Buried under rubble, Aleppo weeps. It was the most fascinating, glorious, majestic, and hodgepodge city I'd ever visited, an ancient city of narrow, twisty alleyways interlaced with broad, Soviet-inspired boulevards. The ruins of a giant citadel peer out over minarets and rooftop bars overlooking squares filled with kids kicking soccer balls. A souk boasts some of the sweetest scents I've smelled - nuts, soaps, spices, and sweets - and goes on endlessly.
Aleppo was the city that inspired one young aspiring urban planner, Mohamed Atta, before he had a change in careers. The city's Baron Hotel was a musty place well past its prime when I visited in 2009 but still felt vaguely like it did when Agatha Christie and Charles Lindbergh called it home. I remember sitting in an outdoor houka bar crammed with college kids watching bad Egyptian soap operas. I remember going for an early stroll thru Aleppo's Old Town, with its stalls were all shuttered, their inlaid wooden doors as ornately carved as the back of a backgammon board.
The city that inspired me as a young travel writer now haunts me as an instructor of military affairs. Aleppo has been reduced to rubble. A city, as one UN official put it to the BBC, that took 4000 years and hundreds of years to build took only one generation and a few years to destroy.
Yet, the destruction of an UNESCO-protected city only flicks at the cultural tragedy of this war, never mind that tens of thousands of innocent Syrians were killed, wounded and displaced, including hundreds of women and children. Last week we heard reports of a woman pushing her dead elderly mother in a wheelchair. Aleppo is a monument to the failed "there are no military solutions" platitude, the dead owe their fate to the naivety we have in diplomacy.
Syria is not like Rwanda, where according to Scott Straus, the violence was "low tech, many perpetrators used ordinary farm tools, such as machetes, clubs, and hoes, to kill. The violence was public, face-to-face, crowd-enforced, and neighbor sometimes killed neighbor." The violence in Aleppo was indirect - mostly the stuff of snipers, crude barrel bombs cowardly dropped from Syrian aircraft, chemical weapons - impersonal, methodically carried out to kill as many as possible. In Rwanda, the war was over before much of the outside world knew what had happened. In Syria, the war has unfolded in slow motion. Despite the lack of journalists, there are citizen reporters posting footage of atrocities on YouTube, brave groups like the White Helmets putting their lives as risk to save victims.
The violence here was not ethnic; the rebels were motivated by a range of motivations, ranging from patriotic - e.g. Arab Spring-like desires for more freedoms - to parochial (e.g. revenge). To be sure, some were also motivated by religion, which provided a convenient loincloth for western powers to sit on their hands and do nothing. Russia has accused peaceful Ukrainian protesters of being Nazis because of a few skinheads in their mix. Likewise, some in the West has dismissed the Syrian opposition as al-Qaeda-inspired radicals. The actions of a few do not dismiss the pure intentions of the many. I daresay American revolutionaries engaged in even more unsettling behavior during the overthrow of their British overseers, picking off commanding officers in the back, carrying out guerrilla-style warfare - all considered savage tactics at the time.
The world has stood by and watched as the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II has unfolded in slow motion. Bystanders to an atrocity, in this regard, are just as guilty as the perpetrators. It rests on our consciences.
Aleppo has found itself under siege as a result of a war that looked unwinnable from the Syrian side. Prior to the siege, a window had opened itself to the West to intervene in a way that might have alleviated the humanitarian tragedy unfolding. No, it would not have miraculously put the kibosh on the war, but it might have forestalled Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime from carrying out war crimes. Instead, a new norm has been established - dictators like Assad and Putin can massacre civilians with impunity and still be celebrated abroad. Instead, Aleppo is the graveyard of the responsibility to protect (R2P) norm, a fanciful idea where values trump interests that enjoyed a brief shelf life a decade ago.
Syria highlights that we live in a post-humanitarianism world. Yes, private citizens will still open up their wallets and volunteer to help out in war-torn settings. But the "international community," because of the deadlock at the UN Security Council (owing largely to its fossilized veto structure), is powerless to intervene. Realists might counter that Syria does not warrant US vital interests. Others might point to the blunders in Benghazi of the dangers of good intentions gone awry.
But like a butterfly flapping its wings, our failure in Syria will have profound effect on the future of war this coming century. Our generation will be judged, harshly in my opinion, by our unwillingness to lift a finger in Syria. Hollywood and social media sat this tragedy out. There were no Save Darfur-like campaigns. No Ice Bucket challenges. We have overcorrected from the callousness of neo-conservative-style interventionism of the GWOT era.
Others might ask: Well, what could we have done, if nobody was talking seriously about putting troops in harm's way? Many things: The US should have intervened more decisively against the Assad regime, which has been the real destabilizing force in Syria. ISIS is a symptom of the civil war, not its cause. We could have cratered Syria's runways to prevent its use of barrel bombs raining misery down from the sky. We could have mobilized larger pockets of safe zones in Idlib - not no-fly-zones, as we did in Libya and constitute a declaration of war - to allow for more humanitarian corridors and safe passage for displaced Syrians. We could have circumvented the UN Security Council and ignored the charade of courting Russia as a partner in peace. UN Ambassador Samantha Power recently asked her Russian and Iranian counterparts at the UN, "Are you truly incapable of shame?" To which I might throw the question back at her: Is the White House you work for incapable of using the leverage at its disposal? Last time I checked, we were the world's policeman, its sole superpower. We scold the perpetrators in Aleppo as if we were watching this tragedy on TV, unable to deter them before they carry out these crimes. We watch in real time as crimes against humanity are happening and then use our Western institutions like the UN the day after to call out such crimes. This is hypocritical and lazy.
What can be done now? We should immediately open up a formal war crimes investigation into Russia, Iran, the Assad regime and their local proxies. We should move to prevent any more Russian movement of military equipment into Syria immediately, even at the risk of military escalation (a direct line can be drawn between the hacking of the DNC emails and Russian airstrikes in Aleppo and Russian aggression will not stop with the siege of Aleppo ending). We should find it in our hearts to find a social media campaign on the scale of the ALS challenge to help Syrian victims. Finally, we should immediately call on the Syrian regime to open up its besieged cities to humanitarian agencies or risk military retaliation.
As Barack Obama steps into the history books and looks to cement his legacy, he has lots of accomplishments to be proud of. Syria is not one of them.
[The views above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the US Military Academy at West Point, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.]