France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has foretold an ominous fate for Syria’s largest city: “Aleppo will be totally destroyed by Christmas.”
Not just fallen, but razed. No city can withstand the magnitude of bombing being inflicted now by Russian and Syrian government airstrikes. By winter, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin likely will have the territory they coveted. But thousands of innocents will have died by then, and thousands more will have joined the ranks of refugees fleeing to Europe. Putin and Assad’s course toward a city’s annihilation has been made easier by President Barack Obama’s weak, indecisive handling of five and a half years of civil war in Syria. Obama allowed Putin to take control of the trajectory of events in Syria, and now the White House’s options are decidedly limited.
The recent U.S.-brokered cease-fire negotiated with Assad and Putin — the one that was supposed to safeguard civilians in Aleppo — quickly crumbled: Putin calculated he wouldn’t pay any meaningful price for handling Aleppo his way. The steady barrage of bombing will achieve his aim of routing anti-Assad rebels — which is all that matters to a leader with a long history of flouting international law and wiping out opponents through any means necessary.
Is there any price that the West can exact on Putin? Washington has hamstrung itself. Belated strikes against Assad’s air capability risk getting U.S. forces tangled in direct conflict with Russian forces. The Kremlin has already warned that it would defend Assad’s forces from U.S. attack.
Hitting the Kremlin economically is the best still-available tack. Sanctions imposed on Russia following Putin’s pilfering of Crimea and his direct support of separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine have taken a bite out of the Russian economy at a time when the country already is suffering from flagging oil prices. Sanctions on Russia’s banking, energy and defense sectors caused the country’s economy to contract by about 1.5 percent in 2015. When you factor in what’s happened with oil prices, the overall contraction neared 4 percent last year. Even more worrisome for the Kremlin, experts say, is the impact sanctions have had on international corporations considering long-term investment in Russia. Many have set aside ambitious 20-year plans, opting for five-year projects.
The U.S. can directly slap another round of sanctions on Moscow for its actions in Aleppo, and it should. But Obama should also enlist Western European leaders to join in imposing the sanctions, as they did after Crimea. Europe is Russia’s largest trading partner, and when Europe economically punishes the Kremlin, the welt for Russia is always bigger.
There’s no guarantee that another, heftier round of economic sanctions — along with asset freezes and travel bans on key Kremlin players — would cause Putin to reverse course in Aleppo.
But we do know that what the West has done to save Aleppo’s civilians hasn’t worked. Sanctions may not save Aleppo, but they would send the Kremlin a message that it faces consequences for its thuggish behavior. And if Obama is tempted to hand off the crisis to the next administration, he should ask himself how the civilians of Aleppo would feel about waiting it out.