By Hisham Melhem
6 February 2016
Once again tens of thousands of Syrians are being uprooted and forced to flee their ancestral lands around the ancient city of Aleppo by the incessant assaults waged against them by the government that claims to represent them in Damascus. The country roads leading to the Turkish borders are being traversed by haggard people carrying with them remnants of shattered lives, dragging little children shivering in February’s cold, wandering under the last skies of Syria, and wondering if they will ever return.
Syria’s northern skies have been given by the Assad regime to Russia’s prowling bombers which have been spewing deadly fires and cluster bombs indiscriminately against areas controlled by the opposition groups. The ground has been given to marauding fighters from neighboring Lebanon and Iraq and from as far away as Afghanistan and other Central Asian states, in what can only be called a new “Shiite Internationale”, to help a minority regime bereft of the manpower needed to retake and subdue the rebellious country.
Power of Diplomacy
Those in the West, particularly in the United States, who may have allowed themselves to entertain the scandalous notion that things could not get worse in Syria, should be forced to see the blank and numb faces of people on the move who are already beyond pain and hope, to realize the folly of their wishful thinking. Syria’s new tragic chapter is unfolding under watchful but impotent Western eyes.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a deep and almost mystical belief in the power of diplomacy to settle violent disputes, a belief based on the naïve assumption that his peers are as rational and as well-meaning like him, found himself doing what he does best with Russia; pleading for cooperation, and reminding Russians of their obligation to enforce the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 that they co-sponsored to provide a roadmap to a political agreement.
Is Kerry saying that after 300,000 dead (mostly Syrians) over 4 million refugees and more than one third of Syrians displaced internally, he still does not know who is serious and who is not?
White House press secretary Josh Earnest was truly earnest when he borrowed one of Kerry’s retorts, reminding the Russians that their “military strategy inside of Syria undermines the goals of their political strategy”. If only those obtuse Russians would listen to us explaining to them how best to reconcile their seemingly contradictory goals. The naiveté of this political position is matched only by the immense self-deception the Obama administration shared with many Syria “hands” in academe claiming that there is no ‘military’ solution to the civil war in Syria.
The American Civil War, the country’s most wrenching and bloody existential threat was settled by the application of uncompromising violence advocated by President Abraham Lincoln, a visionary and a man of peace. But, beyond the fact that many a civil war was settled by force, and beyond the fact that President Obama even under the best favorable conditions for the use of (limited) military force against Syria in the summer of 2013, before he infamously balked, today we find Russia, Iran and the Assad regime bent of fighting, even when they claim to be negotiating.
The quick convening and suspension of the Geneva III “proximity talks” brought to the fore once again, the Obama administration’s eagerness to get the talks underway under the fog of ambiguity, obfuscation and contradictory interpretations of the terms of reference, with the hope that the “process” of indirect talks will lead to serious face to face negotiations.
The Russia/Iran/Assad axis from the beginning wanted to use the talks as a cover to continue its assaults on key targeted areas, to consolidate what the regime and its apologists call “essential Syria”, that is the area stretching from the South, then Damascus, and along a “corridor” along the full length of Syrian-Lebanese borders, all the way to Homs, Hama, the whole majority Alawite coastal region and ultimately Aleppo and maybe link up with Kurdish groups along the borders with Turkey.
Most of those Syrians remaining in the country live within this useful area, and those who live in the eastern and central parts of the country will be left mostly to the not so tender mercy of ISIS and other jihadi groups, who the regime hopes would engage in an Islamist fratricide under the bombs that are being dropped on them by the United States and its international coalition.
The Geneva Fiasco
For five years the Obama administration has displayed a remarkable rigidity in its position on Syria. The United States will not alter its opposition to deploying even a limited fighting force in Syria - other than the occasional and temporary deployment of small numbers of Special Forces for reconnaissance and operations against ISIS targets and leaders - regardless of what happens on the ground. Not even Assad’s use of chemical weapons, or Russia’s military intervention, or even the growing Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in Syria.
