Steven Horowitz
Steven Horowitz

Obama Fiddles, Aleppo Burns

You can’t look at the overwhelming tragedy that is Syria without juxtaposing it against the so-called “huge Obama legacy” that liberals place on the Iran nuclear deal. Syria and the Iran nuclear deal are connected at the hip. With a half-million dead and a deep Russian involvement, Syria represents the complete absence of American leadership in the Middle East. How can it be that at the very core of the Levant (stretching from the Iran-Iraq border to the shores of the Mediterranean) Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have come to dominate the area? The answer is as clear as a sunny day over the east lawn of the White House — the Obama administration has been cowardly in its approach to Iran.

The Israelis and the Sunni Arab states now look aghast at the Russian-Iranian destruction of Aleppo (Syria’s largest city) and the sheer dimension of the killing field. With the bombing of hospitals, schools, the cut-off of vital water supplies and the carnage inflicted on nearly three hundred thousand innocent civilians, Aleppo today has become the nadir of moral legitimacy for a president whose dubious claim to fame has been a nuclear deal that will institute an industrial level nuclear program within Iran sometime in the next 10 to 13 years. Could this utter lack of US policy be anything other than a complete capitulation to Iranian designs for Middle East hegemony?

What is the relationship between Washington and Tehran? On one hand, the US State Department has labeled Iran as the “leading sponsor of state-terrorism in the world today”. But on the other hand, the magnitude of this state-terrorism — as exhibited from Baghdad to Beirut — has been left completely unchallenged throughout eight years of the Obama presidency. In other words, the Iran nuclear program has been completely separated from the actual behavior of Iran and its proxies throughout the region. But now, the chickens have come home to roost. Everyone in the Middle East (and beyond) looks directly at the Obama White House to do something about the trapped civilians in Aleppo.

American doctors, who slipped into Aleppo at great personal risk, have described the situation as dire, in testimony before the UN Security Council. Russian diplomats immediately termed these first-hand reports as mere Western propaganda. But beyond the immorality of the targeted bombings of bakeries and clinics, the immediate question for Obama has become: What, if anything, is he going to do about such a gross violation of international law? America claims to be the global leader of an international order dedicated to a value system based on the rule of law (the liberal world order). However, if this is true, what kind of leadership has Obama provided? One needs only to look at Syria for an answer.

Now the medics of Syria have literally begun to beg Obama for help. “Please do something!” they scream, “the very lives of tens of thousand of Aleppo’s children are at risk from disease due to the lack of drinking water and proper sanitation”. The few remaining doctors of Aleppo have also pleaded with Obama for help. So will the American president make Iran, Russia and Hezbollah pay a price? Or will Obama continue to fiddle while Aleppo burns? The answer appears to lie in the future of the Iran nuclear deal.

Obama’s so-called “legacy” hangs over Syria like the Sword of Damocles. If the US moves militarily against Iran and its Syrian proxies, the nuclear deal’s rejectionists in Tehran will certainly achieve the upper hand. Already Iran’s supreme leader has distanced himself from Washington, and he holds very tenuous support for the Iran nuclear deal. Any strong and direct support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria risks a rupture of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Then there is the question of Russia. Moscow has used the Syrian civil war as leverage against the West for its expansion (through NATO) into the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Obama fears that a unilateral attack against Iran or its proxies (including Assad) in Syria could trigger a far greater imbroglio which might lead to a Russia-US standoff, either in the Middle East or perhaps in Europe. This is precisely why the Obama administration failed to act earlier this summer when confronted by a near revolt from fifty-one high-placed officials in his own State Department.

But in the face of the tragic and desperate conditions which are now occurring in Aleppo, Obama needs desperately to show global leadership. The recent advancements of the rebels in the southwestern parts of the city have only brought about a more devastating Russian and Iranian response. Both Moscow and Tehran have a sense of existential angst with regard to NATO (for Russia) and Syria (for Iran). In a very large historical sense, Washington is directly to blame for both of these perceptions. It is extremely unclear if the rebels in Syria can maintain a workable supply line to the north, given the ferocity of the current Russian air assault against them.

But Cairo, Jerusalem, Ankara, Amman and Riyadh are also watching Obama very closely. They too, from a long-established historical perspective, expect a regional leadership role from the American president. In fact, the entire Sunni world has a strong expectation that Washington will do something about the situation in Aleppo. If not, the US and its European allies must be on the side of Tehran and the Shiites. But after nearly eight years of Obama appeasement toward Iran, the hour for action from Obama is getting very late. Yet some kind of action is precisely what is needed.

Anyone who has read my blog for the last three years understands that I advocate for large changes in the current international order in the Middle East and Europe. Both of these regions are currently unstable and could lead to a US-Russian showdown whose consequences could become catastrophic. Within this superpower context, instability and misperception could become precarious in the extreme. But these two regions (Europe and the Middle East) are linked. As the Middle East continues to become a failed region, the prospect of huge refugee flows toward Europe remain a high probability. Aleppo and its surrounding areas certainly fall within this category.

It’s high time for Obama to wake up and begin to institute some dramatic out-of-the-box thinking with regard to the future of both the Middle East and Europe. All eyes are pointed toward Syria and specifically Aleppo. But nothing can be accomplished without the support and cooperation of Vladimir Putin. This means either Washington or Berlin will have to pick up the mantle of leadership in Europe and devise a blueprint for a new security order to replace the current NATO hegemony over the continent. Moscow will never agree to a hostile alliance situated within eighty miles of its second largest city, St. Petersburg. Russia will do whatever it can, wherever it can, to disrupt the unity of NATO.

The world awaits action from Washington. If Obama continues to fiddle while Aleppo burns, this lack of leadership — and not the Iran nuclear deal — will become his lasting legacy. As I have repeatedly asked during the last three years: What is the US policy in the Middle East under the presidency of Barack H. Obama? If we have to wait until a new administration takes office in late January 2017, it will certainly be too late for the citizens of Aleppo. Stop fiddling, Mr. President, and start to show some true leadership.

The current policy of Russia is becoming criminal for President Putin and his Kremlin administration. Stop the burning of Aleppo now! The testimony of the American doctors is NOT propaganda! On the contrary, it is evidence of high crimes against humanity. How is anyone in Europe (or elsewhere) to trust Russia’s word if its president continues to demonstrate such blatant disregard for the lives of innocent civilians and children? It is time for all responsible parties to show morality and leadership. If this cannot be done, what hope is there for the future of humanity? And what hope do we have to escape the clutches of a new and devastating war?

Finally, both leaders need to stop the mutual hypocrisy toward Israel. With such a horrible record within the Middle East over the course of the last eight years, the last thing the region needs is outdated US parameters on the future of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The same is true for the Russian involvement with the so-called Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN). If President Putin cannot live with the NATO alliance eighty miles from St. Petersburg, how can any Israeli leader live with Palestine in the immediate suburbs of Tel Aviv? Security is as paramount for Israel as it is for Russia.

Now is the time for dramatic diplomatic action. Both presidents, Obama and Putin, need to do something about Aleppo and Syria. Because if they don’t, there will be no way to solve any issue in the Middle East, including Palestine. Without superpower cooperation, sometime in the future Iran will be at the very gates of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the entire Sunni world will become radicalized by some form of extreme Jihadist subversion. Such a complete dismantling of the current order is definitely not in the interest of either Washington or Moscow.

My blog will return in September after a brief summer break.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).