Rage, rage, unadulterated rage against the dying of hope

President Obama is certainly not going to change his tactics in Syria, regardless of what Assad, Putin, Khamenei and maybe Erdogan do or say

Hisham Melhem

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August is the cruelest of months for the Syrian people. In August 2011, responding to Syria’s enlarging killing fields, President Obama called on the grim reaper Bashar al-Assad - who was “slaughtering his own people” - to step down. But Assad contemptuously continued his death march with impunity because the American president did not say “or else” and opted to naively believe that diplomatic pressure and strong words would result in action. In August 2012, President Obama warned Assad that if he even dared to move chemical weapons, let alone use them against his own people, he would be crossing a “red line,” a dangerous move “that would change my calculus.” He ominously added “we have put together a range of contingency plans.” In August 2013, when Assad horrifically erased Obama’s infamous “red line” by killing more than 1,400 people - among them a large number of children with sarin gas - Obama initially, but hesitantly, decided to deliver a punishing blow to the dictator’s killing machine. A few days later, he reneged on delivering on his threat when Britain and Congress balked, and after Russia threw the embattled president a life line in the form of surrendering Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons if Obama were to call off the threatened strikes. On September 4, 2013, Obama, who believes that sophisticated sophistry can explain anything and everything, had the audacity to declare “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” A low point for Obama, to be followed by many more related to Syria.

Passively gazing at death and the dying

By August 2016, Obama’s passivity on death and dying in Syria has been deeply etched in his heart of stone. Over the years, Obama had fortified his conscience against any sharp pangs of guilt regarding his atrocious abandoning of Syria and his shameless retreat from delivering on his threats against the depredations of the Assad regime and his confederacy of Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah mass killers and on his disingenuous promises to the Syrian opposition. From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, even when it was in its initial peaceful phase, President Obama made a priori decision not to seriously or deeply get involved in a conflict that he later described as “somebody else’s civil war.” When the Assad regime and its allies brutally suppressed the nationalist and moderate opposition, thus creating the conditions that led to the emergence of Islamist opposition groups of different stripes including the monstrous ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and when the conflict became a regional war with various proxies entering the fray, and when the Syrian war became a serious refugee induced European crisis, Obama and his young lieutenants at the White House blindly and stubbornly clung to their views.

The mere fact that the United States is seriously contemplating military cooperation with Russia’s expeditionary forces in Syria, thus legitimating the very military that occupied Crimea two years ago and have been trying to shred Ukraine to pieces while intimidating the European Union by exploiting the refugee crisis, is in itself a stunning American retreat

Hisham Melhem

The Syrian regime and its allies have horrified the world by killing thousands of civilians in chemical weapons attacks, medieval-like sieges and starvation tactics against besieged communities and the incessant dropping of thousands of crude barrel bombs designed solely to maim and kill civilians. There were many thousands of pictures of horribly contorted and emaciated naked bodies of dead Syrian prisoners, and countless number of children, toddlers and infants - the very hope of Syria - lying dead on the cold and bloody floors of hospitals, in the rubbles of their homes or stretched in the arms of their grieving parents. At times, the world, in fleeting moments of genuine anguish, seemed willing to understand more about the young victims, the dead and wounded children of Syria, even to know their names and other details of their short and stunted lives. Who would forget the mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb? I remember him haunting me for days. Or the tiny lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on Turkish shore, sleeping forever on his belly in his red shirt and blue shorts and the neat sneakers he wore without socks. Kurdi’s family was trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and safety. One would hope that Kurdi’s crossing was to a place of eternal bliss.

This week we met Omran Daqneesh, aged five, bewildered and shocked after he was pulled out of the rubble of his home following a bombing raid by Syrian or Russian warplanes. His expressionless face coated with a mixture of blood and gray dust gazing at us as if he were gazing at a limitless void. He was too stunned to cry or complain, after all this is the cruel world he has been accustomed to for all of his five years on this earth. Even when he lifted his hand to touch and wipe his bloody brow under his thick unkempt hair, there was no expression of pain or fright, only a passing hint of a surprise, before he wiped the blood on the orange chair. After his rescuer left the ambulance, Omran kept staring into the unknown, he was totally alone in the world, and for a moment he was like Syria, alone in the world. Looking at him, I was seized with a sense of unadulterated rage. Rage at everything and everyone, including myself. I wanted so badly for President Obama to see the short video, to realize that this reality is partly his own shame; I wanted him to have a sleepless night just as I and many people had.

From Russia, with bombs

On August 15 and 16, Russian strategic bombers took off for the first time from an air base in western Iran to deliver their lethal payload of ‘dumb bombs’ on rebel positions and civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo and on other targets in northern Syria. A callous world power teaming up with a belligerent regional power to help a local despot continue his catalogue of savage acts against his own people, while the world’s sole superpower passively watches the carnage and occasionally issuing pleas for restraint and beseeches Russia to be true to its declared policy in Syria and to lean on its client to cease and desist.

