[Published in The Atlantic.]
BEIRUT—For at least a year before the summer of 2016, civilians and fighters in rebel-held East Aleppo prepared for a siege they believed was both avoidable and inevitable. Correctly, it turns out, they calculated that the opposition’s bankrollers and arms suppliers—the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other “friends of Syria”—cared little for the well-being of civilians in rebel-held areas. Through the spring, contacts inside Aleppo prepared for the siege, expending minimal effort on appeals to the international community, which they assumed would be futile.
For all the world-weary resignation of the opposition fighters and other residents of rebel Aleppo, they have a well-earned pride in what they’ve done. They’ve maintained their hold on half of the jewel of Syria, and under withering assault, have cobbled together an alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. “From the beginning of the revolution, we held Aleppo as the role model of the liberated city, that holds free elections, has an elected city council, and elected local committees that truly represent the people,” Osama Taljo, a member of the rebel city council in East Aleppo, explained over the phone after the siege began in earnest. “We insisted to make out of Aleppo an exemplar of the free Syria that we aspire to.”
Unfortunately, Aleppo has become an exemplar of something else: Western indifference to human suffering and, perhaps more surprisingly, fecklessness in the face of a swelling strategic threat that transcends one catastrophic war.
The last few weeks have piled humiliation upon misfortune for Aleppo, one of the world’s great cities, and already a longtime hostage of Syria’s never-ending conflict. Aided by the Russian military and foreign sectarian mercenaries, Syrian forces encircled East Aleppo over the summer. Rebels briefly broke the siege, but Assad’s forces fully isolated them just as Russia and the United States put the finishing touches on a dead-on-arrival ceasefire agreement that, contrary to its stated purpose, ushered in one of the war’s most violent phases yet. Instead of a cessation of hostilities, Syria witnessed an acceleration of the war against civilians, with East Aleppo as the showcase of the worst war-criminal tactics Assad has refined through more than five years of war.
Sieges violate international law, as well as specific United Nations resolutions, that, on paper, guarantee access to humanitarian aid to all Syrians but which in practice the government has disregarded. Aleppo—the biggest prize yet for Assad—has also been subjected to his most destructive assault. Throughout East Aleppo, Syrian or Russian aircraft have ruthlessly bombed civilians, singling out all healthcare facilities and first-responder bases. Bombs have ravaged well-known hospitals supported by international aid groups, along with the facilities of the White Helmets, the civil defense volunteers famous for digging casualties from rubble.
As if to test the proposition that the international community has just as little concern for its own reputation as it does for the lives of Syrian civilians—nearly half of whom have been displaced from their homes nationwide—Russia apparently chose, on September 19, the seventh day of the ceasefire, to bomb the first aid convoy en route to rebel-held Aleppo. That decision will be remembered as a fateful one.
Russia and Syria were following a timeworn blueprint: Use force to kill and starve civilians, then lie brazenly to avoid responsibility. In this case, the evidence is too clear and the trespass too toxic to let pass. So far, we’ve seen a sharp turn in rhetoric from the UN and Washington. Sooner or later, whether in the twilight of the Obama administration or in the dawn of his successor’s, we will see a much harder “reset” in Western relations with Russia.
For years, voices from Syria have raised the alarm. After years of dithering, even some members of the international community had the decency to follow suit, like Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The country is already a gigantic, devastated graveyard,” al Hussein said this summer, warning Syria’s belligerents that sieges and intentional starvation campaigns amount to war crimes. “Even if they have become so brutalized [that] they do not care about the innocent women, children, and men whose lives are in their hands, they should bear in mind that one day there will be a reckoning for all these crimes.”
Belatedly, Western leaders are joining the chorus. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who avoided taking a stand during years of violence against humanitarian organizations by the Assad regime, now publicly accuses Syria and Russia of war crimes. On September 30, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s direct entry into the war, Gareth Bayley, Britain’s Special Representative to Syria, issued a broadside. “From Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria, it has hit civilian areas and increasingly used indiscriminate weapons, including cluster and incendiary munitions. Its campaign has dramatically increased violence and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” he said, blaming Russia for at least 2,700 civilian deaths. “Russia has proved to be either unwilling or unable to influence Assad and must bear its responsibility for the Assad regime’s atrocities.
America’s top diplomats, too, rail against Russia futilely. In a recently leaked recording of a meeting between a ham-handed but apparently sincere U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition, Kerry admitted that he lost the internal debate in the administration for greater intervention, more protection of civilians, and a stiffer stand against Russia’s triumphalist expansionism. But like a good soldier, he has continued to flog a bad policy, pushing perhaps much too hard on the small constituency of opposition Syrians who remain committed to a pluralistic, unified, democratic Syria.
Perhaps Russia has been searching for the West’s actual red lines all along, exploring how far it could go in Syria without provoking any push back from the United States and its allies. Maybe it finally found them after it bombed the UN aid convoy in September. Only time will tell if the recent pitched rhetoric translates into action.
