In September, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson provided instant fodder for countless jokes by asking, “ . . . what is Aleppo?” while discussing the Syrian crisis in a TV interview. Three months later, politicians and pundits who know exactly what Aleppo is can do little more than lament our inability to stop a tragedy as Syrian government troops, aided by Russia and Iran, retake the rebel-held city after months of hellish aerial bombardment.
The fall of Aleppo raises one of the wrenching questions of our time: What do the great powers do about humanitarian disasters around the world?
There is plenty of blame going around. The tragedy is haunting the sad final days of Barack Obama’s presidency with reminders of his futile promise to draw a “red line in the sand” at Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Obama’s inaction became a symbol of failure of U.S. leadership. But the truth is that there was little American will for action in Syria, which could have led us into another war in the Middle East and perhaps a confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The complexity of the situation is heightened by conflicting accounts. Reports from inside Aleppo often come from pro-rebel activists; while experience makes reports of atrocities by Assad troops all too credible, stories of wartime barbarity often turn out to be unreliable.
Meanwhile, critics of U.S. policy such as Canadian freelance journalist Eva Bartlett, star of a viral video, have harshly criticized the mainstream media narrative of Syria. They assert that the anti-Assad rebels are jihadists who have terrorized the local population and that pro-Assad forces are the (relative) good guys. President-elect Donald Trump and many pro-Trump Republicans argue that at the moment, Assad and Putin are our allies against the Islamic State terror group.
The pro-Assad claims have been subject to some devastating rebuttals. Bartlett, in particular, has been shown to have ties to the Kremlin propaganda channel RT, and her argument that Assad’s victory with 88 percent of the vote in Syrian elections reflects actual popular support makes her credibility close to zero. War correspondent and World Affairs Journal columnist Michael J. Totten makes a strong case that Assad is no partner in the war against Islamist terrorism, which he himself cultivates. It is also clear that Assad and Putin have no interest in destroying ISIS, only in keeping the Assad regime in power.
Yet Totten admits that many of the anti-Assad rebels are radical Islamists, and some belong to al-Qaida. If the Assad regime fell, its moderate and secular opponents probably would not prevail. We are understandably wary of intervention that could bring to power our future enemies.
The question remains: What do we do about humanitarian catastrophes? Even Johnson, the libertarian who advocates avoidance of foreign entanglements, has advocated a U.S. role in curbing such disasters. Today, a refrain is that the fall of Aleppo has made a final mockery of the post-Holocaust slogan, “Never again.” But how is Aleppo different from dozens of other massacres since World War II? Putin’s troops killed some 100,000 in Chechnya. The Syrian army under Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, killed up to 40,000 in his nation’s city of Hama in 1982 after an Islamist uprising.
The modern Western world’s superior power has left us with a terrible paradox. We feel that we have the ability — and responsibility — to save people in distant places, their plight made visible to us by our technology. Yet we cannot do so without stretching our resources to the breaking point. It is a question that has no answer for the foreseeable future. Aleppo will happen again.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.