Syria: A Humanitarian and Foreign Policy Disaster

October 10, 2016 2:52 pm Last Updated: October 13, 2016 3:02 pm

The proverbial “law of holes” states, “When you find yourself in one—stop digging.”

So far as Syria is concerned, we seem unwilling to learn this lesson.

And, brutal as is the reality, the West has lost the war in Syria. Whatever our kaleidoscope of objectives has been, ranging from removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to support of “democratic” rebels to creation of an Aleppo cease-fire, we have failed.

Brutal as is the reality, the West has lost the war in Syria.

There is no reason to believe al-Assad will cease military action in Syria until he has eliminated opposition—whether it be Daesh (aka ISIS/ISIL/IS) or assorted “rebel” groups of whatever political philosophy. As long as al-Assad has Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah assistance, he will prevail.

Nor is Aleppo’s ongoing humanitarian disaster going to cause a twinge by those conducting it. The fighting has continued since July 2012; various estimates suggest 30,000 dead with several hundred thousand civilians and combatants remaining in the besieged portion of the city.

However, remembering Russian casualties during World War II, for example, the siege of Leningrad (900 days; one million civilians and 300,000 military died) or Stalingrad (1.1 million total casualties; 478,000 killed), Putin may well conclude Aleppo’s losses are inconsequential—and the Western whiners are trying to play a human rights card in a military reality poker game.

Indeed, Western leaders have misplayed their opportunities from the beginning. We apparently believed that the Arab Spring, starting in 2010, which swept away creaky dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as forcing political change throughout the Middle East, would also evict al-Assad.

After all, al-Assad looks like a gawky ophthalmologist (his academic training) rather than presenting the visage of an iron-fisted dictator. Implicitly, we thought he would decamp with lovely wife, family, and uncounted fortune to comfortable retirement in some dictator-accepting/friendly country. But there was steel where we expected Jello; his army stayed loyal, fought hard, and beat down various rebel groups. Al-Assad “channeled” his father, who never caviled at massacring opponents.

Western leaders declined to put “boots on the ground”—removing al-Assad wasn’t initially believed to be worth body bags coming home—or even bomb his airfields and destroy his air force, his trump card in combating rebels. So fighting continued, and we lost the easy course of action. President Obama backed away from his personal “line in the sand,” demanding al-Assad remove chemical weapons; then the Russians were able to arrange such a removal/elimination and, concurrently, seize a principal position in the struggle.

Rebel fighters fire towards positions of regime forces in Ramussa on the southwestern edges of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Aug. 6, 2016. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebel fighters fire toward positions of regime forces in Ramussa on the southwestern edges of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo on Aug. 6, 2016. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Consequently, Syrians have fled by millions. Statistics on the tragedy are politicized, but one estimate has 4.8 million refugees plus 6.6 million displaced within the country from a population of 17 million. Most refugees are in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

But the exodus has also disoriented Europe, which in a misplaced burst of humanitarianism opened its doors to more than a million refugees who, in many cases, have been criminal rather than grateful. The backlash was predictable, but it provided no answers beyond “Stop.”

We have continued to place faith in the most fragile of reeds: diplomacy. Agonizing efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally orchestrated a cease-fire in Aleppo requiring the Russians and Syrian aircraft/artillery to end bombing and shelling.

Syrian regime forces gather at the Kindi Hospital as smoke billows following aistrikes on Aleppo on Oct. 2, 2016. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian regime forces gather at the Kindi Hospital as smoke billows following aistrikes on Aleppo on Oct. 2, 2016. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

The cease-fire essentially was a “reloading break,” as it was violated from the get-go, with the Russians blithely blaming the rebels. One well-marked and announced relief convoy was bombed into oblivion. So in the equivalent of a snit, the United States stopped negotiating with the Russians. One can hear the snickers in Moscow. War isn’t beanbag, John.

Still, desperate times require desperate measures. The Aleppo resistance is being offered two choices: surrender or die. There are various estimates of how long they can survive a siege that has radically reduced food and medical supplies.

The time has come for “sauve qui peut”—save what can be salvaged.

Boris Johnson (L), U.K. foreign secretary, looks on as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks during a Security Council Meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 21, 2016. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson (L), U.K. foreign secretary, looks on as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks during a Security Council Meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 21, 2016. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

We need to create a “no fly” zone and a safe area/corridor for Aleppo survivors to depart. This will have to be monitored by a multinational cadre of U.N.-authorized peacekeepers. It will also require a massive/expensive humanitarian effort to provide safety and shelter for those departing—without creating safe haven for the remaining rebels who might mix with the refugees. Both candidates for the U.S. vice presidency endorsed the proposal during their Oct. 4 debate.

Such an action would implicitly re-recognize al-Assad’s legitimacy and step back from military engagement to focus on defeating Daesh in Iraq. We must take comfort in the reality that nobody wins them all.

David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”