Opinion

The fall of Aleppo isn't humanity's disgrace: Neil Macdonald

Guilt is fashionable in our pampered society, particularly at this indulgent time of the year. At the moment, the most powerful guilt-inducer is Syria. And while the deep sorrow we're feeling for those in Aleppo is poignant, realistically, there's little the West could have done, Neil Macdonald writes.

While the deep sorrow we're feeling for those in Syria is poignant, there's little the West could've done

A Syrian man who was evacuated from of Aleppo cries upon his arrival in the opposition-controlled Khan al-Aassal region. There's been an international outcry over the crisis that has unfolded in Aleppo in recent weeks, as government forces waged a bomb-heavy campaign to take it back from rebels. (Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Guilt is fashionable in our pampered society, particularly at this indulgent time of the year.

It's the safest of intellectual retreats. Asserting it at the dinner table guarantees solemn, affirming nods, before someone offers to top up everybody's Cabernet.

At the moment, the most powerful guilt-inducer is Syria.

"Aleppo has fallen and so has humanity," read the headline on a chastisement in the National Post by my old friend and colleague Terry Glavin. "We are disgraced."

Glavin is a skilled polemicist. He lists the unquestionable crimes of the regime in Damascus and its Russian accomplices: deployment of chlorine gas, indiscriminate bombardments, barrel bombs, starvation sieges, targeting of hospitals, rape as a weapon of war.

And he quotes Syrian activist Abdulkafi al-Hamdo's ghastly, beseeching social media posts, condemning the United Nations and the international community for its venal indifference to Aleppo's passion.

"There is no plausible defence any of us can mount against al-Hambdo's plainspoken indictment," writes Glavin, castigating us all for not "commanding our elected leaders" to free Syrians from their tormentors.

He offers a stinging summation of the argument against military intervention: "You know, quagmire and all that."

Well, yes. Quagmire is one way of putting it.

Here's another: Syrians are slaughtering Syrians in Syria. It's evil, and impossibly sad. Bashar al-Assad, the goofy-looking, London-educated ophthalmologist, is now a member of the war criminal pantheon.

If there is any justice, Assad's corpse will wind up on a pile of garbage, urinated upon by passersby whose relatives and friends died screaming in the chambers of his security forces, or whose children's bodies were shattered by his damned barrel bombs.

An undesirable solution

But it probably won't. Justice is an opportunistic concept in the Middle East.

And citizens of Western democracies have no reason for self-mortification. What exactly could they have done?

Some have suggested America and its allies could have imposed a no-fly zone.

But does anyone seriously think a no-fly zone would have prevented the Syrian regime, an alliance of Alawites and Christian elites, from trying to exterminate the Sunni rebels and fundamentalists advancing against them?

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following an airstrike on a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo. (Ameer Alhalbi/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a matter of self-preservation. They know exactly what they would have faced had the rebels won. They'd have been lowered into lakes in cages, or something even nastier.

American militarists had no solutions, either. People like Senator John McCain wanted to identify good rebels, as opposed to ISIS-type rebels, and arm and back them.

The Obama administration actually tried that. The good rebels were promptly forced to hand over their American-supplied weapons to the bad rebels, or die.

A couple looks at a destroyed building in Aleppo's Haydariya neighbourhood after arriving to check on their home on Dec. 4, 2016 for the first time in four years. They were among hundreds of Syrians returning to eastern Aleppo in recent days after the army recaptured large swathes of the city from rebels. (Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images)

No, there was only one way to save the Syrians from themselves, if that was ever even possible, and it was invasion.

The Russians, which have for decades been Syria's patron, would have vetoed any such notion at the UN Security Council. So it would have had to be a NATO action, or another American-led "coalition of the willing."

Which has been tried, and didn't turn out very well.

The legacy of invading Iraq

Actually, if Western democracies should feel any guilt, it's for what they (Canada excluded) did in 2003. On a pretext, or a lie, they invaded and shattered Iraq, effectively created ISIS, and triggered death and suffering that would have been considered a war crime had it not been led by Washington.

Yes, the U.S. toppled and handed Saddam Hussein to his enemies for execution, and he most certainly deserved it. But, like Assad, he was better than the alternative.

So America and other Western nations were understandably reluctant to rush in again. They did try to crush the bad rebels — Canada sent fighter jets to assist in that effort — but weirdly, it made them objective allies of Assad and his great sponsor, Iran.

Then the Russians stepped in, and that was that.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, but it also created a vacuum that helped to create ISIS. The state-backed Hashed al-Shaabi forces, shown here, are one of the groups fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Unlike the Americans, Russian generals don't have lawyers in the room to referee decisions about where and when to drop bombs. They don't really give a damn about killing civilians, as long as they win. In the Middle East, the Russians actually fit right in.

Once Putin backed Assad, the rebellion was doomed, and actually, it's not unreasonable to cheer that.

The most effective rebels are ISIS, or their fellow travellers, and really, the world is a little better off every time an ISIS soldier heads off to paradise.

Don't forget, though, the uprising in Syria began as a popular reaction to the arrest and torture by Assad's swinish security forces of some teenagers who daubed anti-regime graffiti on buildings in Deraa.

It was admirable, and it never had a chance.

In that sense, what's happened is unspeakable. Glavin is right.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has called the retaking of Aleppo 'history in the making.' (AFP/Getty Images)

Humanity did not destroy Aleppo

But having worked in the Middle East for years, I can say pretty much definitively what would have happened had the West invaded: its troops would have been welcomed for a few days, and then would have become infidel occupiers on the sacred soil of the house of God, and improvised explosive devices would have begun to explode, and civilians would have been slaughtered anyway.

So, yes. Quagmire, best avoided.

This is difficult to write. I feel deep sorrow for the suffering of Syrian civilians. I've stood and watched what happens to civilians when armies turn on them, and the anger it creates is corrosive.

But humanity did not destroy Aleppo. Canada in fact did something more constructive than most: it welcomed tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing for their lives. Europe did much more.

America, given the hell it caused over there, might consider doing the same.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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