by Paul R. Pillar
Among large-scale tragedies involving human suffering and the many examples of man’s inhumanity toward man, only a few capture our imaginations and sway our collective emotions. The question of which specific episodes achieve this special salience does not seem to depend on the scale of the suffering or even on the degree of immorality involved. The salience instead arises through accidents and vagaries of history. The villains in particular episodes may have been primed to play such a role because of previous affinities and alignments and how we had already come to see them as villains. Some episodes get more Western press coverage than many other episodes because of where reporters happen to be, what competition there is for headlines, or other random influences. All of this makes for much inconsistency in what grabs our heartstrings as well as our attention.
Once a situation achieves the special status of being the focus of elevated indignation and emoting, the phenomenon of concentrated attention and moralizing becomes self-reinforcing. Repeated references to the situation as inhumane and a moral litmus test stimulate further similar references. Once this process is under way, it discourages sound discussion of policy options, including options of the past, present, and future. One reason is the oversimplification involved in treating a complex situation as a litmus test that supposedly has clear right and wrong answers. Another reason is the precedence that emotion comes to take over dispassionate reasoning.
This process is now being applied to the battle within the Syrian civil war in the city of Aleppo, with government forces having recently concluded the battle by achieving surrender of the remaining portion of the city that rebel forces had held. This front of the war came to get disproportionate attention partly because Aleppo had been the largest city in Syria and partly because the battle there saw intense combat over an extended period. The length of the battle was in turn an artifact of how front lines of the war had evolved in that part of Syria. Both government and rebel forces each came to hold an enclave in the central part of Aleppo that was nearly surrounded by territory held by the other side—a prescription for prolonged siege warfare. Social media also have played more of a role than in some earlier situations, with much attention to tweets that may or may not have come from a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo. And as is common in such situations, other political and policy axes are being ground.
What has come to be a common form of public discussion in the West of this situation is exemplified by the New York Times giving its architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, space for a front-page piece that laments how pictures from elsewhere “of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before” but that with Aleppo, “all we do is watch.” Kimmelman’s own piece disproves his contention that conscience-pricking is not occurring with Aleppo as it has elsewhere. So do many other pieces. The lead editorial and cover story of the current issue of The Economist charges that the West, with “particular blame” aimed at Barack Obama, has failed to carry out a “duty to constrain brute force” that it recognized it had after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Leon Wieseltier, writing in the Washington Post, begins with a reference to “the extermination [sic] of Aleppo and its people” and teachings of Eli Wiesel. The rest of the piece is in a comparably black-and-white and overwrought vein, with disparagement of President Obama mixed in with mentions of Auschwitz as well as Rwanda.
If one were to search for dispassionate and objective reasons to have more despair over Aleppo than over countless other instances of wartime suffering or of man’s inhumanity to man, such reasons would be hard to find. As important as possession of Aleppo is, it has still been only one piece of one front in one war out of the complex of wars that have constituted the violence in Syria over the past six years. There are many instances of brutality, at the hand of different perpetrators, to be found in the Syrian violence.
Outside Syria it is easy to find current or recent situations that are also heartstring-worthy. This is true even if limiting one’s purview to the Middle East and to instances of government forces assaulting populated areas and inflicting many civilian casualties and other civilian suffering. Two instances that come readily to mind are the repeated armed assaults on the Gaza Strip and aerial bombardment in the current war in Yemen. The situation in Aleppo has in one respect been milder than those cases; rather than being an instance of “extermination,” in Aleppo even fighters, let alone civilians, have been given a chance to evacuate. There have been no convoys of green buses to take the people of Gaza or Yemen to safer places.
