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Opinion As Aleppo is destroyed, Mr. Obama stands by

A resident of the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, inspects damage on Aug. 16 caused by air raids. (Thaer Mohammed/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

"DEVASTATING AND overwhelming." Those are the conditions in the ancient and once-great metropolis of Aleppo, according to the head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Marianne Gasser, who was in the Syrian city recently.

“We hear that dozens of civilians are being killed every day and scores more injured from shells, mortars and rockets,” Ms. Gasser said. “The bombing is constant. The violence is threatening hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, homes and livelihoods.”

War crimes appear to be near-constant also. The air forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief backer, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, target apartment buildings, bakeries and — this is their specialty — hospitals and clinics. The United Nations is investigating credible reports that Mr. Assad again has used chemical weapons, in this case chlorine gas. Water has been cut off from hundreds of thousands of people.

The last surviving physicians in the rebel-held half of Aleppo a few days ago begged President Obama to help. "The world has stood by and remarked how 'complicated' Syria is, while doing little to protect us," they wrote. "The burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Syrian government and its Russian ally must therefore be shared by those, including the United States, who allow them to continue."

Why would these brave, forlorn doctors look to Mr. Obama for rescue? Perhaps one of them, through the terrible din of war, remembers hearing the president promise to stand by the Syrian people as they were being "subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights."

Mr. Obama made his pledge during an address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 2012. He boasted that he had decreed, in a first for any U.S. president, that preventing mass atrocities “is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” That did not mean that the United States would “intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world,” he cautioned. But when it came to Syria, Mr. Obama was clear.

“The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up,” Mr. Obama said. “And so with allies and partners, we will keep increasing the pressure, with a diplomatic effort to further isolate Assad and his regime, so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.”

Alas, that was many atrocities ago. According to the Red Cross, more than 12 million Syrians — half the prewar population — have been forced from their homes, with millions more under siege. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Well over 1 million have been wounded. Iran and Russia continue to place their bets on the Assad regime. And Mr. Obama no longer pledges to stand with the Syrian people, though he remains clear-eyed about what they are facing.

"The regime and its allies," Mr. Obama observed at a Pentagon news conference this month, are engaged in "vicious attacks on defenseless civilians, medieval sieges against cities like Aleppo, and blocking food from reaching families that are starving."

But the administration’s response has not changed: a combination of halfhearted support for the rebels, who increasingly gravitate by necessity to more extremist groups; requests to the Russians to behave better; and finger wagging.

“It is deplorable,” the president said during his visit to the Pentagon. Small comfort to the people of Aleppo.

Read more about this topic:

Josh Rogin: Obama proposes new military partnership with Russia in Syria

Jackson Diehl: The costs of Obama’s Syria policy are apparent to everyone but him

The Post’s View: Obama retreats from Putin in Syria — again

Fred Hiatt: Obama destroyed Syrians’ ‘glimmer of hope’ that America would intervene

Samer Attar: A doctor’s plea to President Obama: Please act to save civilians in Syria

Richard Cohen: No, Mr. President, staying out of Syria didn’t save lives. It cost them.