Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Syrian war has laid bare world's unwillingness to stop killing
Aleppo's hell shared on social media, but world no longer seems to watch, she says
Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The New York Times best-seller “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
“If you think thousands of Yazidis stuck on a mountain is terrible, wait until Aleppo falls.” Those words came from an Obama administration official focused on Syria policy. Back in 2014.
Right now the world is watching the metastasizing humanitarian catastrophe known as the Syrian civil war unfold in real time. But this disaster should surprise no one: It is the natural result of a series of policy decisions that led to the current diplomatic standoff.
Step by step, humanitarian access has been turned into a weapon. As an aid worker with the International Rescue Committee told me last month, “the very nature of humanitarian access has almost been redefined in Syria.”
The Syrian civil war has laid bare a great deal, including the world’s unwillingness to intervene to stop civilians from being killed in their beds and on their streets in a conflict that has pinned them down in their homes. Every time those close to the war think things have sunk as barbarically low as imaginable – from bombing convoys to starving towns – things get even worse.
“Before, when Aleppo was being bombarded by the regime, people used to go to the basement to hide,” says Kholoud Helmi, a founder of the Syrian underground newspaper Enab Baladi. “Recently the regime is using missiles that can reach down into the basement.”
One of Helmi’s friends in Aleppo said that he used to tell his children they could not go into the streets to play with other kids because he feared he would have to shuttle them down to the basement to escape the bombardments at any moment.
“Since the missiles are being used to dig down and then kill in basements, he is letting his kids go play in the streets because he wants them to go have fun because they are going to die in a minute,” Helmi says. “At any minute a missile is going to hit them either in the street or in the basement. The situation is terrible and people are dying in large numbers in Aleppo and no one is taking any further steps.”
For many of those in the United States who have worked on Syria policy for years, the overwhelming sense of frustration has made the bloodshed nearly impossible to watch, in part because of its predictability.
The ghost of the Iraq War looms large in Washington, but the question is what lessons has it offered? What is without question is that the conflict has prevented the Obama administration from committing sustained resources to stopping the carnage. Officials in Washington who for years argued for greater intervention could never prove the counterfactual: that further American action would make things on the ground in Syria better, not worse. And so the status quo prevailed. And that status quo was to do little to address the conflict’s root causes, but a great deal to fund help for refugees who were suffering the war’s effects.
Meanwhile, the carnage has continued. And we have reached the moment the administration official and I spoke of two years ago: the siege of Aleppo, the place to which so many Syrians had fled seeking safety during the last years of conflict after being forced to flee other towns and cities throughout the country.
The United Nations once spoke of a responsibility to protect. In 2009 it said that in the face of war crimes, when a state was “manifestly failing” to protect its population,” then the international community was prepared to take collective action in a “timely and decisive manner.”
Yet there is nothing either timely or decisive about the world’s approach to Syria, which has become the theater in which global and regional actors pursue their own goals, with Syrian mothers and fathers trapped in cities under attack paying the price. But this piece is not about dueling political aims; it is about shared misery of those on the ground and an international community that has failed them.
What is life in Aleppo like now? Bombing in plain sight. Hospitals crushed under the weight of the injured and the dying. Food and water supplies dwindling. Medical supplies limited to almost nothing, leaving anesthesia near nonexistent and babies dying without functioning ventilators on the dirty floors of the few overwhelmed facilities that remain standing.
And all of it is happening in real time as the hell of the city’s life and death is captured on social media and shared with the world.
Only the world seems to have stopped watching. And the international community is now shown to be impotent in the face of what the British ambassador to the United Nations termed “war crimes.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel now wants to see a ceasefire as she speaks of a bombardment that “is very, very brutal and clearly targeting civilians.” But even Merkel says she is “skeptical that in the current situation we can enforce an immediate no-fly zone; it clearly now is up to the Assad regime and also Russia to take a step to improve the chances for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid.”
That has been the pattern for years, only now the death toll is growing even higher and the “barbarism,” to quote Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has grown more bold.
For those on the ground in Aleppo and other areas under siege, it is clear that no one is prepared to stop the carnage everyone can see and many had predicted. The pictures may be on phones and screens within easy reach, but a solution to ending the bloodshed remains much further away.
“Most of us, we don’t want to lose hope, but in the end if you look at the situation it is hopeless, and you can’t do anything, so we are just watching,” Helmi says from her home in southern Turkey, where she was forced to flee after friends and fellow citizen reporters were detained and killed. “People are dying and the situation is getting worse and worse.”
With no end in sight. And no plan to help those children in Aleppo from facing death the next time they go outside to play on their streets.