When the Russians announced the new qualitative military cooperation with Iran, they hinted that Russia and the United States were nearing an agreement to conduct joint military operations against ISIS and al-Nusra (which allegedly severed its ties with al-Qaeda and morphed into the newly minted Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or Front for the Conquest of Syria). Ever since Russia surprised the Obama administration by dispatching its air force last September to prop up Assad’s tenuous hold on power, its cunning President Vladimir Putin and his gruff Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been playing President Obama and his eternally optimistic Secretary of State John Kerry like a fiddle. The administration had no clue about how to deal with this assertive Russian move and the initial “policy,” if there was such a thing, was to wait and see Russia being sucked into a Syrian quagmire. This was a case of wishful thinking masquerading as policy. Russia is not bogged down in Syria, at least not yet. And the Russians are saying that the budget they allocated for military maneuvers is being spent on real military operations against real targets, many of them unfortunately are Syrian civilians.

For almost a full year, it was Russia that had been determining the tempo of military operations, the pace of distribution of humanitarian aid (extremely rare) and the frequency of (hollow) diplomatic moves. The mere fact that the United States is seriously contemplating military cooperation with Russia’s expeditionary forces in Syria, thus legitimating the very military that occupied Crimea two years ago and have been trying to shred Ukraine to pieces while intimidating the European Union by exploiting the refugee crisis, is in itself a stunning American retreat. Earlier in the week, Human Rights Watch gave the US military something to ponder while talking military coordination in Syria with the Russians. A report by HRW accused the joint Syrian-Russian military cooperation of using incendiary weapons “which burn their victims and start fires in civilian areas of Syria, in violation of international law.” The report stresses that such weapons have been used “at least 18 times over the past six weeks.”

A new geostrategic alignment?

One could see this budding Russian-Iranian military cooperation (after last year’s sale of the S-300 missile system to Iran) as a potential new geostrategic alignment that could include Turkey, now that US-Turkish relations have become the latest victim of the failed coup attempt in Turkey. While Turkey’s economic and military relations with the West are too complex and important to be dismissed or changed quickly, it is also true that Turkey’s traditional western orientation has been dealt a major setback. The use by Russian bombers of an Iranian air base came after the Putin-Erdogan summit and the beginning of restoration of diplomatic and economic relations between Ankara and Moscow. It also came after recent press reports in the region asserting that Turkey has reached a preliminary agreement with Iran on the fundamental principles for a settlement of the Syrian conflict. A dramatic Turkish shift on the imperatives of peace in Syria, for instance allowing Assad to remain in power within a revamped political system, will have tremendous regional reverberations and will strengthen Russia’s hand in Syria and the region. Such a shift will constitute a serious setback to US power and status in the region. One of the main reasons why Obama was determined not to intervene militarily in Syria before Russia became a direct party to the war was his concern that any serious American effort to help remove Assad from power could undermine the chances of reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. Contrary to the administration’s public claims that Obama had no illusions that such an agreement may soften Tehran’s animus towards the U.S and the West, it is clear that the American president was hoping that the agreement could open the way to improved relations with Washington. From his public pronouncement about Iran and its historic importance, Obama wanted a historic opening with Tehran, similar to his opening with Havana. One wonders what Obama really thinks when he watches Iran doubling down on multiple fronts, including ratcheting up military coordination with Russia.

Washington’s reaction to Russia’s use of an Iranian facility has been lukewarm at best. It is as if the US is saying since it uses the Incirlik air base in Turkey to bomb Syrian and Iraqi targets, then Russia can use the Hamedan air base in western Iran to bomb targets in Syria. The State Department said the historic attack was “unfortunate” and could make a contentious situation worse. As expected, a Kerry-Lavrov telephone conversation followed and likely ended with Russian promises that will never be fulfilled.

‘The worst place on earth’

As if to make this August bleaker for Syrians, Amnesty International issued a harrowing interactive report titled “‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons,” with focus on the huge Saydnaya Military Prison on the outskirts of Damascus, described by prisoners as “the worst place on earth.” Amnesty used the memories of ex-detainees and architects to build an accurate model of the prison “using ‘ear-witness’ testimony of the president’s hellish torture house.” This is a brutal catalogue of horrors and depravity that are unfathomable. We meet the few Syrians who entered a kind of hell that not even Dante could have imagined and who somehow lived to tell the tales of woes and human cruelty. In Saydnaya, prisoners were forced to share their cells with the dead bodies of tortured fellow inmates. Amnesty estimates that 17,723 people have perished in Syrian prisons and detention facilities since the uprising began in March 2011, an average rate of more than 300 deaths each month.

In his last five months in office, President Obama is certainly not going to change his tactics in Syria, regardless of what Assad, Putin, Khamenei and maybe Erdogan do or say. But we should continue to remind him, and the next president, that the rage against the dying of hope in Syria and elsewhere will continue. Unfortunately there will be more Omrans traumatized, wounded or killed, and we will not know or see most of them.

August is the cruelest of months for the Syrian people…


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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