We are witnessing the agonizing slow-motion conquest of Aleppo, Syria’s largest historic urban center and probably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The eastern part of the city which first resisted the forces of the despot in Damascus is now succumbing to the hordes being unleashed by land and air from Russia and Iran. Aleppo is not being reclaimed by regime forces and certainly is not being liberated by a legitimate force, Aleppo is being conquered after being reduced to pyramids of rubble.
After declaring those resisting them as terrorists and after pursuing a civilian-centric campaign of bombing that destroyed hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries the moment of the kill is at hand. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke for the Assad regime, Iran and all their auxiliary marauders when he said few days ago that Russia’s strategy included “a merciless struggle against terrorists in Syria until their eradication.” To quote Tacitus, describing a plundering empire centuries ago “they ravage, (and) they slaughter. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”
From bad to worse
It is a cruel coincidence that the conquest of Aleppo is taking place in the twilight days of Barack Obama’s era. The American Hamlet whose endless obfuscations on Syria and other international challenges were claimed as wise deliberations did abdicate his responsibilities to deliver on his promises to help Syrian civilians and threats to punish the Assad regime, thus contributing to the demise of Aleppo. It is the misfortune of the Syrians who rose up peacefully against the Assad regime in 2011 that Donald Trump, a man known for his short attention span, willful ignorance and his deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been elected president of the United States of America.
A consensus has developed among America’s numerous Intelligence Agencies that Russia, through a variety of means, did interfere in the presidential elections by waging a massive disinformation campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, and the Central Intelligence Agency has just concluded that individuals connected with the Russian government have provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Intelligence sources have told the Washington Post and the New York Times that a principle goal of the massive hacking operation was to boost the chances of the Republican candidate Donald Trump of winning the presidency.
With Obama, the abandonment of those Syrians seeking good governance, political empowerment and respect for human rights was gradual and partial. With Trump, the abandonment will be complete and bluntHisham Melhem
Like Putin and Assad, Trump believes that those fighting the Assad regime are extremist variations of ISIS. During the campaign, Trump said he favored military cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIS and other extremists and questioned the value and the wisdom of American support for some opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. Trump’s election means the end of US calls for a Syria without Assad and the termination of even the political support for the non-extremist Syrians opposed to Assad.
It is true that the Obama administration has abandoned efforts to remove Assad in the immediate future, even in the context of an agreed upon transitional period, but at least the declared objective of getting to a Syria without Assad was still in the background. With Obama, the abandonment of those Syrians seeking good governance, political empowerment and respect for human rights was gradual and partial.
With Trump, the abandonment will be complete and blunt. Worse still, it is in the realm of the possible that Trump could for all intents and purposes sub-contract to Russia the whole war against the radicals in Syria, knowing that Russia will not make any distinction between the extremist and the non-extremist groups opposing Assad, including the groups the Obama administration supported in the past.
The fall of Aleppo would be a crippling defeat for the anti-Assad forces, particularly those groups that have received arms and training from the United States. The control of Aleppo will improve considerably the ability of the Assad regime to tighten the pressure on the rebel held Idlib region in Syria’s northwest. For the Assad regime, conquering Aleppo means that the regime will be in control of all of Syria’s major hinterland cities that have gone through hellish fighting in the last five years: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama.
Assad will finally be presiding over a desolate society, ruined cities, in a broken country that is very unlikely to be healed any time soon if ever. The battle of Aleppo in which the conqueror will be inheriting the wind and the dust rising from endless piles of rubble, highlights once again the staggering cost of Syria’s wars : half a million dead, one million wounded, five million refugees, and 11 million internally displaced.
Ironically, the fall of Aleppo brings to the fore the inability of the Assad regime to reconquer the eastern and northern parts of the country. But these clear tactical victories do not mean the end of the war but merely the beginning of a new phase in seemingly endless wars. Many armed groups will go underground to wage a guerilla war that would not rely on physically controlling cities, but also make it difficult for the other powers to control them unencumbered. The fall of Aleppo would drive those Syrian groups disillusioned with America and its unfulfilled promises into the arms of the radical extremist groups.
I have always felt that the Syrians are alone in this fight. Those outsiders who supported the regime did so because it fits with their national interests and agendas. Those in the Middle East who supported the opposition, particularly in the beginning of the uprising, did not share necessarily the goals of good governance, political empowerment, minority rights, and were driven mostly by their animus towards Assad and his regime. And when the regime and its killer militias began sectarian cleansings with the occasional small scale massacres, along with the ritualistic mass killings of ISIS and the depredations of other radicals, the world took note but refused to act.
President Obama who early on in the Libyan crisis did invoke the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) which allows for states to intervene across sovereign borders to prevent mass killings of civilians, totally ignored (R2P) in the Syrian context. Assad began to take the measure of the American president by diabolically and gradually escalating his savagery against his people.. President Obama and other world leaders would follow each massacre with strong statements of condemnation, but why would Assad take Obama’s words seriously, since the American president did not utter them seriously. Obama asked Assad to step down, but there was no “or else” and a year later a virtual red line was established warning Assad that the president would change his calculus if he dared to use Chemical Weapons against rebel held areas.
President Obama and his Secretary Of State John Kerry would endlessly say that there is no military solution to the wars in Syria, while Assad, Putin and their Iranian allies always acted on the assumption that only military means create facts on the ground. In the summer of 2013, following a Chemical Weapons’ attack on a civilian neighborhood adjacent to the capital that killed more than 1400 civilians, including a large number of children, Obama issued military threats, and then backed down. The president of the United States seemed to have feet of clay. Never in the hundreds of hours that Kerry spent with his Russian counterpart Lavrov, and through countless days of negotiations in almost every European capital, did Kerry hint that the old superpower would use military power to buttress its diplomacy.
In the meantime, the killings continued, along with the indifference. Syrian cities were burning under siege - Homs, Hama and some of Damascus’ suburbs. They fought back, but finally fell. But Aleppo was the jewel of Syrian cities that resisted the most and was punished the most. Aleppo’s beautiful stone structures, markets, forts, mosques, hotels, palaces, public baths were pulverized. Only if stones can speak. The slow death of great old cities is as agonizing as the death of a loved one. There are structures that cannot be rebuilt and maybe should not be rebuilt.
Obama may still claim that he did the right things in Syria, but I would like to think that his legacy in that ancient land, particularly in Aleppo, will haunt him as long as he lives. Obama rarely mentioned Aleppo by name last year. Aleppo was killed by Assad and his marauders in as much as it was killed by regional and international apathy. When we weep for the passing of Aleppo, we should remember that we too took part in the ritualistic killing of the city. Aleppo died with a bang and with a whimper. Aleppo is our collective shame.
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