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Between Guernica and Aleppo

For more than a week, Syrian and Russian aircraft have bombarded and terrorized the city of Aleppo, killing men, women and children. Assad ordered an aerial and infantry assault to win the war. Ground troops composed of Iraqi militiamen, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, Assad's militias, and Russian elite units besieged the city. In the last week, more than 200 people died in Aleppo, and over 2000 were injured. They are being treated by 30 doctors who chose to stay in the city. Hospitals, water pumps and rescue centers were mercilessly bombed by bunker busters and barrel bombs to bring about the final surrender of the city's 250,000 residents. Led by Assad, who championed the slogan "Assad, or the country burns", the war now has claimed half a million dead.

There will be no winners here. With Syria almost totally destroyed, half of its residents having fled the country, hundreds of thousands being tortured and starved in prisons, and hundreds of thousands massacred by the regime, no one can talk of victory. But losers are plentiful. What is happening in Syria is a defeat for humanity, and those equating Aleppo with Guernica are not mistaken.

Guernica, a city in the Basque region of Spain, was leveled by Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe. The Germans came to save the fascist general, Francisco Franco, in the Spanish Civil War (1937). The West, fearing “communist terror," allowed Franco to win the civil war aided by Hitler’s air force (civilians were deliberately targeted in Guernica). The result is common knowledge: Franco's victory heralded World War II, in which the toll in human lives exceeded 50 million; Franco remained Spain’s dictator until his death in 1975, 30 years after Hitler was defeated.

In her speech before the UN Security Council, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, called Russian actions in Aleppo barbaric, a crime against humanity. Her words were in total contradiction to the position of her boss. John Kerry conducted tedious negotiations with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for eight long months, after which the two sides agreed on a ceasefire that was meant to end five years of bloodshed. But there's a catch: the agreement remained confidential because the Americans, unlike the Russians, did not want to make it public. The Syrian opposition, which was supposed to act in accordance with the ceasefire, did not receive the text of the agreement and therefore remained skeptical about US intentions. What is puzzling in this never realized agreement is that John Kerry undertook to cooperate with the Russians in the war against Jabhat al-Nusra, thus abandoning his original demand for Assad’s ouster.

The agreement was seen as a crushing defeat for the United States by Putin, as the US accepted the Russian position. This position of course, says that the Syrian problem stems not from Assad’s murderous regime but from the opposition, which is defined by the Russians as terrorists. In attempting to differentiate itself from the Bush administration, the Obama administration fell in love with diplomacy as if it were a magic wand able to solve all international problems, and the nuclear deal with Iran has become the Holy Grail of American foreign policy. Syria, Iraq and Ukraine are being sacrificed on that altar.

Obama says the war in Syria cannot be resolved militarily but only politically. He believes Putin will ultimately see that Russian military involvement in Syria only complicates his global situation, and eventually Putin will adopt Obama’s “intellectual” approach. Putin was not educated at Harvard, but at the KGB, and his main task is to restore Russia's superpower status in the Middle East. Syria is a test of his strategy.

The ceasefire failed not because of the brutal nature of the Assad regime or the refusal of the al-Nusra Front to uphold the ceasefire, but due to misunderstandings between the Americans and the Russians. In return for a ceasefire and resuming humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Aleppo, the Russians demanded the setting up of a joint military headquarters with the Americans to fight what they call “terrorism.” This odd condition was adopted by Kerry, but the US Department of Defense rose up on its hind legs and refused to cooperate with the Russian army. It was but a short distance from there to the collapse of the ceasefire.

It soon became clear that the Russians saw the ceasefire as a means to inflict the total defeat of the Syrian opposition and to force Assad on Syria and on the world. It turns out that the Russians, unlike Obama, actually believe that the Syrian conflict has a military solution. Moreover, they have openly declared that there is no political solution. So for eight months of negotiations, Lavrov tried to convince Kerry that Assad is not the problem but rather the Syrian opposition. Kerry was almost convinced until the Russians bombed a UN convoy delivering humanitarian aid to Aleppo and, two days later, Assad’s murderous bombings on Aleppo resumed. It is escalating as of this writing.

Like Guernica, Aleppo has become a symbol not only of murderous and indiscriminate barbarism, but as a symbol of the complete collapse of the international order, along with UN institutions and the Security Council. Since the nuclear deal with Iran, the US has lost its way when it comes to foreign policy: After a year of futile efforts it disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it turned a blind eye to Syria and handed over Crimea to the Russians; it left the world to be run on the whims of unrestrained leaders like Putin, Assad, Khamenei, Kim Jong, and our own Benjamin Netanyahu. In a sense, Aleppo is a test for humanity and a prologue to future international conflicts. Aleppo has dwarfed the devastation in Gaza's Shijaiyah neighborhood inflicted by the IDF in Operation Protective Edge. It is a test of nations to end the horrors and war crimes that are taking place in broad daylight.

The Aleppo massacre is the mark of Cain on Obama’s forehead. His inaction and refusal to declare a no-fly zone prohibiting flights of Assad’s aircraft, his resistance to arming the opposition with anti-aircraft missiles, his partnership with the Iranians in Iraq on the pretext of fighting ISIS, his repeated declarations that the US has no interest in Syria, his insistence on fighting ISIS while abandoning the struggle against Assad, and his support for the Kurds at the expense of the Turks—all set the stage for Russian involvement. Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians and hospitals did not prevent it from becoming America's legitimate partner, as if the Russians are a "neutral" party to the Syrian civil war.

Today Obama has been mobilized to rescue Hillary Clinton’s political fate. Donald Trump, a Putin admirer, is seen as a realistic choice for the presidency. Trump is threatening to wipe the Obama "legacy" from the face of the earth. Putin is using the narrow window of opportunity that exists until the new American administration to determine the fate of Aleppo. Aleppo's fate will determine the fate of the region. The world after Aleppo will not be what it was before Russia used all its military power to impose the Assad’s bloody regime on the Syrian people, defeating its longing for democracy. Saying that Russian efforts are doomed to failure is tantamount to saying that Hitler failed. Historically this is the case, but by the end of WWII, Hitler had left rivers of blood and destruction which could have been prevented had humanity mobilized in time. The historic lesson has not been learned, and so humanity is doomed once again to pay an unimaginable price.

  • Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman
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