The United States Has to Put Teeth into Its Warnings to Assad and Putin

The United States Has to Put Teeth into Its Warnings to Assad and Putin

While the world has been inundated with photos and reports about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and unrelenting siege on Aleppo, reports over the last week about the murder and injuries of children are even more staggering, serving as further proof that the international community must pursue more aggressive means to respond to what the United Nations has long called war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

On Oct. 3, the United States announced it was “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia,” a welcome step after Russia’s blatant bad faith efforts and complicity in Assad’s brutality. But much more is needed, in light of the dire circumstances in Aleppo. The United States should lead a serious effort to establish a multinational no-fly zone for Aleppo.

According to UNICEF, almost 100 children were killed and 223 children seriously wounded during a recent five-day period, as the Syrian and Russian governments continued their onslaught of Aleppo. These are not children killed at the hands of a deranged killer or radical extremists, rather children murdered by their own government with complicity of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Assad’s siege has also targeted hospitals, thus leaving the injured with only limited possibility of finding basic care. UNICEF also reports that children who have low chances of survival are often left to die due to limited capacity and supplies. Assad’s breach of the recent ceasefire and the Syrian and Russian bombing of a humanitarian convoy decimated any hopes of relief, even one that might come in a relatively small dose. 

The international community can no longer allow this complete disregard for humanitarian law, human rights, and human decency to continue unanswered. The United States must put teeth into U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power’s words calling the situation in Aleppo “soul-shattering,” “barbarism” and “grotesque,” and Secretary of State John Kerry naming it “inexcusable.” Words are no longer sufficient to push back on Assad and Putin’s brutality, and to lend any credibility to an international system that is remiss in protecting innocent children. 

A U.S.-led effort to establish a no-fly zone for Aleppo would offer some relief to besieged populations, but equally important it would send a signal that the international community will not sit by idly as Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin flout international law. Allowing a dictator to mercilessly kill his own most vulnerable citizens and then block international efforts to provide basic relief shows the international community, and by extension international law, as feckless and sets a devastating example for other dictators who would similarly brutalize their opponents and innocents.

And though it may still be far off in the future and despite the fact there is no political solution in sight, it is worth thinking ahead: There will eventually be an end to this conflict and the process of rebuilding a nation is made even more difficult by the growing record of increasingly brutal abuses with impunity. A generation is being lost to the ravages of war.    

The United States must show leadership on this issue, but it cannot advance this alone. It should speak to both the moral obligation and direct interests of both European and Arab nations to see the carnage in Aleppo addressed. These nations are on the front line of receiving refugees fleeing the conflict, and have a moral stake in seeing such bloodshed of children and other vulnerable people ended. The French and Spanish-led U.N. Security Council Resolution calling for an end to all flights over Aleppo is a positive sign, and offers a great starting point for reinvigorating a discussion about a no-fly zone, a conversation that has continued on and off over the past several years in Europe. Germany has more recently sent mixed signals about a no-fly zone, with Chancellor Angela Merkel opposing the idea and her foreign minister supporting it. Merkel had been a supportive voice in earlier discussions about a no-fly zone, and could be encouraged to reinvigorate her leadership of Europe’s moral obligation for those suffering at the hands of Assad’s brutal regime. 

Former CIA Director and Commander of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus has made clear that establishing a no-fly zone is doable in the current conditions. And credible actors on the ground, including White Helmet head Raed al-Saleh, have called on the international community to establish such a no-fly zone. 

This is naturally not a panacea to the entire Syrian conflict. Nor would this address all of the forces that are committing civilian deaths in Aleppo. But if the international community is unwilling to act until it has a full or perfect solution to the entire conflict or every threat, it is giving a green light to Assad and Putin to take any actions it sees fit until that solution is found. And ultimately giving these two leaders such leeway will make a political solution even more difficult to reach than it already is. Allowing Putin and Assad to gain the upper hand militarily, through a so-called counterrrorism campaign that includes opposition figures and innocent people, diminishes the likelihood that Russia and Syria will feel any need to come to the table in good faith and likewise significantly lessens the possibility that opposition actors will trust any international process led by actors who were unwilling to stand up to Assad and Putin on something as foundational as their aggression against innocent civilians. The international community can no longer afford to be frozen in the face of the most egregious violations of humanitarian and human rights standards while it wades through the serious difficulties of reaching a political settlement. 

A no-fly zone offers a possible path to ameliorating the massive suffering in Aleppo, to pushing back on blatantly illegal international action, and to mobilizing more international action on Syria. It will require steady-handed leadership in Washington, European capitals and New York, driven by a profound moral obligation to protect vulnerable populations, a commitment to international law and human rights, and a pragmatic view on how this complicates the long-term resolution of this conflict.

Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images