One of the few consistent goals of U.S. policy in Syria over the last year was to shift the burden of responsibility for the crisis, or even guilt, to Russia. Throughout long negotiations, Washington has bent over backwards to act in good faith, trusting against all evidence that Russia was willing to act in concert to push Syria toward a political settlement. America’s leaders today appear shocked that Russia was acting as a spoiler, a fact clear to most observers long ago.
With the latest agreement in ashes—literally—and an ebullient Russia convinced it will encounter no blowback for its war crimes, America has a political chit in its hands. For now, Russia thinks it can achieve its strategic goals by relentlessly destabilizing the international order and lying as gleefully and willfully as the Assad regime. The United States helped underwrite that international order when the UN came into being in 1945, laying down moral markers on atrocities like genocide and war crimes, and crafting a web of interlocking institutions that increased global security and prosperity. As its primary enforcer, the United States also has been its primary beneficiary.
Now that Russia, determined to reestablish its status after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, has pushed the United States into a humiliating corner and weakened that international order, it is raising the stakes. Either the United States will push back, or the disequilibrium will spread even further. In either case, many thousands more Syrians will perish. As Bassam Hajji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, one of the more effective, if violent, rebel militias influential around Aleppo, put it, “People have adapted to death, so scaring them with this siege is not going to work.” Those who remain in Aleppo echo this refrain again and again: The last holdouts have stayed out of conviction. It’s hard to imagine anything but death driving them out. “If Aleppo falls and the world stays silent, then that will be the end of the revolution,” Hajji Mustafa said.
In the end, Aleppo is not a story about the West; it is a cornerstone of Syria and an engine of wealth and culture for the entire Levant. Aleppo is the story of the willful destruction of a pivotal Arab state, a center of gravity in a tumultuous region in sore need of anchors. It’s a story of entirely avoidable human misery: the murder of babies, the destruction of homes, the dismantling of a powerful industrial and craft economy.
The institutions of global governance are under strain and international comity is frayed; as yet, however, none of the steps toward dissolution are irreversible. Such shifts take place over decades, not months. But the crisis in Syria presents the most acute test yet, and demands of the United States an active, robust, and strategic response that reinforces its commitment to the architecture of global governance—a system threatened by spoiler powers like Russia and ideological attacks from nativists, the right-wing fringe, and other domestic extremists in the West.
Ignoring its responsibilities in Syria—and opening the door for Russia to pound away at the foundations of the international order—hurts not only Syrians but the entire world. Perhaps, finally, Assad and his backers have gone far enough to provoke an American defense of that indispensable order that America helped construct.
Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
By Thanassis Cambanis
BEIRUT — The war in Yemen and the breakthrough nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States have sent the already frenzied Middle East analysis machine into meltdown mode. These developments come fast on the heels of almost too many changes to keep track of: the Iraqi government’s capture of the city of Tikrit, rebel gains in northern and southern Syria, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sanaa.
This drumbeat of headlines, however, should not distract us from the larger meaning of events in the Middle East. We are witnessing a struggle for regional dominance between two loose and shifting coalitions — one roughly grouped around Saudi Arabia and one around Iran. Despite the sectarian hue of the coalitions, Sunni-Shiite enmity is not the best explanation for today’s regional war. This is a naked struggle for power: Neither of these coalitions has fixed membership or a monolithic ideology, and neither has any commitment whatsoever to the bedrock issues that would promote good governance in the region.
This is, in some ways, an updated version of the vast and bloody struggle for hegemony that shook the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, a coalition of reactionary monarchs, led by Saudi Arabia, did battle with a coalition of Arab nationalist military dictators, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Just like in that past era, every single major player today is opposed to genuine reform and popular sovereignty.
Today’s ascendant regimes are all reactionary survivors — and sworn enemies — of the Arab Spring. The Iranians mercilessly crushed the Green Revolution in 2009, and have invested heavily in authoritarian partners in Iraq and Syria, paramilitary group such as Hezbollah, and non-democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. Iran’s leaders are theocrats, but they are savvy and pragmatic geopolitical worker bees: They have backed Sunni Islamists and Christians, while even some of their close Shiite partners — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the Zaidi Houthis in Yemen — belong to heterodox sects and don’t share their views on religious rule.
On the other side of the struggle are the Arab monarchs from the Gulf, run by the same families that brought us the Yemeni war of the 1960s. They have extended their writ through generous payoffs and occasional violence, like the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain in 2011, which saved the minority Sunni royal family from being overrun by the island kingdom’s disenfranchised Shiite majority.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian. Not long ago, in fact, Saudi Arabia underwrote the same Zaydis it is now bombing in Yemen. The current coalition relies for populist credibility on Egypt, whose governing class is dominated by secular, anti-Islamist military officers. It enjoys dalliances in various conflict theaters like Syria and the Palestinian territories with Muslim Brothers and jihadis. It has drawn extensively on help from the United States — and on occasion from its supposedly sworn enemy, Israel.
Perhaps the best glimpse of the Saudi-led alliance’s goals came when Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Sabah addressed the Arab League at the end of March, in the meeting that inaugurated the war in Yemen.
