Better English long read: Stop the hand-wringing about Aleppo

The Washington Post

What the West fails to understand about Aleppo

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A girl eats fruit at the Jibreen temporary shelter, south of Aleppo.

Political leaders across the West piously [ thinking they are more worthy than others] lined up last week to say the fall of Aleppo as a stain on our collective conscience [something that should trouble us all]. The West, they have said, should have done more to stop the ongoing humanitarian [to do with people] catastrophe [crisis] in Syria.

At a purely humanitarian level, this is obviously true. States can always do more to deliver [give] humanitarian aid to people on the ground. But in a military [to do with war or defence] sense, the notion [idea] that the West should have “done more” is fantastical [not realistic] and learns exactly the wrong lesson from this carnival of carnage [crazy feast of death].

If there is a lesson for the West from the post-cold war era [the time in history after the cold war] of liberal interventionism  [the idea that rich states should interfere in other state for their own good], it is this: Either intervene [become involved] decisively [clearly and strongly] and be invested [ready to spend time and effort] for the long term [for a long time] - or stay out.

A child holding a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a vampire stands among a group of Muslims from many countries living in South-Korea during a rally against the Russian government's policy on Syria.
Photo: EPA

It’s true that in 2011 the West had a military opportunity [chance] to topple [cause someone or something to fall] Bashar Assad’s regime [a term for a government the West doesn't like] by backing a rebellion not yet contaminated [made dirty] by radical [hardline] Islamists. What is more dubious [doubtful] is that such a military victory would have put Syria on a path to democracy, stability, or peace. If only things were that easy.

In reality, in the absence [not being there] of Western ground forces [military forces not in the air or on water] to keep the peace, a 2011 rebel victory in Syria would likely have turned out like the botched [messed up] intervention in Libya the same year. After the initial [first] euphoria [feeling very good], the country would have become fragmented [broken into pieces], as various [different] militias [fighting groups not officially belonging to the goverment] sprang up and took control of their local areas.

This would have opened the door [allowed something to happen] to radical [extreme or hide-line] Islamists, as it did in Libya. The West would then have had to accept chaos [confusion, when law and order breaks down] and increasing Islamist influence [power] in another failed state.

Conversely, [oppositely, on the other hand] if the West had hypothetically [an example, not the reality] deployed its own forces on the ground in Syria in 2011, it is likely that our forces [the West] would have soon faced an Islamist insurgency [violence opposed to the government], if Afghanistan and Iraq are anything to go by. And this would have been a long haul [a long, difficult effort] : Look no further than Afghanistan, where Western forces still haven’t left, or Iraq, where they had to return to avert [prevent] state collapse.
All the commentators grandstanding [making a public scene] over the fall of Aleppo to castigate [scold] the West for not having “done more” militarily are welcome to explain how they would have rallied US public support in 2011 for another major counterinsurgency [against insurgents - i.e. to stop "terrorists"] effort in Syria. By 2011, after thousands of soldiers had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the multitrillion-dollar cost of those campaigns, which was piled on the back of the 2008 financial crisis, the idea that there would have been US public support for such an endeavour [mission, goal, aim] is fantasy [not realistic].
As then-Defence [former-Defence] Secretary Robert Gates himself told an audience of West Point [a famous training academy for officers in the US] cadets in 2011, anyone who advised a president to put another big American force into the Middle East at that moment “should have his head examined.” [is crazy]
Hand wringing, a twisting movement people make with their hands when they are sorry or nervous.
Photo: Sthutterstock

Indeed, those who say the West should have “done more” tend to agree that a large Western ground force was unrealistic but that we could have intervened at a lower level. The problem with this fallback argument [an argument that someone resorts to when they are losing] is that the United States and its Persian Gulf allies did exactly that, by arming [giving weapons to] rebels.

But by 2012, the rebellion had already become infected [made sick] by radical Islamists, which is why the pressure to “do more” ultimately translated into US military aid for a handful of  [a small number of] vetted [checked out to make sure they are safe] rebel groups while the rebellion as a whole took on an increasingly Islamist character.
This led Western strategy [plans] into a dead end, [literally a road that is only linked to one other road and goes nowhere] ever vacillating [wavering, unable to make up their minds, doing one thing and then the other] between arming rebels and resisting an actual rebel victory that would open the door to an Islamist takeover of Syria.

But what if Barack Obama’s administration had enforced its “red line” [a red line is a limit set by one party for another, e.g. Obama says to Assad, if you use chemical weapons we will attack Syria - the red line is Syria's use of chemical weapons] over chemical weapons [weaons which use chemicals to kill or harm humans] and bombed Assad in 2013 or set up a no-fly zone: [an area of which nothing can fly, e.g. planes, helicopters, drones] Could the United States then have pressured [pushed, forced] Assad into a negotiated [discuss, talked about to find a solution] peace with the rebels?

