Pro-Syrian government forces moved into east Aleppo and started wiping out the remains of the besieged city’s opposition Monday. The United Nations reported that the Syrian army and allied Iraqi militiamen entered homes and summarily executed 82 civilians, including women and children, in what it labelled a “complete meltdown of humanity.”
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and the city’s east sector has been a bastion of opposition since 2011. The siege of east Aleppo has been brutal for residents there, whose only crime is living in a city with members of the Free Syrian Army (Al-Qaeda and ISIS do not maintain a heavy presence in Aleppo). Assad and his Russian, Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi allies have been so focused on recouping the city, they turn a blind eye to ISIS gains in other parts of the country. And the Syrian and Russian air forces in particular have repeatedly bombed the city’s hospitals.
Throughout the last five years, President Obama has stood idly by as Aleppo has been destroyed. During a 2012 speech at the Holocaust Museum, Obama spoke about the right to protect. Preventing mass atrocities “is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America,” he said. But on Aleppo, he has never had a plan to stop civilian slaughter.
“President Barack Obama can draw comfort in his passivity from a bottomless reservoir of public indifference toward the rape of Aleppo now taking place,” Frederic C. Hof, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, wrote for Newsweek in late September, as Russian and Syrian bombs were desecrating civilian infrastructure in Aleppo and the Obama administration turned a deaf ear to the suffering.
If nothing else, Aleppo shows how the world has failed a principle enshrined in article 1 of the Geneva Convention: the responsibility to protect. R2P reads that a state has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
In the case of Syria, the war crimes are being committed by the regime and their allies. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes probe in October to look into the Syrian and Russian bombings of civilian targets. The Syrian people have been victims of chemical weapons attacks, starvation sieges, and repeated airstrikes on civilian targets — and the Assad regime and its allies are killing more civilians than ISIS.
Therefore, R2P falls to the international community. “If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” the UN’s mandate reads.
“Syria is a case that’s begging for ‘responsibility to protect’ and no one is showing any responsibility whatever,” Michael Ignatieff, academic and specialist on humanitarian intervention, told Reuters. “So it’s as relevant as ever, normatively, morally, in terms of our conscience, but it is a dead letter internationally.”
As the world’s leading military power, the United States holds at least partial responsibility for failing to protect the vulnerable of Aleppo. While the calamity of the 2003 intervention in Iraq often lingers in our collective memory, we must remember Syria is not Iraq. A war is already raging in Syria. It wasn’t in Iraq when the United States invaded. In Syria, unlike Iraq, there are also widespread calls by local people for intervention to prevent further atrocities.
“R2P has diminished from a high hope into an interesting collection of words lying on the table,” Paddy Ashdown, a British lawmaker who served as high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, told Reuters.