The past year we have been bombarded by images and videos coming out of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The devastation has been vast, the lives lost have been in large part innocent women and children trapped in the middle of airstrikes and rebel forces. One particular video showing the aftermath of a chlorine gas attack in a hospital made me choke up and wonder what can turn human beings from the innocent children we all start as, into calloused monsters. Children were being treated for their chemical exposure, choking and dying in the hospital, and out of nowhere that exact hospital is hit by an airstrike, killing staff and victims of the previous attack alike.
I consider myself to be a very mentally tough person, and I have seen my share of horrific things, but these images and the countless others coming out of the region, as well as the world’s reaction to them, have shaken me several times over the last year. Watching this happen in real time has made it that much worse. I wish there was a simple solution to the issue, but with Aleppo falling and the war in Syria seeming to be ratcheting down in intensity, I feel it’s more important that we discuss the failures that brought us to this point. Particularly the failures in American foreign policy, since those are the things we can actually control.
WHAT ROLE DID WE PLAY IN SYRIA?
President Obama put forward a policy in Syria the United States has been practicing for decades. We have consistently undermined regimes hostile to American interests, and armed rebel forces, promising our support to overthrow the hostile administration (official outrage at Russian hacking seems hypocritical given this policy, which is why I am generally against it, but I digress).
In this case we armed and trained rebel groups, promising them the help they needed to overthrow a truly masochistic Assad rein of power in the country. Except we didn’t follow through with the support needed. This can be blamed on a variety of factors, from inaction in congress, the rebels being much more prone to extremist violence than expected, or to a war weary America, unwilling to jump into yet another unpredictable skirmish. Regardless of the reason, promises were made and then broken. This inspired confidence initially for the rebels, knowing they had the might of the US on their side, but their trust was misplaced, and our efforts were nowhere near what was needed to make a real difference.
The tipping point for our failures however, seemed to hinge on a particular declaration directly from president Obama. He drew a “red line” in the sand in 2012, promising military action if Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. Then Assad called his bluff, using chemical weapons indiscriminately and without fear of reprisal, killing and permanently scarring thousands of innocent civilians in their efforts to fight the rebels. Our reaction? Nothing.
Our red line was an empty threat, and once Assad knew that, it emboldened him, causing even more destruction in the region. Our lack of global leadership on this issue allowed the Russians to then come aboard to help Assad, under the false narrative that they were fighting terrorism. To this day most people declaring Russia the tip of the spear in the war against ISIS, don’t realize that they aren’t even in Aleppo, and the Russians have no interest in pursuing anything in Syria beyond keeping Assad in power, as they are an economic ally. We may not be doing the bombing, but we contributed to the circumstances that brought it about, and stood by idly as it happened.
WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
I don’t see a productive way forward in Syria, as much as it pains me to say it. However, we can learn from these mistakes. The mistakes in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and dozens of other countries, particularly in the middle east and Latin America, are an accepted part of our foreign policy priorities, and we need to reevaluate our penchant for regime change. Additionally, the times we find it absolutely necessary to act for American security, or humanitarian necessity, we must act decisively and demand the world follow our lead when applicable.
This shouldn’t be happening. Hundreds of thousands of people should not be indiscriminately killed by their own governments as we sit by and watch. We are better than this as a species, or at least I hope we are. Syria may be a black eye on this part of the world’s history, but we don’t need to repeat these same mistakes over and over again.