Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson infamously responded to a question about the tragic war in Syria with “What is Aleppo?” I’ll answer. You won’t be comforted.
Aleppo—not the capital Damascus—was Syria’s largest city and business hub with 2.1 million inhabitants (2004 census). Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, nearly 500,000 have been killed nationwide. Aleppo’s population has dropped. What is it? No one knows.
What we do know is that Aleppo, the Syrian civil war and widespread violence in the Middle East present a conundrum. The United States is damned if we do get more involved, damned if we don’t.
Start with refugees. Turkey hosts 2.6 million, Lebanon one million and impoverished Jordan over 628,000 (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees). Eastern Europe hasn’t the resources, ability or will to accept many—if any. Germany takes the lead in the West. It accepted over one million asylum seekers in 2015. That’s dropped to 220,000 in 2016 (Deutsche Welle). Germans said, “No more.”
Regrettably, Western Europe long has done a poor job assimilating Muslims. In counterpoint, many Muslims have resisted integrating into Europe’s secular culture. America does much better, but no matter how many refugees we accept, we won’t come close to meeting existing needs.
Militarily—despite Donald Trump’s assertions—we also face limits. In Syria, U.S. weapons, training and airpower have failed to oust President Bashar al-Assad. (ISIS will soon be driven underground.) Diplomatic efforts face intransigence by Vladimir Putin. Inserting traditional American ground forces into Syria risks a violent clash with Russia. No one will win.
In Iraq, we see progress. The crucial battle for Mosul is underway. It will be long and bloody. Clearing Mosul of booby traps and rebuilding will take decades. Estimates place 5,000-6,000 American trainers, advisors, forward air controllers and special operations personnel on the ground. The U.S. could send in 25,000 or more traditional combat troops. But Washington probably would face massive protests at home, particularly with many Americans embittered after a nasty presidential campaign. We’d also see protests throughout the Middle East.
What if we send in combat troops anyway? Following victory, Iraqis will demand we leave. If we stay, we’ll face a new insurrection featuring improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and sniper attacks. After we go, Iraq will descend into renewed chaos with no dominant indigenous force controlling the fragmented nation.
Feeling conflicted? Who isn’t? Recently on TV, a Syrian man asked how the West could let such brutality continue. Another Syrian man interviewed some months earlier presented another perspective: “Nothing good ever comes from the West.”
We are witnessing a war within Islam between those who accept the twenty-first century and those who long for the seventh. Throw in nationalist/sectarian (Sunni-Shia) and tribal conflicts, as well as political thuggery, and we’re left with a witches brew too toxic to consume.
Limiting our response seems inhumane but reflects reality. Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves. This may not happen until the middle or later stages of this century when they’ve been exhausted by death and destruction. It may not happen at all.
What is Aleppo then? A final two words: frustration, angst. I suspect you can come up with many more.
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