Syria’s seventh circle of hell

It has been five years, since Syria began its slow, agonizing descent into an inferno that makes Dante’s seventh circle of hell with its river of boiling blood and barren burning sands ignited by flakes of fire, look like a tolerable trail. Aleppo, Syria’s largest and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is about to fall into the hands of invaders from the East; Russians who are raining fires from the skies, and on the ground cutting swaths of desolation are Iranian-led Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militias and the disheveled forces of their local lisping and pathetically delusional satrap holed up in Damascus.

Abandoned by the world, another once great city is being methodically sacked for the first time in six hundred years, and emptied of its people, the very descendants of the great ancient empires that built, destroyed and rebuilt Aleppo; Akkadians and Hittites, Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Ottomans. Rich cultures and religions, that left behind their distinct marks; schools, temples, libraries, palaces, forts, souks, public baths, magnificent Mosques and graceful Churches and Synagogues. Aleppo’s killers are a motley crew of mostly regime henchmen and their battalions of supporters who are doing the systematic destruction, and extreme local and imported self-described jihadists.

A war of all against all

On Spanish soil in the 1930s a civil war was morphed into a continental epic war. Europe tore itself apart in three bloody years. Soldiers and military advisors came from Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, along with tens of thousands of volunteers from many countries to engage in the ‘good fight’. The Syrian war was turned initially and diabolically by the regime into a sectarian war which evolved into a regional war and eventually into an international conflict and war by proxies. The failure of containing the conflict quickly, made its internationalization inevitable. It is stunning to think that in the skies of Syria in the last year the air forces of four of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations have been, along with other allies conducting military strikes. On the ground a war of all against all is raging on and each of the major players has a list of primary and secondary enemies. For the U.S. ISIS is the primary enemy, followed by al-Nusra Front with the Assad regime at the bottom. For Russia, the enemies begin with the opposition to Assad, then ISIS and al-Nusra. For Iran, the opposition to Assad is first on the list, then ISIS and al-Nusra. For Turkey, the enemy list begins with the Kurdish YPG, then the Assad regime. For ISIS, the immediate enemy on the ground is the anti-Assad opposition groups, and in the skies the bombers of the International coalition.

Sharp words vs. Sharp swords

The fall of Aleppo, a clear military objective of the axis of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, that is not going to be altered by the surreal talk of cease fires and peace talks in European capitals, will deal the Syrian opposition groups that are tepidly supported by the United States a severe blow. Such a setback will constitute a radical shift in the balance of power in favor of the axis seeking a partial restoration of a truncated state they call ‘essential Syria,’ an area that includes the country’s main cities, from Damascus in the South to the central cities of Homs and Hama, along with the coastal region and all the way to Aleppo in the North.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has elevated Moscow’s profile in the Middle East in ways not known since the collapse of the Soviet Empire

Hisham Melhem

The tactical but serious defeats of the opposition forces in the North that the U.S. claims to support, at the hands of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units YPG, in military operations that are clearly coordinated with the intensified Russian air campaign and benefiting from the ground attacks by the pro-regime militias is ironic in the extreme. The YPG is Washington’s main ground de facto ally in the fight against the so-called ‘Islamic State’ ISIS, America’s most dangerous enemy in Syria. This is a collaboration made in purgatory, since the YPG is essentially the Syrian incarnation of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK, a group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. This is one of Washington’s worst kept secrets, an arrangement that damages further, The Obama administration’s already tarnished image in the eyes of the main non-Jihadi Syrian opposition groups.

In the face of Russia’s stepped up brutal air attacks in the environs of Aleppo in conjunction with the regime’s continued savagery in the form of barrel bombs against civilian targets, and in reaction to Moscow’s manipulation of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic gullibility, the advances of the YPG, and Turkey’s recent artillery attacks against targets across the Syrian borders, the Obama administration has been reduced to issuing statements ranging from condemnation and indignation, to pleading and beseeching. Recently, when Russian bombers attacked hospitals and schools in Azaz city, the State Department issued a statement condemning the attacks, but without naming the Russian aggressor. But America’s sharp words are no match to Russia’s sharp swords.

Dr. Pangloss and Prince Hamlet

Secretary of State John Kerry, a man of boundless energy and infinite optimism is America’s version of Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s incurable optimist in Candide, whose slogan ‘all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds’ animate his diplomacy even in the face of catastrophe. When Russia deployed its attack jets and bombers in Syria last summer, he initially refused to see the move as offensive in nature. Then he, along with President Obama began to lecture Russian President Vladimir Putin that what he is doing will not serve Russia’s long term interests, or that it is a sign of weakness and advising him to avoid such a ‘quagmire’, reminiscent of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has elevated Moscow’s profile in the Middle East in ways not known since the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In fact the Obama administration is using Russia’s dominant position in Syria nowadays to justify its feeble diplomacy and its reliance on Moscow to ‘deliver’ Assad to the negotiating table, and its refusal to embark on any serious military action, beyond deploying a small number of special forces against ISIS, that could enhance the capabilities of the opposition and weaken the regime. Russia’s violent ownership of Syrian skies, forced the Obama administration to inform the Russian military vaguely supposedly, about the areas of operations of the American Special Forces in Syria. Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters during a briefing on Thursday, ‘I don't have any assurances, really, from the Russians. But we told them these are the ... general areas, where we have coalition forces and we don’t want them to strike there because all it's going to do is escalate things. And I don't think the Russians want to escalate against the coalition’. Try to explain that one to the incredulous Syrians.

