Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He advised Hillary Clinton on Syria at the State Department in 2012.
Some 70 months ago, unarmed, ordinary Syrians rose peacefully against a regime whose incompetence and corruption they had come grudgingly to accept. It was their rulers’ detention and beating of children that provided the tipping point. The same regime seeks now to capitalize on a bloody victory in Aleppo, where children again have been targeted. But the actual and prospective costs associated with the deliberate slaughter of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria are steep, and everyone connected with this abomination will pay, especially those who have stood by and watched.
For Syrians hoping for a future free of the Assad family and entourage, the price of Aleppo is bitter. Prodded by a violent regime into armed resistance it did not want, undermined by regime-facilitated extremists and abandoned by pseudo-friends unwilling to match words with deeds, Syrian nationalists must now acknowledge that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s survival strategy is working.
That strategy is rooted in collective punishment. The regime, with the enthusiastic support of Russia and Iran, does not hesitate to kill, maim, terrorize and displace civilians in areas where rebel forces are present. Indeed, the Russian air force has demonstrated a special aptitude for destroying hospitals. For Assad and his allies, no atrocity is unthinkable.
Nationalists opposing Assad must ask and answer some hard questions. Has armed resistance run its course? Would it be more humane to lay down arms in the hope that fewer people will be killed, maimed, tortured, starved and displaced than is currently the case? Should ending industrial-strength terror from the skies and starvation sieges down below be the top priority? Given the carnage of Aleppo and all that has preceded it, there is no doubt about what the regime and its allies are willing to do. Neither can there be any doubt about the refusal of the West, notwithstanding its “Never Again” rhetoric, to offer a modicum of protection.
That which today passes for “the West” — a hollow, demoralized, leaderless coalition of the frightened and unwilling — also faces a steep price. Having protected no Syrians from mass murder; having given Russia, the regime and Iran a green light to do as they wished by chanting endlessly about there being no “military solution” to the problem of Syria; having watched the Kremlin draw lessons from Syria to apply in Europe — where does it now end? With explicit surrender by offering to join forces with Russia, the regime and Iran in Syria? With implicit surrender by perpetuating the Obama-European model of soaring rhetoric combined with craven inaction? The price of Western surrender in Syria may prove in the end to be the undoing of European unity and the breaking of the transatlantic alliance.
And yes, today’s victors face costs. Aleppo is but the latest Syrian crime scene where evidence of gross violations of international humanitarian law has been gathered and placed in safe hands. Obviously, there is no accountability today for those who target homes, hospitals, schools, marketplaces and humanitarian convoys. But the evidence will hang over the heads of the perpetrators so long as they breathe.
Then there is the cost of material rebuilding. If Assad and his entourage continue to sit atop a shattered state, whose taxpayers will pour hundreds of billions of dollars into Syria? The regime itself may have little interest in reconstruction: a Levantine North Korea is probably good enough for the family. Will Moscow and Tehran be able to sustain someone content to roost atop the ruins? As matters now stand, to the victors belong the spoiled. Russia and Iran should budget for reconstruction so long as the corrupt Assad regime waits with its hands outstretched.
For Syrians, the costs of Assad propped up are incalculable. The United States and its coalition partners may eventually defeat the Islamic State in central and eastern Syria. But the collective punishment strategy of Assad and friends has been catnip and a recruiting gift for extremists, both in Syria and around the world. For Syrians, more than five years of trying to build civil society and self-government may, in the near-term, be for naught. Their suffering — at home and in refugee camps — is far from over. Syria under Assad is Syria ruined.
Perhaps a military solution of sorts for Syria is at hand after all. Among the casualties and costs are international humanitarian law and the reputations of those who have praised it in word and abandoned it in fact. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has, at the Security Council, equated Aleppo with Halabja, Rwanda and Srebrenica. Given the political costs to the West of a humanitarian catastrophe unopposed, she may as well have added Munich to her list. Everyone will be paying for Aleppo for as far as the eye can see: Syrians and what remains of “the West” will be taxed at the highest rates.