The Agony of Aleppo – trying to make sense of the senseless
A photograph of a young boy, perhaps 5 or 6 years of age. He sits neatly with his hands resting on his lap. Blood covers the left side of his face. He wears a blank expression and stares directly at us – he is probably in shock. Next to him is a large orange box with First Aid written on it. The child looks desperately vulnerable.
The picture of Omran Daqneesh taken earlier this week has reminded the world of the civil war in Syria. This conflict has now lasted for over 5 years. At least 200,000 people have been killed, perhaps double that. Over 4 million people have been made refugees. But numbers don’t really help us relate to the conflict. This picture does though. We are struck by an immediate impulse to shelter this child from any further violence.
It’s resulted in the inevitable calls for intervention. Not boots on the ground – we don’t want another Iraq. But why can’t we create a no-fly zone over Syria so that the indiscriminate bombing of civilians by barrel bombs be stopped? Bombing that also makes humanitarian assistance so difficult and dangerous. Clinton has advocated this and initially it seems like a sensible plan. The planes and helicopters used by Assad for dropping these crude cheap inaccurate bombs are relatively slow and could easily be policed by the nimble US coalition jets should it come to that.
The problem is the situation on the ground is still tremendously complex. While a no-fly zone would help with the threat to civilians from above it wouldn’t protect them from Islamic State (IS) on the ground. IS’s progress has been considerably slowed by air attacks from both Assad and Russia and the US coalition. So by enforcing a no-fly zone we would risk lending a hand to Islamic Extremists. Even if IS are driven out of Syria in the coming months then a no-fly zone isn’t without big risks.
Other military options are limited. The terrible legacy of Iraq means that sending in large number of troops is out of the question. The vote in July 2013 demonstrated this. If only Cameron had framed this vote for a more specific limited action – restricting it to air strikes of Assad’s key military installations for example – this war could have been shortened and the Assad regime overthrown before IS could exploit the situation. This, I admit, is a huge ‘what if’, but to call such a open ended vote on unspecific military action was a terrible miscalculation on Cameron’s part.
It is fair to say that any such air strikes on Assad’s military in 2013 would have soon resulted in one of our pilots being shot down. Assad’s anti-aircraft systems were, and remain, state of the art – SA-400 long range surface to air missiles are sponsored by Russia. Any planes flying over, or close to, Syrian controlled airspace to police a no-fly zone are in considerable peril. Also if air support to those Syrians fighting against Assad is perceived we risk getting embroiled in a larger conflict with Russia and its air force. I suspect this is something that Putin would only welcome as another opportunity to flex some Russian muscle.
And now we are touching on really why this conflict continues and why it is so hard to see how any large scale intervention could do anything but make matters worse. This isn’t just about Syria or even IS. It’s about Russian values vs Western values. It’s strong man politics vs democracy. Russia’s support for Assad is Putin’s way of annoying the West and asserting a Russian influence on Middle East (and therefore global) politics. He will eventually lose and Assad will be overthrown. Assad’s position is untenable in the long term, hopefully he will one day be tried for war crimes. But for now the Syrian conflict is serving the Kremlin quite well. Without Russian support Assad wouldn’t last long and the barrel bombing would stop. There would still be IS to deal with, but they don’t have barrel bombs, or planes for that matter, and are now on the defensive in Syria.
Western forces can and are assisting the rebels – but officially only to fight IS. However it will be these organised rebel troops that pose the greatest threat to Assad in the future and he knows this. US Special Forces are currently in Hassakeh helping Kurdish forces. Just this week the US flew in to protect this team from Assad’s bombers approaching the area. For Syria to threaten a US controlled area is unprecedented. Today the new US military commander, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, has responded to this threat from Syria with a new harder line – warning Damascus that they will protect their (US) troops. Any escalation in this conflict is fraught with risks though. The US must do everything they can to protect the forces that will one day overthrow Assad without directly antagonising Russia in a way that could play into their hands.
This is a cruel slow battle with massive international influences behind it, Syria is the flash point between 3 opposing forces. The agony is set to continue until Assad is eventually overthrown. I suspect this is still at least a year away. There will be more pictures like this. All we can really do is offer small scale military assistance to the rebels fighting IS and put as much real diplomatic pressure on Russia as possible to withdraw their support for Assad. And we must remember the civilians; whose very lives are being used as weapons in a war that is against all cultures with compassion and a sense of injustice.