Should the United States use military means to try to stop Syrian and Russian forces from massacring the civilian population of Aleppo? If the answer to that question is no, then what level of atrocity is the U.S., and the world, willing to tolerate in Syria—and elsewhere—before intervening? The questions in isolation are relatively straightforward to answer. But when we consider them in tandem, the answers become mutually incompatible. This is the crux of the tragedy of the Syrian civil war for those not condemned to suffer its terrible consequences directly.
At first glance, the case for intervening on humanitarian grounds to stop the indiscriminate Syrian and Russian assault on Aleppo’s rebel-held neighborhoods seems irrefutable. Writing in WPR last week, Frederick Deknatel catalogued the horrors taking place, which include the leveling of whole swathes of the city, with no regard for civilian inhabitants, and the targeting of hospitals and humanitarian workers treating the wounded. The “forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian jets, have attempted to retake the rebel-controlled eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo with unusually brutal force, even for this war,” he wrote. As a result, “the gap between American policy goals and the reality in Syria widens.”
If Washington’s primary military objective in Syria has been to degrade and destroy the so-called Islamic State, its primary political goal has been to create the conditions for a negotiated settlement between the belligerent parties, even if that means accepting Assad’s role in a transitional period. In the meantime, the priority for Secretary of State John Kerry has been to ease the civilian suffering in places like Aleppo. This explains his unrelenting diplomatic efforts to negotiate a durable cessation of hostilities with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, despite the repeated and somewhat predictable failure of those efforts.