The unsolvable problem of Aleppo

What’s happening right now in Aleppo, which is frankly even worse than I made it out to be yesterday, has always been one of the nightmare humanitarian scenarios in terms of how Syria’s civil war might play out. Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war and has still been home to somewhere between one and two million people as the war has been going on. The stalemate that was established there early on, with the government controlling western Aleppo and rebels controlling eastern Aleppo, set up a scenario where, at some point, one side or the other would be strong enough to encircle the other half of the city and potentially leave hundreds of thousands of people without access to food, water, medicine, electricity, etc. The hope, then, was that somehow the war would reach some kind of conclusion before that could happen. But here we are, so clearly it didn’t.

The belligerents in Aleppo amazingly keep finding ways to make things even worse. A barrel bomb dropped by one of Bashar al-Assad’s aircraft onto a neighborhood in eastern Aleppo yesterday is believed to have contained chlorine gas–at least three people were reportedly killed and dozens more injured. The use of chlorine as a weapon is of course a violation of international restrictions (to which the Syrian government is now a party) on the use of chemical weapons. It’s long been known that Assad had chlorine gas stockpiles and there have been other suspected chlorine attacks by his forces over the past few years. Those stockpiles were not removed and destroyed along with Assad’s other chemical weapons because chlorine gas, as a “dual use” substance with civilian purposes, is not subject to restrictions the way pure weapons like sarin and mustard gas are.

There are 35 doctors left in eastern Aleppo, give or take. Fifteen of them recently sent a plea to Washington for some kind of relief:

“We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers: we desperately need a zone free from bombing over eastern Aleppo to stop the attacks, and international action to ensure Aleppo is never besieged again,” the doctors wrote.

The “what” is easy–of course a no-fly zone and some kind of international protection over Aleppo would be welcomed. Anything would be better than the current situation. But the “how” is what nobody can figure out. How do you impose a no-fly zone over the city without widening the war? How do you make Assad ground his air power without having to actually start shooting down his aircraft? What about Russia? It’s one thing for ex-CIA guys to go around talking blithely about “killing Russians” in Syria, but it’s quite another thing to actually do that and then bear the consequences.

It doesn’t even appear to be possible to talk the two sides into a temporary ceasefire; Russia and Assad are still trying to impose their so-inadequate-it-might-as-well-be-nothing “three hours a day” idea, though they couldn’t even stick to that today, and the UN’s suggestion of a 48 hour ceasefire is still dead in the water. Which, of course it is. The thing about any ceasefire is that, in addition to alleviating some of the human suffering caused by the fighting, it also allows the belligerents time to regroup. It’s only when each side needs to regroup more than it needs to prevent the other side from regrouping that you might actually be able to get a ceasefire that holds. Neither side is there right now; the rebels want to keep the momentum they’ve gained over the past several days going, and Assad wants to reverse their gains around Aleppo ASAP.


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