Against a mountain of doubts about Russia’s intentions in Syria, Secretary Kerry spoke about the ‘success’ achieved recently in Munich regarding the imminent ‘cessation of hostilities’. One could see the snicker on the face of his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov who has heard Kerry on multiple occasions in recent months and years talking about Syria being on the cusp of a ‘big transition’ as he did last November.

Few days ago, in a press conference President Obama returned to Russia’s ‘quagmire’ in Syria, but also expressing hope for possible future collaboration with Moscow against ISIS, telling reporters that ‘if we can get a political transition in Syria, that allows us to coordinate more effectively with not just Russia, but other countries in the region to focus on the folks who pose the greatest direct threat to the United States’.

The war in Syria has been the subject of many speeches by Obama declaring support for empowering the people against the despot, declarations of policy intentions, threats of military retribution and promises of political and material support. The words were delivered somberly but later ignored totally or never fully implemented. When Polonius asked Prince Hamlet ‘What do you read, my lord?’ he said ‘words, words, words.’ President Obama cherishes words and he lives by them. His political career has been defined by speeches, and some of them are truly memorable. As I wrote recently in the Cairo Review, for Obama ‘eloquent words are more effective than sharp swords. Sometimes he treats words as if they have the value and impact of actions.’

Even before the battle of Aleppo is fully joined, tens of thousands of uprooted Syrians have been on the move seeking northern havens in Turkey and beyond. If Aleppo falls, an immense human calamity will occur, and the world is likely to wring its hands in sorrow and maybe in shame. And President Obama will head to a podium to deliver a memorable speech where he will explain eloquently the enormity of the deed, and making sure to erect a solid wall of words around him hoping to give him immunity from the inevitable Syrian infamy.

Obama’s straw man

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and even before the uprising turned into a local civil war, President Obama was determined not to get involved in what he termed ‘somebody else’s civil war’. He rejected numerous proposals from senior and midlevel members of his administration for establishing safe zones for refugees and friendly opposition groups to be protected by no-fly zones, as well as options for limited military actions to cripple the regimes ability to use air power to terrorize the civilian population. One refrain the President and his apologists always use when critics rail against Obama’s passivity in Syria is that the critics don’t present ‘alternatives.’ This is clearly the administration’s favorite straw man argument. Obama kept dismissing as ‘half-baked,’ ideas like establishing no-fly zones and safe zones, or calling “mumbo-jumbo” proposals such as arming Sunni tribes in Iraq.

President Obama repeatedly obfuscated and engaged in dissimulation to muddy the issue of taking serious action to hasten the demise of the Assad regime, by claiming that the options are between going all the way in, that is an invasion of Syria, or doing nothing at all. He was and still good at presenting false choices. And Obama knew that no serious scholar or public figure ever called for an invasion of Syria. Most were calling for a strong exercise of American leadership. After my Cairo Review article, well-meaning friends said: where are your realistic alternatives? It just happened that in the last few days, powerful moral and political voices, including columnists, former policy makers and diplomats have written blistering criticism of Obama’s moral and political abdication on Syria, and making the case for establishing safe zones and/or no fly zones to prevent another catastrophe in Aleppo.

A view from the field

If president Obama accepted in the summer of 2012, long before the rise of ISIS and the massive use by Assad of Chemical Weapons, the proposal a senior official presented him after visiting Northern Syria to establish a no fly zone in that part of the country; Syria may not have descended to the seventh circle of hell. A three page memo written by Tom Malinowski of the State Department titled; ‘view from the field on emerging arguments for a Syria no-fly zone’ convincingly makes the case for such zone. The memo is based on the findings of an American team’s contacts and observations in Northern Syria. Malinowski notes, ‘in short, they went in extremely skeptical about the merits of any sort of military intervention, but have come to believe that the situation is evolving in ways that argue strongly in favor of establishing a no-fly zone.’

This following passage shows the price of inaction and the result of dithering, ‘it is our team's assessment that the rebel forces are now strong enough, due to their numbers, growing experience, and sheer determination (despite disorganization and lack of heavy weapons) that they could hold significant amounts of territory in northern Syria if regime air power — and air power alone -- were taken off the table.’ And this passage about the insignificant jihadist influence then, is painfully prescient, ‘BTW, our team reports that the jihadist influence is minimal for now —the FSA is using them "because they are crazy fighters," but they agree with the general assessment that the longer this goes on, the stronger radical forces will become.’

The conclusion of the memo can still be applied today, and the warning against inaction is now more frightening than in 2012. ‘A safe zone, protected by grounding Syrian air power, would bring immediate and tangible benefits for hundreds of thousands of threatened people and secure U.S. influence with the rebels and in a post-Assad Syria. And every scenario we can imagine for finishing the job — whether an agreement brokered by the U.N. or the Russians, or accelerating defections leading to a regime collapse, would at least be more likely if there were a dramatic shift in the balance of forces on the ground. The alternative is to hope for the same outcome, but with less chance of success in the foreseeable future, and far greater loss of life and of U.S. influence over what Syria will become.’

The failure of containing the conflict in its early stages pushed Syria inexorably to the seventh circle of hell.
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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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