The oversimplification and emotion that have come to characterize the dominant narrative about Aleppo are generating serious misunderstanding about that situation and about the wider war in Syria, and are laying groundwork for policy misdirection about other civil wars in the future. There have been multiple parties in the fight at Aleppo, and brutality and infliction of wholesale suffering on civilians have not been limited to any one side. Rebel forces in eastern Aleppo, which have included the local Al Qaeda affiliate, have been guilty of execution-style killings of civilians in the area under their control as well as indiscriminate shelling of the portion of the city that had always been under government control. Moreover, the agonies of siege warfare have not been in only one direction. The reported reason that one agreement, arranged by Russia and Turkey, for a cease-fire and evacuation was not immediately implemented was that Iran insisted that the same sort of arrangements be made for the residents of two Shia-inhabited villages besieged by rebels. And why shouldn’t such succor be extended to civilians of all faiths, rather than just to those on one side of a sectarian divide?
The simplistic, black-and-white treatment of a clash such as the battle for Aleppo brings about a loss of context and perspective, such as exhibited by the pro-intervention James Jeffrey, who accuses the Obama administration and anyone else not willing to dive into the Syrian civil war of over-reacting to the experience with Iraq. Intervening in the Syrian war, Jeffrey says, would be “containing a threat to the global system,” akin to Berlin, Korea, Kuwait, and the Cuban missile crisis. Iraq and “arguably Vietnam” were something different: efforts to “expand that system.” But how can he say that when the Assad regime, under first the father and then the son, has been in power for 46 years, as well as having its alliances with Moscow and Tehran for most of that time? The war against Assad is all about regime change, just as much as in Iraq, and can hardly be called “containing” rather than ”expanding” anything global.
Also encouraged by the moralistic absolutism applied to Aleppo and the Syrian civil war as a whole is misconception about U.S. policy options available now and earlier, and what any such options could have or would have brought about. The Washington Post editorial page, which has tirelessly beaten a drum about Syria, is an example. Its latest take on the subject is as moralistically vituperative as anyone else’s, speaking of “a meltdown of the West’s moral and political will—and in particular, a collapse of U.S. leadership.” As usual, there is an absence not only of attention to costs and risks to the United States but also of any convincing analysis that further escalation of the war by outside players would bring Syria any closer to a semblance of peace and stability, rather than moving it farther away. The editorial writers seem to be saying that this is all a matter of whether the Assad regime is up or down, and pushing it down is the only way to go.
What the Post editorialists and many others argue is that if only more had been done earlier, the options and the results would have been better. This is a cheap and easy argument to make for anyone beating the drum for intervention (and perhaps also wanting to beat President Obama with a stick), without having to come up with a workable alternative. There is little or nothing in the history of this war, the state of Syrian political culture, or previous efforts to recruit and train opposition forces to suggest that the mirage of a “moderate” element strong and cohesive enough to topple Assad and form the basis of a stable follow-on regime was ever anything but a mirage. Although it is true that some movement toward radical groups has been partly a matter of those groups being where guns and salaries were, the much bigger radicalizing element, in Syria as in other places with internal warfare, has been the war itself, engagement in which is an inherently immoderate act.
We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for bearing the burden of formulating and implementing policies that do reflect adequate attention to costs and risks to the United States and to what realistically would make things no worse for Syria. The rest of us get to moralize and express anguish over the suffering people of Aleppo; the president has to go beyond moralizing, and in so doing he has to put up with being mentioned in the same paragraphs as Auschwitz.
Looking beyond Mr. Obama, the prevailing treatment of the Aleppo episode threatens to inculcate damaging “lessons” to be applied to future civil wars. It is interesting that several of the critics of current policy mention Rwanda as such a lesson, because Rwanda was cited (including by the self-described “genocide chick” who is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) as a reason to intervene in Libya sufficiently to topple the incumbent regime there in 2011. We now have five years of results. Those results include a still-chaotic situation and continuing civil war in which the human suffering, including deaths well into the thousands, is far more than the genocide-in-the-making that supposedly was going to occur in Benghazi.
By all means sympathize with the people of Aleppo. We should feel anguish over their suffering. But don’t confuse anguish with policy analysis.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.