The world faces plenty of daunting challenges, but are any more dangerous, complicated and seemingly unresolvable than the civil war in Syria? Its current focus is Aleppo, a northern Syrian city of two million people. About 250,000 of them are civilians trapped in the eastern part of the city, which is controlled by opposition forces.
About 100,000 are children. Food, medicine and doctors are in short supply. Schools and hospitals have closed or been destroyed. Many children have died; many more are at serious risk. The city is facing a desperate humanitarian crisis.
Only Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has a clear, uncomplicated course: he is determined to retake his country from opposition forces, and he has revealed no scruples about bombing eastern Aleppo into submission. Air attacks are indiscriminate, and the weapons include huge “bunker buster” bombs, barrel bombs, chlorine gas and incendiary cluster bombs intended to set neighborhoods on fire.
These are appalling war crimes. Can anything be done to prevent them?
The complexity of this question was embodied in two columns in the same edition of the New York Times last week, both by experts with significantly different views.
Steven Simon, a professor at Amherst College and previously the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, and Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argue for a hands-off policy in “Don’t Intervene in Syria.” They counsel diplomacy over military action. They refer to recent efforts by the United States and Russia to produce a cease fire, implement humanitarian operations and search for a political solution.
They admit candidly that these efforts have “fallen apart” but contend that the only sensible next step is to try again.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof, on the other hand, argues for a more vigorous response. He faults President Obama for his “paralysis” regarding Syria and calls it a “huge blot on his legacy.”
Kristof’s column is framed by the suffering of a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo, Bana al-Abed, and her mother, who have been tweeting reports of the carnage around them. The column’s title says it all: “I Am Very Afraid I Will Die Tonight.”
Kristof calls for action, something short of ground troops. But while he blames Obama for not employing “more robust strategies advocated by Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, John Kerry and others,” he admits that we can’t be sure that these strategies would have worked, anyway.
In short, neither of these alternatives sounds promising, and neither is likely to provide relief to Bana al-Abed any time soon. Maybe more strategic thinking is called for:
Imagine this region five years from now. Iran is the dominant power in a swath of land that stretches from Tehran to Damascus. Iraq is still a country with a Shia-dominated government comfortable with the Shia regime in Tehran. Bashar al-Assad is still in power, but the atrocities have stopped. The Kurds have carved out their homeland and are generally left alone. Sunni and Christians have been accommodated into this Shia-dominated region, or they have emigrated. ISIL has been destroyed, and a reasonable stability has been achieved.
Is this the perfect scenario? No. Some of the stability is the result of a tense standoff between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, based largely on the ancient Sunni/Shia divide; it’s unfortunate that Russia got involved in this area, at all; and Israel will be threatened by a stronger Iran.
On the other hand, the U.S. will remain committed to Israel’s protection. Iran may make nice with Russia, but they’re unlikely to readily accommodate Russia’s ambitions in the region. And while the current regime in Tehran is dominated by oppressive theocrats, the Iranian people show inclinations toward modernity and the West that far exceed Saudi Arabia’s.
But whether this is a good scenario or not may not be as important as the likelihood that it could be the inevitable result of a chain of events that began when we invaded Iraq in 2003 and over which we have no control.
It could be worse. And Bana al-Abed might still be alive.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Send comments to email@example.com.