It is clear by now that President Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar Assad have taken the measure of the American president and are convinced that he will not extract a price from them, directly or indirectly. Why would Secretary Kerry for one moment believe that any member of the infamous axis, particularly when they are doing relatively well militarily, will negotiate in good faith?
What would happen if the U.S. and its regional allies decided to provide lethal defensive weapons, say effective anti-aircraft missiles to deny Russia mastery of the skies of northern Syria? The TOW anti-tank missiles the U.S. provided earlier to small opposition groups were very effective against Assad’s tanks.
After the collapse of Geneva III, Secretary Kerry was quoted as saying that he had a “robust” conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov regarding Russia’s supposed commitment to a political resolution in Syria, then he added that talks are continuing in search of a ceasefire, and that the next few days would determine if “people are serious, or people are not serious”.
So, is Kerry saying that after 300,000 dead (mostly Syrians) more than 4 million refugees and more than one third of Syrians displaced internally, he still does not know who is serious and who is not?
It is also astonishing that Kerry would accept to participate in such talks without the clear Russian/Syrian explicit acceptance of the terms of U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, including its humanitarian and ceasefire aspects. Negotiations among warring parties always reflect the realities on the battlefield. This was true throughout history and regardless of the cultures of the warring parties.
The axiom of conflicts is immortalized by the great Greek historian Thucydides in the famous Melian Dialogue in The History of the Peloponnesian War. The Melians, who were defeated by the powerful Athenians, were told that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they are forced to accept”. This is precisely how the Putin/Assad/Khamenei gang sees the outcome of the conflict in Syria.
Pleading, beseeching, appealing and imploring them in this context is tantamount to capitulation. But since President Obama is unwilling to entertain any military option to extract a price from the Putin/Assad/Khamenei gang, Secretary Kerry will continue his quixotic diplomatic “tilting at windmills.”
The Sacking of Aleppo
Tamerlane was the last conqueror to sack Aleppo in 1400. His hordes overran the city very quickly, but their deeds were violent and merciless. Those who have been laying siege to one of the most treasured cities in the Middle East and slowly sacking its historic neighbourhoods in the last five years, are mostly local killers with some help from foreign hordes. Many of them are in the service of the ruler of Damascus.
We are witnessing and will continue to witness the sacking of a great city, and the deed will be recorded, and documented with the requisite drones giving us a bird’s-eye view, of those killed because they resisted, of the books, stones, woods, and glass that where once libraries, forts, museums, graceful streets and homes, churches and mosques and schools, the very stuff of one layer of civilization on top of another. The destruction so far is heartbreaking. Now the focus and fear is on a besieged population.
Now that Russia and Assad’s new foreign legionnaires have all but pummelled from the air and surrounded the famed city on the ground, we are seeing the depopulation of a city that has been inhabited for many millennia. The new hordes may use modern weaponry and communication gear and can produce slick videos to post on YouTube, but their tactics of “starve or surrender” are as decidedly medieval as the siege engine or the catapult.
A new river of refugees will run through the Syrian countryside to nearby Turkey first, but then will form new tributaries to other countries. An anxious Europe will watch with trepidation, and Lebanon and Jordan will get closer and closer to the day of reckoning when they could collapse under the weight of desperate and sullen refugees who see no hope or consolation.
The United States and the countries of the European Union and regional powers will provide more funds to those countries hosting the refugees, as they did during the recent London conference of the donor countries, but this support could only prolong the agony. Because the regional countries cannot by themselves contain the slow collapse of whole societies, Western involvement is imperative.
In the summer of 2013, when President Obama reneged on his commitment to militarily punish the Assad regime, the threat of ISIS was limited. Today the American president is contemplating the use of limited military force against ISIS positions and leaders in Libya, a stone’s throw away from southern Europe. Had President Obama been bolder in sticking to his pledges to Syria and Libya, we may not be now witnessing the slow death of a once shining jewel named 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 U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya