At last night’s debate, Donald Trump falsely asserted that the city of Aleppo has fallen to the Assad regime and its Russian partners and concluded there’s nothing the United States can do about it.
“Well Aleppo is a disaster,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian nightmare, but it has fallen from any standpoint. What do you need, a signed document?”
That’s not true today, but given the latest White House decision to delay any action to respond to the crisis, President Obama may be ensuring that Trump’s vision of a fallen Aleppo becomes a reality. And like Trump, Obama seems to have concluded there’s not much the United States can or should do about it.
At last Friday’s National Security Council meeting on the Middle East, top Obama administration officials tabled any decisions on whether to increase the U.S. response to the ongoing Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, The Post reported earlier this week. The administration prioritized discussing the new Iraqi-led offensive against the Islamic State in Mosul and the future offensive in Raqqa, for which planning is already underway.
But despite what Secretary of State John F. Kerry has called ongoing Syrian and Russian war crimes in Aleppo, there was no action on any of the several options discussed at lower-level administration meetings, including but not limited to limited strikes against the Assad regime’s air force or an increase in the quantity or quality of arms provided to the moderate Syrian rebels in the area.
One senior administration official pointed toward the slow pace of the bureaucracy in responding to the Aleppo crisis as evidence the White House has decided that Aleppo can’t be saved and therefore the United States should not try.
“They are giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo, in part to tie the hands of the next president,” the official told me.
The Obama administration officially rejects any suggestion that they have thrown in the towel on saving Aleppo. Following the entirely predictable collapse of the U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement Kerry spent months working on, the State Department began a new diplomatic initiative last weekend by convening a meeting in Lausanne on Syria that included representatives from Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
After the meeting, Kerry declined to reveal any of the new ideas that may have emerged from the “brainstorming” session. He then traveled to London and discussed Syria with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. They announced they are considering additional sanctions on Syria.
“Let me make it clear, President Obama has not taken any options off the table at this point in time,” Kerry said.
But by delaying discussion, much less any final decision, on how to stop the assault on Aleppo or protect civilians there, the White House has denied Kerry any meaningful leverage over Syria and Russia, dooming the new talks to the same failure as the previous round.
Speaking at the State Department Wednesday, just hours before the debate, Kerry sought to lower expectations about his new Syria diplomatic initiative and downplayed the consequences of failing to prevent the city of Aleppo from falling to Syrian and Russian control.
“If Russia and Assad succeed in taking Aleppo, the fundamental dynamic of this war does not change,” he said. “If you don’t have a political settlement, you can’t have peace. And so Russia needs to understand this is not making things better; it’s making things worse. . . . So let there be no doubt about the responsibility here. Russia can make a different choice. Assad could make a different choice.”
Trump’s comments on Aleppo during the debate were riddled with inaccuracies and misconceptions. He lacks a basic understanding of the facts on the ground in Syria. His wrongheaded analysis derives from ignorance first of all.
Obama can claim no such ignorance. But he shares with Trump a fundamental distrust in the effectiveness of U.S. intervention to solve complex problems and a wariness to commit American resources to issues that he believes fall outside the nation’s core interests.
For the civilians in Aleppo fighting now for dignity and survival, the end result is the same.