Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Aleppo?

The cease-fire in the Syrian civil war brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opens a new chapter in American foreign policy. This is not to suggest that the cease-fire itself will necessarily prove strategically consequential in the long sweep of the conflict. It may ultimately be as fragile as previous attempts to arrest the destructive course of this interminable war. But the terms of the ceasefire itself, and its provisions for intelligence-sharing and "joint targeting" between the U.S. and Russia, represent a fundamental shift in the American response to the evolving conditions of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the early days of the Arab Spring the Obama administration adopted a posture of proactive support for the forces of political liberalization in the Arab world, and unequivocal opposition to those leaders determined to use coercion and terror as a means to stay in power. The high point of this stance was embodied by the "mission to protect civilians" undertaken by NATO in the face of Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi's imminent slaughter of opposition groups headquartered in Benghazi.

That strong stance against state terror and in support of liberalization has progressively eroded in the years since the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens in 2012, and is finally extinguished for good and all by the terms of the current ceasefire in Syria. Though this might seem like an extreme claim, brief contemplation of the agreement and its consequences makes the point clear. For example,  the ceasefire unconditionally includes groups like Hezbollah that support the Assad regime under its umbrella, while tasking elements of the Free Syrian Army to physically disengage from units of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front (formerly known as Al-Nusra) in order to enjoy the ceasefire's protections. With Russian and U.S. forces agreeing to strike consensual targets on intelligence gathered by both nation's security services, it is virtually inevitable that U.S. warplanes, acting on Russian intelligence, will eventually conduct bombing raids against Free Syrian Army forces that have been trained and equipped by the U.S. No Syrian can credibly be expected to believe American protests that "Assad must go" in the wake of such an event. Thus, in essence, the ceasefire cedes control of the political agenda being pursued by foreign brokers in the Syrian conflict to Moscow.

This strange passivity on the part of our current leaders in Washington D.C. is echoed by the state of political discourse in the ongoing presidential election campaign. When asked what he would do about Aleppo, the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson (former Governor of New Mexico), notoriously asked, "And what is Aleppo?" The fact that polls do not indicate he will pay much of a political price for this gaffe would seem to suggest that the broader American electorate is paying as little attention to the situation in Syria as Johnson himself. More tellingly, Johnson's proposed "solution" to the Syrian crisis (when he eventually became clear as to what was being asked), that the US should "join hands with Russia...to diplomatically bring that to an end," is virtually identical to the path already being blazed by the Obama administration. There thus seems to be a general dearth of urgent or creative thinking about the Syrian crisis within the American political establishment at large.

In stumbling upon his verbal misfire Johnson has inadvertently given voice to a question that all Americans, indeed all conscientious global citizens, arguably should contemplate.  Viewing the photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, drawn by rescue workers from the rubble of his family's apartment that had been destroyed by a Syrian government air raid, we should all have pause to ask ourselves, "What is Aleppo?" That photo brought to my mind Picasso's famous artistic invocation of Guernica. In the same way that the bombing of Guernica in 1937 was a sign, ignored by the democracies of that time, of the rising tide of fascism and the destructiveness of the approaching World War, the suffering of Aleppo is an embodiment of forces that will continue to roil the world if the democratic nations of our own time do not effectively respond.

The current outlook is admittedly bleak, but it does not need to remain so. At this low point, even a change in the conversation about Syria would constitute progress. Secretary Clinton, whose candidacy has become mired in petty scandals and rhetorical quagmires, could seize the opportunity to refocus the presidential campaign on genuine matters of policy. She is known to have supported a different course in Syria in the past, one that committed the US more robustly to opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. She has refrained from highlighting this aspect of her record out of deference to President Obama, but at this juncture she is unlikely to successfully turn the conversation toward matters of policy unless she can highlight some way in which she plans to depart from the current administration. Since that is true in any case, it makes pellucid good sense to advocate an independent course in Syria, as it would serve the dual purpose of revitalizing her campaign and raising consciousness about a problem that is of vital importance to the security of the entire world.

In the most narrow factual sense, Secretary Clinton does not need to be asked "what is Aleppo?" But in a more abstract, existential sense, the question stands out very saliently. What is Aleppo? Is it a warning? An omen? An indictment? A human and moral catastrophe? Aleppo is all of these things, and more. Unless a leader like Secretary Clinton can summon the courage to focus our attention on this question, we will not like the answers that time and history eventually bring back to us.

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