Analysis

Obama Admits He's Unwilling to Pay a Price to Save Aleppo

If he didn't maintain the lie of opposition to Assad remaining in power, he would have avoided the suffering caused to so many Syrians.

A member of Bashar Ashad's forces stands with a civilian on the rubble of the Carlton Hotel, Aleppo, Syria, December 17, 2016.
Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama looked tired, even defeated, at his final press conference for 2016, which may be his last as president. He listed his achievements of the past eight years, but it wasn’t a press conference of a satisfied president, but rather of a leader worried about his country’s democracy and unable to influence the main events abroad – above all the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.

“We all know what needs to happen. There needs to be an impartial international observer force in Aleppo that can help coordinate an orderly evacuation through safe corridors,” Obama said.

"There has to be full access for humanitarian aid, even as the United States continues to be the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. And beyond that, there needs to be a broader cease-fire that can serve as the basis for a political rather than a military solution.”

He added: “We should also be reminded that to be an American involves bearing burdens and meeting obligations to others.” 

If all those things have to happen, and Americans have an obligation to bear the burden, what’s the president’s solution to the crisis in Aleppo? The United States will continue to pressure the UN Security Council to do something; in other words, the same policy that has been useless for Syrians for nearly six years.

Obama also explained why he has done nothing effective to solve the Syrian crisis, and why he will continue to do nothing to help Aleppo’s besieged residents. The cost is simply too high. He said he and his staff spent weeks discussing solutions to the Syrian crisis, but ultimately he decided he had done all he could in Syria “without the support of the international community and Congress.”

He said that in the present circumstances, where there is no united opposition in Syria that could take control of the country, when a world power like Russia is willing to do anything necessary to defend its protectorate, and a regional power like Iran considers Syria its vital interest, “It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap.” That is, “short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited,” as he put it.

U.S. President Barack Obama waving after his last news conference of the year, the White House, December 16, 2016.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Unbridled violence

Let’s assume that during those weeks all the other options really were thoroughly examined and rejected. Why did Obama and his advisers decide there was no point in pressuring Russia at its weak points? Imagine for a moment what Russian President Vladimir Putin would have done if Georgia and Ukraine had suddenly entered the fast track for acceptance into NATO and received unprecedented U.S. military assistance.

If Russia’s protectorate tyrannies in Central Asia had to deal with a protest wave with outside encouragement, if Russia’s beleaguered opposition suddenly received broad support from “unknown sources,” and if the media reports about Putin stealing billions were confirmed, would Putin devote his energy to committing atrocities in Syria?

Even before the president made the conclusion, people in the Oval Office concluded that military force was too great a gamble, one that wouldn’t make the Russians compromise in Syria. And the Pentagon experts were unable to craft plans for a limited military intervention to protect aid workers without promising to occupy all of Syria.

The bottom line: The leader of the free world announced over the weekend that he can’t do anything to solve the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, or even to moderate it. He made clear that countries can exercise unbridled violence against civilians to achieve geostrategic interests, and that cruelty is becoming a legitimate tool in international relations. That’s why Obama’s talk about “bearing burdens and meeting obligations” sounds like a sad joke.

It’s true that atrocities like those in Syria have occurred in many places around the world since World War II, with varying degrees of attention paid by the international community. Aside from the well-known examples of Rwanda or Bosnia, millions of people died between 1998 and 2003 in the fighting in Central Africa known as Africa’s world war. The world didn’t do a thing.

And Putin showed his ability to resort to inconceivable cruelty in suppressing the uprising in Chechnya. The international community ignored it.

Cruelty pays

But we have to recall that today the International Criminal Court’s authority is repeatedly being questioned, the Western countries are focusing on internal affairs, and the UN Security Council is unable to prevent atrocities even in places about which there’s a consensus. (Only Friday the Security Council reconfirmed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, the same force that can’t stop the fighting in a country that a UN investigator has described as “on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war.”

The broadcast of Aleppo’s horrors on social networks makes clear that cruelty pays and the international justice system that was established after World War II is powerless. Obama’s despair and failure to act show that in direct contrast to what the president claims, Bashar Assad can “slaughter his way to legitimacy” – to borrow a phrase from the president. This is because the countries of the West, in particular the United States, are unwilling to pay the price of stopping him.

Finally, if the president and his advisers invested such a long time in examining every option on the Syrian issue, they must also have analyzed the option they chose – the option of doing nothing. And if they decided they couldn’t do anything to prevent Assad and Putin from achieving their goals by force, why did they maintain the lie of their opposition to Assad remaining in power?

Why didn’t they announce two years ago, a year ago or six months ago that the political solution for Syria would include Assad and force it on the rebel groups still pinning their hopes on Washington?

Such a decision would have damaged the United States’ reputation as the leader of the free world, made clear to any tyrant that he can remain in power if he exercises enough force, and stifled the hope for democratization all over the world.

In that way we would have reached the place where we are now, but we would have avoided the suffering caused to Syrians all those months when Obama claimed he was working for the right values but knew he wouldn’t dare pay the price of realizing them.