Aleppo and Amer­i­can de­cline

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Charles Krautham­mer E-mail Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group colum­nist Charles Krautham­mer at let­ters@ charleskrautham­

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.

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 Iraqstyle 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.

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.

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. Pres­i­den­t­elect 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.

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.

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