“Aleppo has basically fallen,” Donald Trump declared at an October 9 presidential debate. He was wrong then. The assertion was made only, in part, to justify his support for an American partnership with the Assad regime and its benefactors in Moscow on the grounds that they are effectively fighting ISIS (they weren’t then, and Damascus remains brazenly callous about refusing to prioritize the fight against ISIS). Given how Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies have viciously and remorselessly prosecuted the campaign against anti-Assad rebels—a campaign unimpeded by Western intervention—Trump was bound to be right someday. That horrible day is here.
For the tens of thousands of civilians and rebels trapped in pockets in the last remaining Syrian city still in the hands of anti-Assad forces, it is judgment day. As pro-government forces close in on the city, reports are leaking out into the civilized world of grotesque atrocities. On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights office alleged that government forces are summarily executing civilians, including women and children. This is buttressed by unconfirmed yet credible reports published by the Associated Press of massacres in rebel-held areas at the hands of Assad’s soldiers.
Residents who still have access to the internet are posting heart-wrenching dispatches in which they, resigned to their fates, bid their final farewells. For those that escape the concentration shelling and bombing of an ever-shrinking rebel-held area, civilians face an end worse than death. “This morning 20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped,” revealed Abdullah Othman, the leader of a rebel group in Aleppo in a message to The Daily Beast.
These are hardly the first crimes against humanity in Aleppo that were committed by pro-Damascus forces right under Western noses. The year opened with a devastating aerial bombardment on eastern Aleppo’s civilian areas, which cut the city off from outside and indigenous aid providers and threatened residents with starvation. A similar starvation tactic directed against the city of Homs had effectively routed rebel forces there earlier, and the quarter million remaining Aleppo residents feared their fates would be similar. By late November, the city’s last rations were depleted, and the international community was reduced to begging Moscow and Damascus to allow humanitarian aid into the city. For aid workers, however, the prospect of relieving Syrian civilians can be just as deadly a task as defending them from Assad’s forces.
In September, United States officials accused Russian warplanes of dropping the munitions that destroyed a United Nations convoy carrying food supplies outside Aleppo. In his farewell address, outgoing UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon accused Russia of orchestrating a “sickening, savage, and deliberate attack” on the global body. This was the natural extension of a systematic air campaign targeting hospitals, including maternity wards, the aim of which was to render the city of Aleppo hostile to life.
The images of lifeless or shell-shocked children streaming out of the Syrian charnel house have been impossible to avoid. Those images go viral for a moment or two; they provide Western political commentators an opportunity to emote before the moment inevitably fades. The executors of this atrocity now have the gall to question the validity of the reporting around this historic crime. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, on Tuesday called the idea of mass slaughters in Aleppo “fake news” and speculated that the youngest victims of Russian and Syrian bombs are, in fact, actors. These insults to intelligence and dignity will be consumed voraciously by the West’s enemies, but the West isn’t defending itself anymore. It is exhausted.
Sitting stoic and genuinely chastened on the set of a CNBC interview program in 2013, Bill Clinton reflected on his presidency and his failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda earlier. Documents released in 2004 revealed that the Clinton White House knew well in advance of the massacres that there was a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis” in the works. Yet, his White House did nothing until political pressure was too great to overcome. “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost,” Clinton confessed. “It had an enduring impact on me.” That amounts to nearly 300,000 souls.
How will posterity look back on Western inaction in Syria? This was a conflict that demonstrated the prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians and on the battlefield was no more. This was a conflict that shattered the European compact, as millions of unassimilated Muslim refugees streamed into the neighboring continent yielding the rise of a grimly familiar reactionary nationalism. This was a conflict in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered as the world watched, wrung their hands, and eventually changed the channel. Barack Obama’s regrets will be monumental, but his grief will be our own, too. As an increasingly insecure United States retrenches from its global obligations, this was a glimpse at the post-American future. Elections have consequences, and this is the world Americans voted themselves.
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