Aleppo is a microcosm of the Syrian conflict. It is also a microcosm of the failures of American policy in this war-torn country.
The country’s second largest city has come to define everything that is wrong with the Syrian war: Indiscriminate violence, a siege, starvation, rising extremism, and crippling regional and international rivalries. In the midst of this mess, Washington is a bystander — even a contributor — to the worsening situation.
On Thursday, Aleppo’s last remaining doctors wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama highlighting a similar message: «We have seen no effort on behalf of the United States to lift the siege or even use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians,» the doctors, 15 in total, wrote.
The humanitarian crisis in Aleppo continues to make headlines as regime and Russian airstrikes often target the city’s infrastructure and provision of basic services. Each time, the lives of an estimated 300,000 civilians get worse in what CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward described as an «apocalyptic wasteland.»
But instead of responding to the worst disaster of our times, US policy is vindicating one of the most critical mantras of extremists: That the international community is not a friend to the Syrian people.
Four days after the doctors’ appeal to the US to help lift the siege — and as if to add insult to injury — Moscow announced that the US and Russia are close to starting joint military action against the very group that broke the siege in Aleppo last week — the newly rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra.
Regardless of whether the news from Moscow is accurate, the damage is already done — especially that the idea of joint strikes against the JFS, known as one of the most effective forces against regime, emanated from the White House.
The move typifies the chronic disconnect and apparent obliviousness of foreign powers to the suffering of ordinary Syrians.
Al Qaeda’s former affiliate capitalizes on this disconnect and seeks to present itself as a powerful force dedicated only to the fight against the regime. When it is attacked, it wants Syrians to see the attack against them and their rebellion.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s disengagement from al Qaeda was partly designed to tell Syrians that the US and Russia would still attack it even if dropped the al Qaeda name. Washington, on the other hand, does not seem to grasp this basic reality. It appears to be unlearning lessons that should have been learned over the past five years — that perception matters and can help extremist groups rise from the ashes to become powerful and destructive actors, for example.
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, the US has failed to match words with action, such as when President Barack Obama declared that Bashar Al Assad was no longer a legitimate ruler and when he reversed his decision to punish the regime for attacking civilians with chemical weapons.
Policy inconsistencies, intermittent support for the rebels, confused messaging, and the absence of strong international leadership have contributed to this protracted conflict and allowed space for regional and international actors to rip the country apart.
When it first became clear that the conflict and dysfunction in Syria and Iraq helped to produce a group like the Islamic State, a transnational threat, Washington quickly insulated that threat from the Syrian conflict and dealt with it through a counterterrorism lens. Today, it is poised to repeat the same mistake — at everyone’s peril.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. The views expressed here are the author’s own.