An empty ‘witness’ in Syria Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

The words “never again” ring hollow as the city of Aleppo in Syria has fallen to regime forces of President Bashar Al Assad. A brutal siege that has ground on for years was finally brought to a bloody end by a surge of Russian airpower, Iranian shock troops and assorted regional militia fighters. As we eulogise the dead of Aleppo, we must acknowledge the United States’ complicity in this tragedy.

President Barack Obama speaks of the need to “bear witness” to injustice. He did little else for Aleppo. To what has the US borne witness? To the use of smart bombs to target women and children, hospitals and bakeries, aid warehouses and humanitarian convoys. To the development and popularisation of barrel bombs — oil drums packed with shrapnel and explosives, dropped indiscriminately from aircraft to kill and maim as many civilians as possible. To the tactic of follow-on air strikes designed to kill rescue workers, such as the intrepid White Helmets, who rush to the scene of an attack to save the innocent. And now to the busloads of refugees pouring out of Aleppo and the tens of thousands left behind to the tender mercies of the Al Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Obama has borne witness to all of this, and more, and done nothing to stop it.

As with past atrocities, Aleppo’s destruction inspired much high-minded talk and the illusion of action. Endless meetings in the gilded palaces of Geneva and Vienna and elsewhere. Red lines drawn and transgressed with no consequences. Statements like this: “Should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda, or Srebrenica?” Obama asked the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. “If that’s the world that people want to live in, they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.”

That reckoning is now upon us. The mass graves are before us and the name Aleppo will echo through history, like Srebrenica and Rwanda, as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame. Even in a conflict that has killed nearly 500,000 people, driven half of Syria’s population from their homes, created the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War and spawned the terrorist army of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) even amid all this horror and depravity, Aleppo stands out.

Aleppo may be lost, but the war in Syria is far from over.

The US still has a choice to make. The longer it waits to help end the war, the worse its options will become. But no one should believe that America has no choice. It must acknowledge that it has a stake in what happens in Syria. It is not just about the suffering of others, as moving as that is. It is about the national security of the US as well: The resurgence of Al Qaida in Syria affects America. The rise of the world’s most advanced terrorist organisation affects America, as has been seen in Paris and San Bernardino, California. A refugee crisis that destabilises US allies and threatens the foundation of western democracies affects America.

The US must also acknowledge that Al Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qasim Sulaimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, will never be viable counterterrorism partners. In fact, the opposite is true. The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran are not fighting Daesh. Their indiscriminate slaughter of Syrian civilians is what created the conditions for Daesh’s emergence. The bloody siege of Aleppo will be a windfall for terrorist radicalisation and recruitment. To think that the US can destroy Daesh by throwing in its lot with those who are strengthening it every day is a dangerous fantasy.

Finally, the US must acknowledge that ending the conflict in Syria will not be possible until Al Assad and his foreign backers realise they cannot succeed militarily. And make no mistake: Succeeding militarily is what they are trying to do. The fall of Aleppo will only encourage them to turn their guns on their next targets in Syria. We must recall the wisdom of former US secretary of state George Shultz: “Diplomacy not backed by strength will always be ineffectual at best, dangerous at worst.”

Just because America cannot stop every horror in the world does not absolve it of the responsibility of using its great power to end the worst injustices where it can — especially when doing so will benefit its own interests and make the US and its partners more secure. America does not need to become the world’s policeman to defend its interests, but it cannot wall itself off from the chaos of a dangerous world. And if it tries so, the instability, terror and destruction at the heart of that chaos will eventually make their way to America’s shores.

— Washington Post

John McCain, a Republican, represents Arizona in the US Senate.