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August 15, 2016

The Obama Administration’s “Problem from Hell” in Syria

This blog is cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations and longtime foreign policy advisor to President Obama, built her reputation on her 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” in which she took successive U.S. administrations to task for their inadequate responses to genocides since the Holocaust.

To her credit, Ambassador Power is not hiding from the problem from hell now confronting the U.S. administration in which she holds a senior role. She led a public session of the U.N. Security Council on August 8, focused on the plight of the civilian population of Eastern Aleppo subject to bombardment from the Assad regime and its allies and denial of access to essentials like food and medical supplies. Up to 300,000 civilians have been under siege for months.  Hospitals have come under systematic bombardment.

Ambassador Power pointed out to the Security Council that neither side in the Syria conflict will be able to win a swift or decisive victory in the battle for Aleppo, emphasizing that “the longer the fighting drags on, the more civilians will be caught in the middle.”

The Obama administration has few options in Syria. Its motives in calling the public UN session and in helping to spread the shocking testimony of Syrian-American doctors recently returned from treating patients, including many children, in deplorable conditions in hospital basements, seems to be to try to shame Russia into persuading President Assad to ease off on his worst humanitarian excesses.

It feels like a desperate hope. Russia has some influence over its ally, the Assad government, which owes its improving chances of survival to Russian military backing. U.S. support for the opposition has been hesitant. In contrast, the United States has little influence over its supposed allies.  Under heavy pressure and starved of support, opposition groups are increasingly reliant on cooperation with extremist Islamist groups viewed as terrorists by the United States and exempt from protection under cessation of hostilities agreements negotiated with the Russians.

It is a painful reality that the Assad government, responsible for the vast majority of mass atrocities and human rights crimes in the war, is in a position to dictate the level of the conflict in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. If the United States wishes to avert an even greater humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and the likely forced displacement of hundreds of thousands more refugees into already-overwhelmed neighboring states— and into a Europe already dealing with political upheaval caused by migration from the Middle East—then the price will be set by Russia. 

The price is likely to include U.S. acceptance that President Assad remain in power. Russia would retain a friendly government in Damascus and access to its naval base in Tartus. It would also give President Putin the satisfaction of forcing President Obama to back down from his statement that President Assad should leave office. Perhaps most importantly for Putin, this would be a public reversal for U.S. support for mass popular protests against corrupt, authoritarian rulers.

There is no policy more threatening to Putin’s authoritarian mode of governance than U.S. support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Russian officials lose no opportunity to undermine and cast doubts on these policies. Unfortunately, in what has become a global ideological battle, the U.S. government has too often seemed to back down.

Power wrote of U.S. leaders in 2002: “They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.” Leaving aside the question of whether the situation in Aleppo and more broadly in Syria constitutes a genocide, there is no doubt that the horrific plight of civilians subjected to targeted bombardment, forced starvation. and denial of essential medical supplies is something that senior U.S. leaders, including President Obama, consider profoundly wrong.

Regrettably, it is also true that at no stage of the Syria conflict has the administration been prepared “to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.”

Power’s message in 2002 was that as long as U.S. leaders were prepared to be “bystanders to genocide” then genocides would recur. 

The problem from hell now unfolding on Ambassador Power’s watch in Aleppo sadly shows that the entrenched habits of the U.S. foreign policy establishment have not changed. She probably understands this better than anyone and it is sobering that she and other leaders who entered public life determined to challenge such indifference have not been able to avert this disaster.

President Putin’s price for a settlement in Syria is too high and the United States should not agree to pay it. The only way it can avoid the devastating defeat for universal values that accepting Putin’s terms in Syria would represent is by finally investing the military, financial, diplomatic, and domestic political capital needed to bring about a better resolution. Is it willing? This question will probably have to be answered by the next administration.