The Siege of Aleppo: From Chronic Crisis to Catastrophe?

The presidential primary results in New Hampshire Tuesday did nothing to diminish interest in the ongoing races in both parties.  This would seem a positive sign about our democracy were it not for the fact most of us are more TV consumers intrigued by a new version of “the great race” than active citizens.  Trump and Sanders being big winners in New Hampshire, unthinkable last June, give legs to this “reality” TV series.  It should entertain us for months to come.

Oh, by the way, while the cable TV stations spend most of their time examining what has happened so far in the great race and speculating on what is to come, a catastrophe seems imminent in Syria.  The word “crisis” is so overused these days I needed to search for a more powerful word, especially as Syria has been in a state of chronic crisis for years.  When crisis is the norm it ceases to feel like a crisis, unless you are living in its hellish circumstances rather than watching it on TV as we so often are.

Here’s a rough approximation of what is going on and why it is so bad and why it could get much worse.

Since the Russians began to directly intervene in Syria in September, under the guise of joining the fight against ISIS, they have spent most of their efforts attacking the conglomeration of more moderate rebels that we have more or less backed.   They hide that fact in their propaganda accusing all rebels fighting the government of being terrorists, including the ones we tend to like.  With the help of largely state controlled media, they hide it well enough most Russians seem to believe they are primarily fighting ISIS, and it receives support because it is sold as a religious war.

Our response to Russian forays has been to avoid clashing with them in joint fly zones and to put our hopes in peace talks among various concerned countries to reach an agreement, but these talks have produced nothing, while allowing Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Iranian backed forces to regain ground lost earlier.  Russian intervention came when it appeared Assad was losing the fight.

Recently Assad’s forces and Russia planes have launched an attack on Aleppo, a rebel stronghold in northern Syria forcing 40,000 or so refugees to flee towards Turkey, but Turkey won’t accept them.   In recent bombings in the city some 500 people have been killed and many others are dying of starvation both in Aleppo and in other areas attacked by Assad.

Because of these events talks have reconvened in Munich today in search of a cease fire, but chances don’t look good.  For one thing Russia denies recent bombings of hospitals in Aleppo, accusing us of doing so.  And while we want an immediate cease fire they talk of a cease fire beginning March 1, which would give them more time to slaughter the opposition and strengthen their bargaining position.

In short, if the talks fail (and that seems likely), the situation borders on the uncontrollable and we are caught in a position of either confronting Russia in the form of a no fly protection zone, or losing further credibility in the area.   The Turks, the Saudi’s, France and various other nations are pushing us to do more, and that “more” seems to be a no fly zone.  A pair of scholars have written a piece calling our failure to set up that no fly zone “moral bankruptcy.”

Of course, Russia has indicated it opposes that.  After all its planes are using that area to bomb “our” rebels.   The situation seems to be heading towards either a military confrontation of some sort between ourselves and Russia or a further loss of our credibility as a military power if we essentially do little or nothing.

This is the big story of today, but it only is receiving slight mention on the cable TV stations, focused as they are on the great race.

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P. S. –     If you want the latest news on Aleppo and the peace talks, google Syrian Peace Meeting In Munich Thursday or simply Aleppo, or both.  They offer somewhat different sources.

 

 

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Qualms about U. S. Strikes in Syria

Just in case anyone who has read my last two posts regarding Syria thinks I do not have qualms about U. S. military strikes in response to the avowed “red line” being crossed regarding chemical weapons, I assure you I do.

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

I have plenty of qualms.  Fortunately, the keys ones have been expressed well in a short column by Matt Miller in the Washington Post, saving me  time and effort by just linking you to them above.

However, Qualm #6 I want to quote in full here, as it touches upon the role of American exceptionalism in the world, a concept that carries many caveats for me, but one in which I share to the extent we are not like every other nation.  A combination of circumstances have made us the world leader, whether we are keen on having that role or not.  And this produces a unique burden on our presidents.  As Miller writes in Qualm #6:

” … Syria is a reminder of how utterly unique the United States’ role remains in the world. Canadians aren’t demanding that Canada’s leaders step up and stop Assad. Swedes don’t see themselves as having a duty to enforce international law. It’s obvious but worth remembering at this moment that the power of the United States is extraordinary. As a result, so is the responsibility of the person who wins the brass ring. 

…. the enormous burden of decisions like Syria — and their unknowable chain of consequences for years, and even decades — nonetheless falls to him (Obama). The ever-grayer hair is the result. In the end, thanks to one man’s choices, countless lives will be affected for good and for bad.”

Our President made a definitive statement about the use of chemical weapons at a time when it seemed a reasonable statement to make, given international condemnation of their use.   As a result I believe some response must be made or our stature in the world will be diminished.  Our “word” will be tarnished.  How significantly, who knows?  Each nation will draw its own conclusions.

Columnist Kathleen Parker, whose opinion I respect, believes this loss overrated.

 “The United States still carries the biggest stick. We are still the bravest, most compassionate, most generous nation in the history of mankind. When our allies need us, our credibility is beyond reproach. We always act decisively when the stakes are clear. The world knows this. It is our exceptional history, not a single, transitory man, that inspires belief.”

I do not believe our “credibility is beyond reproach” in the eyes of our allies and as to our acting “decisively when the stakes are clear” I would point out how murky are the stakes in the  Middle East these days.  It is all a very messy business, so if we wait for clear stakes to crystalize, we might wait forever.

I believe our habitually gridlocked government has hurt our credibility abroad, with another example of that coming up soon in terms of raising the debt ceiling, which used to be fairly formulaic as it is necessary to pay government bills already accrued.    Now the world has to wait once again to see if we avoid the folly of turning the world’s number one economic power into a deadbeat.

I believe other nations have doubts about our capacity to come together to do anything.  I realize I am in the minority, but I would like to see us come together on this issue, supporting the President in limited strikes, a demonstration to the world that we can work together and do what “we” say we will do.