Opinion

The Fall of Aleppo Signals the Dishonorable Decline of the West

The wrenching tragedy in Syria is the visual proof of the collapse of international law and ethics, and the result of the West subcontracting its dirty work to authoritarian and anti-democratic states.

Syrians arrive in a rebel-held region after being evacuated from eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 15, 2016.
Baraa Al-Halabi, AFP

Aleppo has fallen. And in its wake, the fall of all those universal principles and values we acquired through a long and hard struggle. A whole historical and moral process crumbles. Something we still refer to as "international law."

Twenty-two years ago, I took a Masters in International Humanitarian Law, followed by training at the Academy of International Law in The Hague. It was the end of the Cold War and communist regimes were falling across Europe. This was the very first masters of its kind. There was a firm belief in a new emerging world order based on human rights protected by a framework of international ethical and legal norms. The West had the upper hand, it stood its ground, handing out "low cost" democratization packages by mentoring the countries of the former Communist East and the USSR in the rule of law. Most of these countries have since joined the European Union and/or NATO.

It was all too good to be true. 

If the linear advance of human rights norms had indeed been so easy, the free world wouldn't have needed to wait until the 1990s; the lessons would have been evident straight after the Holocaust, or at least after the Cold War. They could have met up on the beach to dance, to inaugurate a new era and to speak in a universal language. We would have avoided the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica and the fall of Sarajevo, itself a city whose history is immersed in three religions.

It is surely the tragedy in Syria that embodies the moral fall of what remains of the international community and its norms. More than 300,000 people have died and more than half the country's population are refugees. Flattened cities and millions of lives broken and destroyed forever.

Syrians leave a rebel-held area toward the government-held side during an operation by regime forces to retake Aleppo, Syria, December 13, 2016.
Karam Al-Masri, AFP

Much blood has been spilled, and much ink commenting and describing the everyday horrors of Syria. The atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies certainly make them primarily responsible. 

But the disastrous management by the international community and its complicity in these horrors will also leave its mark on future generations. The U.S. president didn't want his gold Nobel peace medal to be tainted by the blood of Syrian children. The Americans and Europeans set "red lines," then allowed them to be crossed, sequentially, most notably in the use of chemical weapons. Then the fall of Homs and now Aleppo, Syria's second largest city and once the country's economic heart.

ISIS, or Daesh, is a recent creation, an incarnation of the forces of evil that targets and attacks civilizations both ancient and modern. It is a product derived from Al-Qaida and a by-product of the diplomatic failure of the international community in its assessment and management of world affairs in general, and of the Middle East in particular. It is because of this decline and regression that the terrorist threat has manifested itself and spread to the streets of European capitals.

The existence of prestigious and well-established universities, research centers and think tanks are of even more significance than the West’s military superiority. These thought leaders and the norms they have absorbed make it possible to undertake in-depth analysis and put in place long term visions and strategies.

But like norms-based international behavior, such long-termism is no longer fashionable. Presidents and prime ministers react live on Twitter and on their personal Facebook pages. Fast-food culture made it to the sphere of diplomacy. Fast, cheap, but with disastrous consequences. Short-termism has become a universal cult. We, in the West, have handled the Syrian crisis as if we were considering a business strategy, ensuring zero human and financial risk on our side and subcontracting the dirty work to authoritarian and anti-democratic countries.

By shamefully burying our heads in the sand, we have lost both the battle – and our honor.

Akil Marceau graduated in history and humanitarian law and has worked for French media outlets and the Japanese NHK television network. He is a researcher and former director of the Representation of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris.