,000 have died. Jewish communities, whose history in Aleppo date back 3000 years to the time of King David, have virtually been extinguished. It will take years to rebuild, and generations to soothe the damage done to property and souls. Could the West have prevented this tragedy? Perhaps not. No one knows. But that we did not even try is condemnation enough.
In mid 2015, Russia, assisted by Iran, came to al-Assad’s aid. Russia sent warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and military advisors. Iran sent paramilitary forces and hardened fighters like Hezbollah. By late winter 2016, the tide had turned. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo were under siege, affecting an estimated 320,000 people. Syrian and Russian planes bombed supply routes and hospitals, activities illegal under international law. Over half the city’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. The West watched this tragedy unfold. In doing nothing, they strengthened Russia in the Middle East, and gave a boost to Iran. Concerns that Syria would become Putin’s Vietnam have proved, thus far, wrong – not that he would care! With little loss of life, Russia has gained a toehold in a region from which they had been diplomatically blocked for four decades. A strengthened Iran, on a glide path to ownership of nuclear weapons, threatens the region’s strongest Arab nation, Saudi Arabia, creating further instability in an already volatile area.
For the people of Syria there may be no good answer. Their economy is in shambles. Half the population is homeless and almost half a million are dead. Those that remain are subject to the whims of a brutal dictator. ISIS infiltrated with rebels who had legitimate grievances – those that President Obama once referred to as “…doctors, pharmacists and so on.” In 2011 Libya, the West supported the rebels. We were implicit in the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of his regime. Today, Libya is a failed state and its economy is in chaos. Had we not entered the conflict, would Benghazi have become Libya’s Aleppo? Had we sided with the rebels in Syria, would the consequences have been the same as Libya – a failed state, with no clear leader? These are unanswerable questions. There are, however, three lessons we should take away: First, we have a moral obligation to support freedom fighters whose cause we determine to be just. Second, when we do interfere we must have a clearly defined strategy, with a plan for reconstruction, and recognize that that takes time, effort and money. Three, we must acknowledge that in not interfering in Syria, we opened the door for Russia, gave a leg up to Iran and provided an oasis for ISIS. In early summer 2015, after four years of fighting a civil war, Bashar al-Assad was clearly on the ropes. It was widely assumed he was losing ground around the country and, possibly, his grip on power. He owes his survival to Russia and Iran.
The ceasefire that Russia, Turkey and Iran negotiated may not hold. It was arrived at ruthlessly. War, as General Lee noted in the letter to his wife quoted above, is cruel. And Bashar al-Assad is a barbaric and merciless man who clings to power through tyranny. The world is not rid of people like al-Assad and, as long as they exist so will war, death and destruction. We may prefer to live apart from “entangling alliances,” but that cannot be in this interconnected world. We do not have to become a “Party of Davos,” but global peace is a critical for prosperity. And the West, especially the United States because of its size, resources, wealth, democratic institutions and people, must be involved. It is in our self-interest. We cannot look the other way and allow another tragedy of this magnitude to erupt.