Guest Opinion: Aleppo's story in a child’s face

Chicago Tribune
Aug. 20
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More than broken buildings and twisted rebar, more than images of Su-34 bombers and pickup trucks toting soldiers armed with AK-47s, the face of Omran Daqneesh, 5, tells the story of Aleppo, Syria.

In a photo taken after an airstrike hit his apartment building Wednesday, the dust-covered boy sits in an ambulance, staring blankly. The left side of his face is caked in blood. His left eye is nearly shut, his right eye appears encircled by a large bruise. His floppy hair is filled with dust, blood stains the neckline and sleeves of his shirt. He isn’t crying, he shows no signs of being in pain. We don’t know what he’s thinking, but he appears numbed, patient even.

Omran was pulled from the rubble of his family’s apartment building. His siblings, ages 1, 6 and 11, along with his parents, were also rescued from the building. An hour after Omran and his family were saved, the building collapsed. Neither Omran nor the rest of his family were seriously hurt.

The same shell-shocked visage can be seen in civilians every day in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, ravaged by five years of civil war — the span of this boy’s life. Images like Omran’s face remind us that the mission in Syria isn’t just about Islamic State and Assad, Iran and Russia. It is about civilians trapped by a war that, in places like Aleppo, have turned everyday life into moment-to-moment survival.

Aleppo has long been ground zero in the war between Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition rebels. Now it’s at the center of an all-out offensive by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad to drive rebels out. Syrian and Russian fighter jets have been pounding rebel-held districts, indifferent to civilians there. Human rights groups say there’s growing evidence that Syrian and Russian pilots are using incendiary bombs similar to napalm against rebel strongholds.

In April 2012, Obama promised Syrians that he would stand by them as they were “subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights.” That promise rings hollow. Obama has largely sidestepped the plight of Aleppo and of civilians across Syria. A half-hearted, long-delayed effort to train and equip Syrian rebels collapsed. Cease-fires have come and gone. U.S.-brokered diplomacy has spun its wheels.

More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to cajole Putin into reining in Assad’s indiscriminate bombing, in exchange for joint U.S.-Russian operations against certain opposition rebels that both sides see as terrorists. The soft-sell approach to Putin has yielded — and will yield — nothing.

The Kremlin has a singular goal in Syria: Keep Assad in power — a goal shared by Iran.

Obama’s goal looks to be: Appear engaged without doing much of anything.

Putin won’t be deterred unless the U.S. wields leverage against him. Raising the prospect of military action against Assad, as a group of State Department officials suggested earlier this year, could provide that leverage. Those officials sent a cable to Obama, urging stronger military action against Syrian government forces. They suggested that could include cruise missiles and “targeted airstrikes.”

That’s what we mean by leverage, of a sort Putin would comprehend. It could entice moderate Syrian Sunnis, who oppose Assad, to side with the West in the fight against Islamic State.

Obama seems content to leave an ever-worsening Syria slaughter to his successor. Obama also will leave Syrian civilians trapped in a conflict the president should have taken seriously around the time Omran was born.