“A four-year phase of chaos and instability, which some called the Arab Spring, shook our region’s security and eroded our stability,” the emir thundered. The uprisings, he said, encouraged “delusional thinking” about reshaping the region — perhaps a reference to Iran’s ambitions of regional influence, perhaps a reference to the ambitions of Arab reformers to limit the influence of the repressive states propped up by the Gulf monarchies. To the emir, the only outcome of uprisings was “a sharp setback in growth and noticeable delay in our progress and development.”
This is the crux of the regional fight underway: the old order, or a new one that would transform the balance of power — while changing little else about the way the Middle East is governed. The Saudi bloc wants to turn back the clock to the status quo ante that existed before the uprisings. The Iranian bloc wants to permanently alter the region’s balance of power. Both factions are run by opaque, secretive, repressive, and violent leaders. Neither side is interested in popular accountability, better governance, or the rights of citizens.
For all the doubts about Saudi Arabia’s capacity to craft and execute complex policy, the kingdom has cobbled together a formidable coalition. It quickly signed up most of its clients and partners for the air campaign, including Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States supported the war, despite its reservations. Of the kingdom’s close allies, only Pakistan has so far resisted pressure to join the fight.
In just the last year, we’ve seen at least two major volte-face. Riyadh helped engineer a regime change in Egypt, ushering President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After experimenting with quasi-democracy and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that defied the powerful Gulf monarchies, Cairo is now governed by a military dictator who walks firmly in lockstep with Riyadh — even promising to dispatch ground troops to a war in Yemen of which he would have probably preferred to steer clear. Qatar, the unbelievably rich emirate that has long cultivated an independent foreign policy, also found itself strong-armed by Saudi Arabia and finally caved. Its emir abdicated in favor of his son, a 34-year-old political novice, and today Doha is reading from Saudi Arabia’s song sheet.
Both examples show that this is not a monolithic bloc bound by uniform ideas of authoritarian rule or Sunni supremacy. Instead, it is a messy realpolitik coalition hammered together by shared interests — and at times by bribes and blackmail. Its members don’t agree on everything: Saudi Arabia hates Russia, in part because Moscow backs Iran and Syria. Egypt loves Saudi Arabia because Riyadh keeps its economy afloat — but it also loves Russia, because it can play off military aid from Vladimir Putin against that from the United States. In public, Sisi praises the Gulf leaders — but in leaked private recordings, he dismisses them as oil bumpkins who can be bilked of their money by more dynamic Arab nations. Qatar no longer openly defies Saudi Arabia, but it still supports Muslim Brothers and jihadis in Syria to the extent it can, and in opposition to Saudi preferences.
Since Saudi Arabia’s gloves came off in Yemen,
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence.
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence. But Tehran has extended its influence carefully, hedging its bets by supporting multiple groups in every conflict zone and always maintaining a degree of remove — if their investments fail, it will have not lost a war in which it was a declared combatant. This blueprint has served Iran well during 30-plus years of intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, and four years of orchestrating major combat in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has entered the Yemen war directly, and therefore has no cover. It will own the civilian casualties, and inevitably — when the war has no clear and easy outcome — it will own a failure.
History is not on Riyadh’s side in this campaign. Regional wars tend not to go well for invaders; just think of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or the last Yemen war in the 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq should also offer a cautionary lesson: Many people at the time, including some Iraqis, felt that some major action was better than the status quo, that toppling Saddam Hussein would at the least get a hairy situation unstuck. They were soon disabused of that notion, as Iraq spiraled into chaos.
America should take particular care in this conflict. It has built deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, and it has been far too hesitant to reinvent its dysfunctional relationship with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. It should act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s outsized expectations in Yemen, and it should exact a price for any support it gives the war there. Any campaign in Yemen should strengthen, rather than undermine, counterterrorism efforts there, and the United States should share its military know-how in exchange for Saudi cooperation on the Iran deal.
Sure, it’s bizarre to see the U.S. military working with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Iraq, while working against Tehran in Yemen. It’s also refreshing. This isn’t a homily; it’s foreign policy. It’s encouraging to see the United States operating around the edges of a complex, multiparty conflict and finding ways to advance American interests. Its next challenge will be finding new ways to simultaneously pressure rivals like Iran and recalcitrant allies like Saudi Arabia.
But to a large extent, the United States is a sideshow: The main event is the regional struggle for influence between the Iran and Saudi blocs. One need only look at the two major events this spring — the Iran nuclear deal and the capture of Tikrit with the help of Tehran’s military advisors — to get a sense of who’s winning. America’s preferred side has bumbled impulsively from crisis to crisis, buying or strong-arming support and launching military adventures that are likely to produce inconclusive results. Iran’s side, meanwhile, has crafted tight state-to-state relations with Syria and its onetime enemy Iraq, and has deepened its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the theocratic dogma of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, the regime in Tehran has managed to position itself as the regional champion of pluralism and minorities, against a Saudi grouping whose philosophy has drifted dangerously close to the nihilism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Unless Saudi Arabia and its allies can learn a new, more durable style of power projection, their costly feints will only buy short-term gains. The kingdom might manage to bomb the Houthis back to their corner of Yemen, and its Syrian clients may seize some more towns and cities from Assad, but the long-term trend points in Iran’s favor.