FPI Bulletin: Obama's Srebrenica?

October 17, 2016

The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has begun securing impressive gains this weekend.  On Sunday, ISIS fled the Syrian village of Dabiq, where the group’s leadership had prophesied an apocalyptic battle between Islamic fighters and Western forces would occur.  Also yesterday, Iraqi units began advancing against Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, and an ISIS stronghold for the past two years.  While these advances are commendable, the Obama administration is also ignoring an immediate and growing humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and shows no signs of abandoning its failed approach to resolving the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, the administration appears to be wasting its final opportunity to change course in Syria and protect innocent civilians from attack by Syrian and Russian forces.  Despite the fact that the United States cut off bilateral talks with Russia over the Syrian conflict two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry resumed multilateral negotiations over the weekend.  The Washington Post reports further that “There is no consensus within the administration about what the United States can or should do to try to bring a halt to the killing and stop what appears to be the increasingly inevitable fall of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city” to the forces of Bashar al-Assad. According to the Post, U.S. intelligence officials believe the city may fall within weeks.

The only hope for reversing the situation in Aleppo remains U.S. intervention.  Unfortunately, despite warnings from U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura that Aleppo may become a humanitarian disaster akin to “Another Srebrenica, another Rwanda…unless something takes place,” President Obama has repeatedly refused to take action to protect the Syrian people, and there is little indication that he will do so before he leaves office.

As the Post chronicles, the Obama administration is deeply split on the question of how the United States should proceed in Syria.  While White House and Defense Department officials have reportedly maintained their long-standing opposition to military force, representatives from the State Department and CIA have favored increasing the quality and quantity of U.S. arms to the moderate Syrian opposition.  Their hope is that moderate opposition fighters would be able to continue to fight, even if their last stronghold in Aleppo were to fall.  However, The Daily Beast reports that the likely outcome of Aleppo’s fall would be the dissolution of the moderate opposition and its assimilation into Islamist forces.

On Friday, the Obama administration reportedly heard options for how the United States can militarily respond to the crisis in Aleppo.  Options said to be under consideration were “air strikes on Syrian military bases, munitions depots or radar and anti-aircraft bases.” These strikes could be conducted with long-range, stand-off weapons from U.S. air and naval assets in the region.  However, the White House’s readout of that National Security Council meeting gives little indication that the president will move forward with such an initiative.

Mr. Obama should recognize that preserving U.S. interests in Syria requires a clean break with his own policies.  At a minimum, the United States should supply the moderate opposition with the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry needed to defend themselves against attack by pro-Assad forces.  Non-kinetic options proposed by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy would include directly distributing humanitarian aid to Aleppo via U.S. aircraft and supporting the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which would sanction the Assad regime for crimes against humanity.

It would be better still if Mr. Obama would finally agree to kinetic options to bolster the position of the moderate opposition in Syria, as well as protect civilians from predation by pro-Assad forces. Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War has shown that such humanitarian safe-zones would not require ongoing U.S. patrols of Syrian airspace.  And while Hillary Clinton commendably called for the creation of safe zones at the second presidential debate on October 9, the citizens of Aleppo simply cannot wait for the next president to take office.

Such military action could produce follow-on diplomatic gains as well.  As Mrs. Clinton noted at Sunday’s debate, “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.”  Drawing a parallel between the Syrian and Bosnian humanitarian crises, former CIA official John Sipher wrote that “Just like in Bosnia, it is unlikely that there will be any accord in Syria unless and until the West takes military action…. Despite the energetic efforts of numerous diplomats in the Bosnia war, there never would have been a Dayton Peace Treaty without the NATO bombing.”

As Mr. Sipher observes, the Srebrenica massacre ultimately spurred the United States and its NATO partners to launch the air campaign that led to the Dayton accords and the end of the ethnic cleansing campaign in Bosnia.  Although President Obama has long made clear that he opposes any such intervention in Syria, his inaction is not only allowing more Syrians to be killed, but also exacerbating the challenges awaiting his successor. Before his presidency ends, Mr. Obama should take decisive action to prevent the fall of Aleppo – the only path to avoid an even greater humanitarian disaster, preserve the options of his successor, and advance any hope toward the diplomatic solution he so desires.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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