President Obama has written off the war in Syria as somebody else’s problem from hell, refusing to admit that by his sins of commission and omission he did in fact help open the gates of hell to engulf millions of Syrians. Obama’s approach to Syria this week was exposed for the moral vacuity and naked impotence that it truly is. He may have proudly told the assembled leaders of the world at the United Nations about his diplomatic achievements, among them the Iran nuclear deal, but he did not mention that his non-intervention in Syria was part of his Faustian bargain with Iran, or that his abandonment of those moderate Syrian rebels who wanted to overthrow the tyranny of the Assad regime was the price of his budding partnership with Russia.
On the same day Obama was lecturing other leaders that “wars like the savagery in Syria must be brought to an end and it will be brought to an end through political settlement and diplomacy, and not simply by bombing,” the UN and relief agencies suspended all humanitarian convoys in Syria following the barbarity reportedly displayed by Russia’s Air Force when it bombed a UN humanitarian relief convoy on its way to the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo (although Moscow has denied the strike). What makes this flagrant violation of International Law so jarring is that it took place during what was supposed to be the initial testing period of the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement reached earlier this month in Geneva between Secretary of US State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
In his long (5,627 words) address to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama, to his eternal shame, did not mention Aleppo once. When Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson asked “what is Aleppo?” he was displaying his ignorance. When Obama avoids mentioning Aleppo he does that out of embarrassment and, yes, malice because he keeps dissembling about his real intentions and always besmirches and distorts the views and alternative proposals of his critics, claiming dishonestly that they wanted him to invade Syria or engage in bombings campaigns without a diplomatic component. Obama made two fleeting references in Syria to justify his policy of leaving the Syrian people under the tender mercy of the depredations of the Assad-Russia-Iran axis. Once again Obama went back to the canard of the “ancient hatreds” mantra, claiming that “no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to coexist for long.”
In Syria, he intoned, “I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts.” Keeping with his now worn out habit of selective pacifism in Syria, Obama said “in a place like Syria, where there is no ultimate military victory to be won, we are going to have to pursue the hard work of diplomacy that aims to stop the violence, and deliver aid to those in need.” Yet in the same breath Obama brandished his sword in the form of massive bombings of ISIS, an enemy that Assad’s atrocities and Obama’s dithering created the environment for. Obama sees “a military component” in being “united and relentless in destroying networks like [ISIS]...”
It was a week of carnage in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, another week of grand speeches by President Obama and Secretary Kerry, another week of Russian barbarism in Syria and Orwellian exercises at the UNHisham Melhem
President Obama, who has subcontracted Syria with all of its thorns to John Kerry - his peripatetic, loquacious secretary of state (the Dr. Pangloss of American diplomacy), did not have Syria on his mind in his discussions with world leaders. By the end of the week, besieged Aleppo was relentlessly attacked by Russian and Syrian bombers killing and wounding hundreds of civilians and still Obama refuses to utter Aleppo’s name publicly to at least shame Russia, since no one expects him after all these years to extract a price for mass murder from the Assad regime, Russia, or Iran and its killer militias.
Haunted by the ghosts of Syria
In a moment of rare public candor about Syria, Obama confided in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that the situation in Syria “haunts me constantly” and that he wonders sometimes “what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years.” But then Obama quickly returns to his true form - to his denial of moral and political responsibility for the abandonment of the Syrian people. In fact he goes full throttle, saying “the conventional arguments about what could have been done are wrong. The notion that if we had provided some more modest arms to Syrian rebels—that somehow that would have led to Assad’s overthrow more decisively. The notion that if I had taken a pinprick strike when the chemical-weapons issue came out, as opposed to negotiating and getting all those chemical weapons out - that that would have been decisive. All those things I tend to be skeptical about,” he said in the interview published midweek in Vanity Fair. But, since Obama was talking with a historian, the professor in him sprung up to defend his record. “But I do ask myself, was there something that we hadn’t thought of? Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?”
Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry spoke about the need to help Syrian refugees and to stop the killing of civilians, but both of them lacked the powerful righteous passion to convince friends and foes alike that their moral indignation will lead them to act on their moral outrage. Obama said that if we “avert our eyes or turn our backs” on refugees “I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment.” Well Mr. President, history has already rendered its harsh judgement on you because you did avert your eyes and turned your back not only on the refugees but on a half million Syrian dead, the tens of thousands who disappeared in Assad’s prisons, on burning Aleppo, pulverized Homs and shattered Hama. Yes, America is generous in providing food and medicine to the refugees, but great powers do much more when they lead decisively.
What cannot be forgotten or forgiven is the fact that even if peace is restored, it will be impossible to restore the human and cultural allure and richness of Aleppo, its diversity and artistic legacies. There aren’t many cities in the ancient and modern worlds that were at one time or another unique to Jews, Christians and Muslims like Aleppo. In Aleppo there are literally layers after layers of civilizations from time immemorial; Aleppo, before its destruction was OUR city. Great cities rarely belonged to one people. Alexandria was not destroyed physically, but the once cosmopolitan jewel on the Mediterranean has been shriveling ever since it lost that rich human mosaic tapestry that made its once elegant streets babel of Arabic, French, English, Hebrew, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Armenian sounds and sights. In terms of geography, Alexandria is still on the Mediterranean, but in reality it has become a desolate city in the hinterland. There are many ways to sack great cities.
A moment of truth
On Wednesday, during a session on Syria at the UN, both the US and Russia blamed each other for the collapse of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement, with Foreign Minister Lavrov providing a crude version of Orwellian deceptions and doublespeak about the various scenarios explaining the destruction of the aid convoy to deny Russian culpability. This led a clearly frustrated Kerry to say “I listened to my colleague from Russia and I sort of felt a little bit like they’re sort of in a parallel universe here.” Then he added ominously “now, those who believe the crisis in Syria cannot become even worse are dead wrong, as are those who believe that a military victory is possible. This could be like Carthage with the Romans, if you call that a victory.”
But incredibly, Kerry kept appealing to the non-existing better angels of Putin and Lavrov, hoping to restore “the plan announced in Geneva,” which includes in its second phase the establishment of a center in Jordan to coordinate joint attacks against ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. That would involve the “sharing” of intelligence and information with the Russians. The scene was surreal. Here you have the secretary of State of the United States still pushing for US-Russian joint attacks against terrorists in Syria and working with the same Air Force that is killing Syrian civilians and allegedly destroying humanitarian convoys.
This was a display of embarrassing impotence. Once again the US was admitting that it is Russia, since the deployment of its Air Force into Syria a year ago, and not the US, that has been calling the shots, politically and militarily, in the Syrian theatre. Kerry was pursuing this Chimera while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford was telling Congress “I do not believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians.”
Later on, Kerry said that the situation in Syria represents a “moment of truth” for President Putin, for the Syrian opposition and those who support it and “a moment of truth for the international community too.” One would have liked Kerry to admit that this is a moment of truth for the Obama administration first and foremost. Towards the end of the week, with Russia and the Assad regime literally pulverizing the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo, an indignant Kerry returned to pleading and chest beating; “what is happening in Aleppo today is unacceptable. It is beyond the pale.”
But what does that means after Kerry and President Obama have been saying for years that there is no military option or solution to the war in Syria? We still remember Kerry’s infamous description of the military strike against Assad’s force in 2013 over the use of Chemical Weapons that Obama promised and then reneged on; Kerry assured Assad and Putin the attack will be “unbelievably small.” Simply put the Obama administration deprived itself of serious military leverage in Syria.
It was a week of carnage in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, another week of grand speeches by President Obama and Secretary Kerry, another week of Russian barbarism on the ground in Syria and Orwellian exercises at the United Nations. One would hope that the ghosts of Aleppo for many years to come will haunt all those who made Syria a problem from hell.
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