The world awoke Tuesday morning to the harrowing end of the battle of Aleppo, a four-year struggle between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and a mixture of moderate and jihadist rebels seeking to liberate the city from his totalitarian rule.
With the help of a ruthless ally in Russian head of state Vladimir Putin, Assad has reportedly finally managed to subdue the city, killing tens of thousands of civilians along the way. Yet while mainstream media figures sound the alarm today, Assad’s human rights atrocities are half a decade old. The situation in Aleppo is in part the product of President Barack Obama’s failure to lead in preventing Assad from making human rights violations a habit.
Had President Obama kept his word to punish Assad should he use chemical weapons on civilians in August 2012, no power vacuum would exist for Putin or jihadist elements to exploit in Aleppo. With Assad gone, Syria could have begun its rehabilitation process years before the devastation occurring today.
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side, this should not have been a new lesson for President Obama. The United States has abrogated its responsibility to the international community before – under President Bill Clinton, when over one million Rwandans died in a genocide most agree could have been prevented.
The situation in Aleppo is harrowing. Activists on the ground say they are not allowed to leave, and Syrian government soldiers are going door to door killing entire families. The New York Times quotes French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault describing the scene as “coldblooded murders of entire families on the ground who were deemed close to the opposition; summary executions, including of women and children; people burned alive in their homes; the continuation of systematic targeting of hospitals, their staff and their patients.”
Those with access to the internet in Aleppo are posting their final goodbyes on social media, urging the international community to acknowledge their genocide and intervene, better late than never.
When Russia officially entered the Syrian fray, Assad’s forces had been largely diminished, the product of fighting too many foes at once: moderate Syrian rebels, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), among others. Russia vowed to fight ISIS, but almost immediately failed to do so. In October 2015, when Russian officials were still pretending their intervention was in the name of fighting ISIS, four out of every five airstrikes by Russian fighter jets were not hitting Islamic State targets.
While Reuters lists a number of jihadist groups – including Hezbollah, involved in defense of Assad – as active participants in the battle of Aleppo, the Islamic State is not one of them.
Many Syrian rebels blame President Obama for this tragedy. “History will never forgive Obama for what he has done to the Syrian people… [Obama] abandoned the Syrian people and gave Bashar the green light,” Syrian rebel leader Riad Hijab told the Wall Street Journal last week. A Syrian government official, in a way confirming that President Obama’s inaction on Syria benefits Damascus, told Reuters last week that “The Russians want to complete the [Aleppo] operation before Trump takes power.”
President Obama has given the Assad regime reason to believe they can act with impunity. President Obama’s intervention in Syria consists largely of a failed program to train rebel leaders – so failed that many of those trained by America left to fight with jihadist groups two years ago – and a speech vowing consequences for Assad should he used chemical weapons: the famous 2012 “red line” speech.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” President Obama said then.
It is unclear how his calculus changed, as Assad continued to use chemical weapons against civilians on multiple occasions after the speech, and has now won the largest battle of the Syrian Civil War. Images of civilians suffering gas attack wounds were common a year after the speech. By December 2013, Assad was dropping barrel bombs on civilians in Aleppo.
This August, reports surfaced of Assad dropping chlorine bombs on an Aleppo suburb. The world continues to await any response from the Obama administration.
Last week. Russian and Syrian government planes dropped leaflets over Aleppo. “Everyone has given up on you,” they reportedly read “you will be annihilated.”
The Aleppo massacre is about as new as President Obama’s promise to do something about it.
If the story sounds similar, if a bit more Russian than the first time, that’s because this is not the first massacre in recent memory perpetrated while a Democratic White House stood idly by. In January 1994, Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire sent a message to his UN overlords in New York, warning that the leaders of the country where he was stationed, Rwanda, “were going to conduct an outright slaughter and elimination of the opposition,” he recalled years later. “Nobody was interested,” he told CNN in 2008.
The United Nations did little, and the Clinton administration all but ignored reports warning the State Department a “bloodbath” was imminent. State Department documents seemed to contradict Clinton’s claims at the time that his administration could not comprehend how vast the genocide was.
A study by an Organization for African Unity panel found that no nation did more than the US to undermine the effectiveness of” the UN in stopping the massacre. “The Americans, led by US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, played the key role in blocking more expeditious action by the UN…” the International Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events concluded. “As the carnage continued, the UN dithered in organizing any kind of response to the ongoing tragedy.”
Of course the two situations differ significantly: the Rwandan genocide resulted in between one and two million deaths; Aleppo’s death toll remains unknown, but an estimated 250,000 civilians are under threat. In September, that number was closer to 600,000, according to the United Nations. Those committing the Rwandan genocide were Rwandans, killing their countrymen; in Aleppo, Putin has as much blood on his hands as Assad does. Yet the foreign policy principles that triggered a U.S. failure to intervene in Rwanda are alive and well in Syria: the blunder of promising to be present before a tragedy occurs and reneging.
Years after leaving office, Clinton himself seemed to agree with his critics on Rwanda. “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost,” he told CNBC at the time. The best the residents of Aleppo can hope for now is a similar statement from President Obama two decades from now, if they survive the carnage.