I think both of these hypotheticals are plausible [logical to think about]. Superpowers [the most powerful nations in the world - the US, China, Russia, Germany] have to enforce [make sure a rule is followed] their red lines or lose credibility [people will not take them seriously]. And it is reasonable to assume [believe without absloute proof] that a credible US threat in the form of bombing Assad’s forces could have encouraged the dictator to negotiate in 2013.
However, I don’t see how a negotiated settlement (and it’s clear that many hard-line rebel groups would not have taken part in a deal anyway) would have led to anything other than a Libya-like outcome [result] in rebel areas, with Islamist militants rapidly [quickly] taking over governance. Unless, again, the West had put its own troops on the ground.
This seems to me to be the crucial [most important] point, to which all roads lead [everything comes back to this]. Despite the complexity [difficulty] and anguish [emotional pain] of the situation in Syria, the bottom line [this is what matters] is whether or not the West is prepared to put its own troops on the ground to win the war and secure the peace.
That could have worked in 2011 when the rebels were ascendant [rising], and it might have worked in 2013 to back up a bombing campaign after the red-line violation. Moreover, putting Western boots on the ground has worked relatively effectively [sort of okay] in Iraq and northeastern Syria, where Western forces partner with the predominantly [mostly] Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State.
But I predict that if Western forces don’t stay in northeastern Syria to keep the peace after the Islamic State is cleared out, in conjunction with [together with] a clear political plan to secure [keep safe o rmake safe] an autonomous [self-governing] region of Syria for the Kurds, there will be chaos, infighting [fighting among members of one group] among the various factions [groups] of the SDF, and the risk that either Assad or Turkey attacks the area to secure their own interests.

Where does this leave us? Whether or not the West should have done more militarily, the only way it could have done more without causing more problems for Syrians and Westerners alike, it seems to me, would have been to put our own troops on the ground and strap in [get ready for, as in to put on your seatbelt] for a multiyear counterinsurgency campaign. However, those who make that argument must show that there would have been US public support for such a move either in 2011 or 2013 - and it seems to me that there was not.

Of course, there are the zealots [people who are so passionate about something that they won't see reason] among the liberal interventionists [people who wanted interference in another country] who go beyond strategic arguments and see the world in binary [to do with two parts, e.g. either good or evil, black or white, winning or losing] and absolute [without room to move] moral terms.
They think that the West bears [carries] moral guilt for the omission [not doing something] of not stopping other people’s atrocities [terrible acts]. I think this is nonsense. Assad, Moscow, and Tehran are squarely responsible for the humanitarian atrocities in Syria, not the United States or the West.
Furthermore, the West does not bear moral responsibility for fixing the broken, corrupt, and dysfunctional [not working properly] politics of those Middle Eastern states whose leaders invited rebellion against them in 2011 - but once you’ve toppled a regime for humanitarian reasons, that’s the thankless job you’re stuck with.
The basic truth is that despite [even though] technological innovation, war today is still won, and the follow-on peace is still determined, by infantry [soldiers on foot, e.g. not riding in tanks, not in planes or on boats] on the ground. There is a real limit to what proxy [someone who acts for someone else, in this case, the US-sponsored rebels] rebel forces can do, especially when they are fragmented and infected by Islamists. It follows that if the West is serious about a given intervention in the Middle East, it needs to send its own forces and prepare for the long haul.
Pious advocacy [arguing for someone's rights], and public support, for humanitarian military intervention dissolves very quickly when Western soldiers - actual 19-year-olds with real families - start getting ripped to shreds by daisy-chain [things connected in a line] IEDs [bombs, informal explosive devices] in endless efforts to fix other countries’ dysfunctional politics.
I am far from being against intervention in general. I just think the future of Western military intervention lies in supporting the governments of fragile [weak and easily broken] states, not toppling them. In this respect, the successful French intervention in Mali in 2013 is a good template [pattern]: in support of a government, rather than a regime change; against a clear military target; and with good knowledge of local politics (ie: an ability to distinguish [tell the difference between] Tuareg rebels from al Qaeda, as opposed to bluntly grouping all as “terrorists”).

But not every situation is like Mali. And not all problems have military solutions, unless you are prepared to go all in.

Although the West is not responsible for the atrocities in Aleppo, we are morally responsible for giving false hope to the rebels since 2011, when we offered them rhetorical [verbal only] and, later, material support but did not have the will to back them with our own troops.
It was a failure to heed the only moral maxim that counts in such situations: Act decisively. Or stay out.

The writer Emile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.