Early in the week the inhabitants of Eastern Aleppo, who have been brutalized and besieged for years, got a brief reprieve from the heavens. The gathering clouds prevented the killer air forces of Russia and the Assad regime from spewing their deadly assortment of barrel bombs, smart and not so smart bombs. Then a gentle rain fell on the tormented city, prompting one resident to observe wistfully, “the sky is crying for Aleppo with soft tears”.
It looked as if the sky was washing the dying city for the last time, in preparation for burial according to Muslim tradition.
The end of America’s moment
Eastern Aleppo city, which stood for millennia in defiance of foreign invaders, only to be laid to waste by the forces of the vengeful lisping local satrap in Damascus and his foreign masters the Russians and Iranians in less than four years, has all but fallen.
In the last few days we heard laments from the aggrieved and those trying to help them, about whatever happened to “never again”? Or, is there a meaning left in the concept of “responsibility to protect”, the supposedly global commitment to protect civilians from mass killing, ethnic cleansing and war crimes, the very depredations the majority of the Syrian people has been subjected to?
What makes these questions compelling, is that never before in the history of conflicts and atrocities against civilians, have massacres, sectarian and ethnic cleansings played out in real time before the eyes of a wired world, on Facebook and Twitter, or streamed live on television and YouTube. Many of the horrific mass killings that occurred in the last century took place in relative obscurity, away from neutral eyewitnesses and cameras.
The real time and “live” coverage of the Syrian carnage is the more reason why one cannot fully explain the world’s relative indifference, to the worst human made calamity in the new century.
It is true that most of the combatants are Syrians; however, the involvement of foreign powers in Syria’s myriad wars is the most significant factor six years after the peaceful uprising began against the Assad regime.
The Iranian military intervention, directly or through Shiite auxiliary sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and beyond, and the Russian expeditionary force, do constitute a military occupation of Syria. The Assad regime owes its survival to these forces. The Obama administration, whose different and sometimes contradictory approaches to Syria never amounted to a coherent strategy totally misread the Russian intervention last year.
President Obama inherited a dysfunctional Arab world from President George W. Bush. He will bequeath to his successor Donald Trump, a region in slow motion collapse, with US influence and reputation there at its nadirHisham Melhem
President Obama lectured Russia that it is not serving its national security interest by sending its military units to prop up Assad, reminding the Russians that their economy is weak, and that they will find themselves “in a quagmire”, forcing them to permanently occupy Syria.
That was a classic Obama engaging in wishful thinking masquerading as solid analysis. In his last press conference on Friday, President Obama observed that Russia has a smaller and weaker economy than the US adding “their economy doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms.”
And yet, President Putin could rightly claim that 2016 was a stellar year for Russia in Syria, given the fall of Aleppo, and that it achieved a stunning success in the United States, following its unprecedented cyberspace intervention in the Presidential race in a way that may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump.
Eight years ago, President Obama inherited a dysfunctional and broken Arab world from President George W. Bush. He will bequeath to his successor Donald Trump, a region in slow motion collapse, with US influence and reputation there at its nadir. One could say that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of America’s historic moment in the Middle East.
Moral vacuity not moral muddle
In the last few days, President Obama, his secretary of state John Kerry and his ambassador to the United Nations Samantha power addressed the calamity of Aleppo. They were outraged by the industrial scale violence visited on the civilians; they expressed their indignation by trying to name and shame Assad, Russia and Iran, as the actors responsible for the tragedy of Aleppo.
President Obama assured us that the world is “united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russia and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo”. Once again the Obama administration felt the need to bear witness to the tragedies on their collective watch. What they ended up doing was expressing their moral vacuity, not merely showing their moral muddle.
On Tuesday, ambassador Power unleashed a barrage of scathing assault on Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies telling them “you bear responsibility for these atrocities “in Aleppo. “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”.
Ambassador Power, who in her previous life as a reporter and a chronicler of the atrocities of the twentieth century, was known for her harsh criticism of the reluctance of American officials to actively work to stop atrocities, was in denial of her administration’s moral and political failure to act forcefully to end the mass killings in Syria. Her eloquent words rang hollow. The smug Russian ambassador the UN, Vitaly Churkin dismissed her moralizing and accusing her of “acting like Mother Teresa”.
