In Aleppo, we are witnessing the cost of looking away

Story highlights

  • Rujouleh: We no longer believe in the power of freedom to transform the world
  • There have been many opportunities to stop atrocities, but time and time again the free world has looked away

Ruwan Rujouleh is a Syria expert and Middle East analyst at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)The last 48 hours have been the most savage yet for the people of Aleppo, where unarmed civilians have reportedly been shot on the spot, poison gas has been used indiscriminately and activists have posted tragic goodbyes on social media as they await capture or worse.

What Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russians have done is horrific beyond words. But they have been enabled by inaction from the West and its allies.
Goodbye messages from Aleppo
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Syrians in Aleppo couldn't possibly have done anything more to make their wishes clear. They wanted the West to help when Assad butchered protesters; they wanted help when the Russians joined in with the bombing, and as a last lifeline, they wanted the West to provide humanitarian aid.
    There have been plenty of opportunities to step in. But time and time again, the free world has looked away.
    Let us be clear. There were jihadis in Aleppo. Across Syria, jihadi groups form part of Assad's opposition.
    Unfortunately, that gives Russian and Syrian claims to be fighting extremism a morbid ring of truth, even as they allow jihadi fighters to retreat to Idlib.
    But we could have denied them that opportunity, had we turned our pity into action.
    From the fear that led Britain's Parliament and the US Congress to render President Obama's 2013 "red line" over chemical weapons meaningless, to the ideological inaction of the hard left and hard right who believe the world is safer with Russia in charge, inaction has paralyzed the entire West, leaving us unable to help those most in need.

    A duty to act

    We're at a point today where Western values of the rule of law, democracy, mutual respect, dissent, love of peace and tolerance, are so taken for granted that people no longer see them as worth fighting for.
    Which world leader is willing to help those most in need, simply because they should be free from the shackles of fear?
    We no longer believe in the power of freedom to transform the world.
    We are content to live in a modern era of detente, characterized by a resignation to accommodating those who oppose our worldview and threaten our core way of life.
    Time after time we say never again. Yet, once more, we watched a massacre and did nothing to stop it.
    We shouldn't forget how this started, Assad took up arms against his own people following peaceful protests against him.
    As soon as that happened, the West and its allies had a duty to act.
    This is fundamentally our problem, as much as it is the problem of the people of Syria.

    Emboldening Russia

    Allowing the tyranny of Assad to continue only places the entire region, and the world, at risk.
    If someone shows such a blatant disregard for his own people, what promises can be given that he won't treat his neighbors in the same way? There can't be, because there aren't any.
    The West should be worried about Russia, and undoubtedly, we are. Russia is now confident that no matter what it does, there will be no consequences to its actions.
    This is a fundamental shift and it should worry all those who are concerned about international order.
    Equally as worrying should be what our inaction says to other totalitarian leaders across the world. We have told them that no matter how much they butcher their own people the West and its allies will stand by and do nothing.
    Emboldening tyranny in that way won't only mean death and destruction for those living in fear. It could also, ultimately, lead to death and destruction for others.
    As a Syrian who spent most of my life in Damascus, believe me when I say borders can never contain tyranny, or the jihadists who have capitalized on their failed state.
    Our inaction will have consequences. Russia knows its behavior can go on unchecked. And Assad will know that he can freely butcher his own people, and his neighbors.

    'Never again'?

    What's more, the newfound swagger of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, who joined Russia and Assad in the massacre and have been strengthened by Obama's nuclear deal, will have shattering consequences for the region.
    Furthermore, our inaction will embolden jihadis the world over. Not only have we created the space for ISIS to retake Palmyra, we have allowed Syria to develop as a focal point for global extremism.
    The US, the West and its allies failed to grasp the nature of the conflict in Syria.
    The Syrian civil war is three conflicts wrapped into one: a regional and international proxy war; a popular uprising against a dictatorship; and a counter-extremism battle.
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    civilians flee aleppo pleitgen_00014304

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    The solution to each of these conflicts, taken individually, would require a different strategy. Taken together, they pose an almost insurmountable obstacle to a political process so long as hostilities are ongoing.
    We looked at this problem and decided it was too complicated to help.
    As this tragedy unfolds before our eyes, once again, we will say "never again." Let's hope that this time we listen to our own hashtags.