In order to recover its moral standing, the United States must take the necessary actions “to establish a new configuration of power” that will protect Syrian civilians from the Iran-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies, Leon Wieseltier and Michael Ignatieff wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic, and Ignatieff, the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, argued that “the moral bankruptcy of American and Western policy in Syria” has thus far led to inaction in the face of lethal aggression against Syrian civilians. This policy has been marked by a failure to penalize Assad’s use of chemical weapons, weak declarations that he must step down from power, half-hearted attempts to arm moderate Syrian rebel groups, and an inadequate response to the Syrian refugee crisis, which was exacerbated by these actions. In the meantime, they said, 250,000 Syrian have been killed, 7 million displaced, and 5 million– 2 million of whom are children– turned into refugees.
With the city of Aleppo facing a siege, Wieseltier and Ignatieff wrote that the U.S., in the name of defeating the Islamic State, may choose to “simply stand by while Russia, Assad and Iran destroy their opponents at whatever human cost.”
It is time for those who care about the moral standing of the United States to say that this policy is shameful. If the United States and its NATO allies allow its inglorious new partners to encircle and starve the people of Aleppo, they will be complicit in crimes of war. The ruins of our own integrity will be found amid the ruins of Aleppo. Indiscriminate bombardment of civilians is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. So is the use of siege and blockade to starve civilians. We need not wait for proof of Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s intentions as they tighten the noose. “Barrel bombs” have been falling on bread lines and hospitals in the city (and elsewhere in Syria) for some time. Starvation is a long-standing and amply documented instrument in Assad’s tool kit of horrors.
Aleppo is an emergency, requiring emergency measures. Are we no longer capable of emergency action? It is also an opportunity, perhaps the last one, to save Syria. Aleppo is the new Sarajevo, the new Srebrenica, and its fate should be to the Syrian conflict what the fate of Sarajevo and Srebrenica were to the Bosnian conflict: the occasion for the United States to bestir itself, and for the West to say with one voice “enough.” It was after Srebrenica and Sarajevo — and after the air campaign with which the West finally responded to the atrocities — that the United States undertook the statecraft that led to the Dayton accords and ended the war in Bosnia.
Wieseltier and Ignatieff called on the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone between Aleppo and Turkish border, under the umbrella of NATO, in order to prevent more atrocities. This would afford a measure of protection to refugees fleeing Aleppo, and give America and its allies the opportunity to “resupply the city and internally displaced people in the region with humanitarian assistance.”
They added that Russia and Syria should be warned that any efforts to disrupt the West’s humanitarian efforts would have “military consequences.”
“The era of our Syrian abdication must end now,” Wieseltier and Ignatieff concluded, affirming that an American leadership that combines “force and diplomacy, moral commitment and strategic boldness, around an urgent humanitarian objective” would inspire global support.
The United Nations released a report earlier this week that documented the Assad regime’s systematic extermination, torture, and rape of opponents, among other crimes against humanity.
Other commentators and regional experts have also recently criticized American inaction in Syria, with New York Times columnist Roger Cohen writing on Monday that the Obama administration’s Syria policy had become “a debacle of such dimensions” that it stands out as its “shame.” Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued last week that American “betrayal” of moderate Syrian rebels ensured that Assad “will lock in significant political and military gains” this year. Foundation for Defense of Democracies research fellow Tony Badran added that the Obama administration’s acquiescence to growing Iranian aggression in the Middle East effectively serves as “legitimization of Iranian spheres of influence throughout the region, especially in Iraq and Syria.” The Washington Post similarly charged in an editorial last week that the White House’s passivity towards Assad amounted to the U.S. “enabling … war crimes.”
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