Aleppo and American Decline

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen marching through the streets of east Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. 

By Charles Krauthammer Published on December 22, 2016

WASHINGTON — The fall of Aleppo just weeks before Barack Obama leaves office is a fitting stamp on his Middle East policy of retreat and withdrawal. The pitiable pictures from the devastated city showed the true cost of Obama’s abdication. For which he seems to have few regrets, however. In his end-of-year news conference, Obama defended U.S. inaction with his familiar false choice: it was either stand aside or order a massive Iraq-style ground invasion.

This is a transparent fiction designed to stifle debate. Five years ago, the popular uprising was ascendant. What kept a rough equilibrium was regime control of the skies. At that point, the U.S., at little risk and cost, could have declared Syria a no-fly zone, much as it did Iraqi Kurdistan for a dozen years after the Gulf War of 1991.

The U.S. could easily have destroyed the regime’s planes and helicopters on the ground and so cratered its airfields as to make them unusable. That would have altered the strategic equation for the rest of the war.

And would have deterred the Russians from injecting their own air force — they would have had to challenge ours for air superiority. Facing no U.S. deterrent, Russia stepped in and decisively altered the balance, pounding the rebels in Aleppo to oblivion. The Russians were particularly adept at hitting hospitals and other civilian targets, leaving the rebels with the choice between annihilation and surrender.

They surrendered.

Obama has never appreciated that the role of a superpower in a local conflict is not necessarily to intervene on the ground, but to deter a rival global power from stepping in and altering the course of the war. That’s what we did during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Moscow threatened to send troops to support Egypt and President Nixon countered by raising America’s nuclear alert status to Defcon 3. Russia stood down.

Less dramatically but just as effectively, American threats of retaliation are what kept West Germany, South Korea and Taiwan free and independent through half a century of Cold War.

Assad was never a friend. But today he’s not even a free agent. He’s been effectively restored to his throne, but as the puppet of Iran and Russia.

It’s called deterrence. Yet Obama never had the credibility to deter anything or anyone. In the end, the world’s greatest power was reduced to bitter speeches at the U.N. “Are you truly incapable of shame?” thundered U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power at the butchers of Aleppo. As if we don’t know the answer. Indeed the shame is on us for terminal naivete, sending our secretary of state chasing the Russians to negotiate one humiliating pretend cease-fire after another.

Even now, however, the Syria debate is not encouraging. The tone is anguished and emotional, portrayed exclusively in moral terms. Much less appreciated is the cold strategic cost.

Assad was never a friend. But today he’s not even a free agent. He’s been effectively restored to his throne, but as the puppet of Iran and Russia. Syria is now a platform, a forward base, from which both these revisionist regimes can project power in the region.

Iran will use Syria to advance its drive to dominate the Arab Middle East. Russia will use its naval and air bases to bully the Sunni Arab states, and to shut out American influence.

It’s already happening. The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey convened in Moscow this week to begin settling the fate of Syria. Notice who wasn’t there. For the first time in four decades, the United States, the once dominant power in the region, is an irrelevance.

With Aleppo gone and the rebels scattered, we have a long road ahead to rebuild the influence squandered over the last eight years. President-elect Donald Trump is talking about creating safe zones. He should tread carefully. It does no good to try to do now what we should have done five years ago. Conditions are much worse. Russia and Iran rule. Maintaining the safety of safe zones will be expensive and dangerous. It will require extensive ground deployments and it risks military confrontation with Russia.

And why? Guilty conscience is not a good reason. Interventions that are purely humanitarian — from Somalia to Libya — tend to end badly. We may proclaim a “responsibility to protect,” but when no American interests are at stake, the engagement becomes impossible to sustain. At the first losses, we go home.

In Aleppo, the damage is done, the city destroyed, the inhabitants ethnically cleansed. For us, there is no post-facto option. If we are to regain the honor lost in Aleppo, it will have to be on a very different battlefield.


Charles Krauthammer’s email address is

     (c) 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group

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  • Hmmm…

    I have never been able to identify with anything coming from Obama all this time, feeling actually that my country has somehow been in abeyance during these futile years.

  • jgmusgrove

    Obama has been the most un-American, anti-American we have had. Shame on him and on the party that nominated him. The Demographic Party got their candidate; America got short shrift. Good riddance to his departure January 20.

  • galatians328

    Thank you Mr Krauthammer. We disagree with you on many things. We agree with you in this matter on the major points

    1. that the US failed to deter at the time that i may have done effectively. But, we do add that while acting to deter was a duty of the White House it was also a duty of the Congress which was as impotent in this matter as the White House.

    2. that the ‘great powers’ in that region are now Russia, Iran, and Turkey, not even Syria!. But, we wonder if Turkey is there as a secondary partner and can be dismissed from discussions with his Satanic Lord Putin when his Lord so deigns?

    3. that Trump has not, yet, produced a coherent helpful point of view about the region. And that much of his silly campaign talk is pointless. So, we don’t expect him to be invited to join the talks either. Despite his sycophant-seeming denial of facts, abuse of intelligence agencies, and near drooling adulatory defense of Putin.

    What must Putin ‘have’ on Trump and his family? financial corruption? perversity? crimes? infamy?

  • Ryan

    The Obama foreign policy of appeasement produced a void of leadership in the middle east, so Putin stepped in. One could say Obamas policies have speeded up the prophecies in Ezekiel and other books, but most noticeably in Ezekiel. I find it interesting how the left always manages to speed up their own demise without the foggiest idea of what they did to bring it about. A good example of that is the last election in the U.S.

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