On Thursday came Secretary Kerry’s turn at the lectern from the State Department. He called the situation in Aleppo “unconscionable” and said that what the Assad regime was carrying out in Aleppo is “nothing short of a massacre”. Then Kerry reverted to his default mode, calling on Russia and Iran to accept a cease-fire, and cautioning them that the world will be watching how they will treat the civilians in Aleppo.
Kerry, whose diplomatic missions regarding Syria were embarrassingly ineffectual because President Obama did not arm him with any serious leverage, was once again reduced to delivering words and exhortations. To think that the “unholy alliance between a Syrian dictator, a Russian autocrat, and an Iranian theocrat “as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement regarding Aleppo, Would listen to moral appeals, is the height of folly.
Following Kerry’s difficult to watch appeal, I tweeted the following: “For 4 years #Kerry has been appealing, urging, begging, Assad, Russia & Iran to stop “massacring” #Syrians. He keeps doing it, they keep doing it.”
The last man talking
President Obama had the final word. He volunteered that Syria has been “one of the hardest issues that I have faced as President”. As Secretary Kerry, Obama quickly reverted to his obfuscating and sophist default mode on Syria which he has mastered over the last 5 years by creating his own facts and assumptions.
For Obama there was nothing politically worth salvaging in Aleppo, and his focus was on how to expedite the evacuation of the people who stand between Assad and his full conquest of what is left of the rubble of Aleppo. He spoke about the need to deploy international observers, and setting up corridors for the evacuees. I wonder if he knew that he was calling for the creation of corridors to exile and endless wandering for more Syrians.
There was more than a whiff of naiveté in President Obama’s words that “the Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy”. Really Mr. President? Is Assad interested in political legitimacy, or raw power? Back to moralizing “the world must not avert our eyes to the terrible events that are unfolding”.
The harsh reality is that President Obama, an accomplished wordsmith, has spoken eloquently at times about Syria and human rights and democracy in the Middle East, but he always acted as if his words carried the weight and impact of actions. If for a carpenter every nail has a solution named hammer, for Obama, every problem has a solution named words.
Once again President Obama framed a more robust American role in Syria strictly in military terms, implying that his critics always counseled massive military intervention, while in fact they called for a forceful diplomatic approach, coupled with targeted and limited military intervention and a better program for training and equipping moderate rebel forces.
And from the beginning, Obama was never convinced that the US should seriously intervene in Syria, even when it became clear in the first year of the conflict that if the US and its allies did not move quickly to help the good rebels, then the “bad’ ones will try to own Syria.
No wonder Public opinion in America was not welcoming to the idea that a limited American role in Syria will make a difference “unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems, and that everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap”.
Obama is determined to leave the White House not willing to admit that he weakened considerably the rebellion by his half measures, such as not providing the rebels with lethal weapons including shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, or more importantly by his in-actions such as bowing out of his decision to punish the Assad regime militarily after the regime’s massive use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Words, however eloquent, will not protect President Obama from the harsh judgement of history; that the leader of the only great power in the world in the face of evil in Syria, and following the destruction of Aleppo, a jewel of a city, has flinched and Obama opted only to bear witness, and to do nothing.
After reading some heart wrenching accounts of life and death in Aleppo, I wrote the following bitter tweet, quoting an eye witness from hell: “Every hour, butcheries are carried out” in #Aleppo. Mr. #Obama, may you live long and may Aleppo haunt you forever”.
Elmore James, is an outstanding blues musician and a pillar in the Chicago Blues era of the 1950’s and 60’s. He was called the “King of the Slide Guitar”, and indeed he was. His voice is probably the most anguished in the history of post-war electrified blues. One of his signature songs is “the sky is crying”. He sings of a hard rain:
The sky is crying,
Look at the tears roll down the street.
When the hard rain visits Aleppo next time, not even a raging river of tears could wash away the thick blood of the victims from the streets of Aleppo.
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 US-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhemSHOW MORE