I just read the excellent New Yorker article by Robin Wright, “The Babies Are Dying in Aleppo.” In it she tells us that “more than a third of all casualties in Aleppo, Syria are now kids.” Her essay is accompanied by the now iconic picture of the bloody-faced five-year-old Omran Daqneesh. As many of us read and see the pictures of what is going on in Aleppo, we are sickened by it and ask, “Why can’t world leaders put an end to this tragic nonsense?” A tragedy pitting Syrian government forces, aided by Russian bombings, against rebels, including some ISIS fighters.
On August 11, fifteen Syrian doctors wrote an open letter to President Obama. It included these lines. “We have seen no effort on behalf of the United States to lift the [Syrian government] siege or even use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians. . . . Continued US inaction to protect the civilians of Syria means that our plight is being wilfully tolerated by those in the international corridors of power. The burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Syrian government and its Russian ally must therefore be shared by those, including the United States, who allow them to continue. . . . We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers, we need your action. Prove that you are the friend of Syrians.”
The president, then on a two-week vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, did not respond directly, but a “a senior administration official” had this to say to CNN: “The US has repeatedly condemned indiscriminate bombing of medical facilities by the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.” He added that “these attacks are appalling and must cease,” and that “the US government is working with the United Nations and engaging with Russia to find a diplomatic approach to reducing the violence and allowing humanitarian assistance into the city.”
As the horrors continue, traditional diplomatic talks have done little good. What then can be done? Although there are no easy answers, the example of Gandhi in Calcutta in August and September 1947 keeps coming back to me.
More than a week later one of the doctors complained that “Atrocities are being committed every day. The Syrian regime and Russian aircraft are systematically targeting civilians and hospitals across the city. . . . We have seen no real effort from President Obama . . . to prevent the criminal attacks against civilians and our hospitals.”
At about the same time a UN official bemoaned the continued “apex of horror,” which “left 275,000 people in rebel-held eastern Aleppo completely cut off from food, water and medicine, and has severely limited aid deliveries to 1.5 million people in government-held western Aleppo.”
Heretofore, as the horrors continue, traditional diplomatic talks have done little good. What then can be done? Although there are no easy answers, the example of Gandhi in Calcutta in August and September 1947 keeps coming back to me.
In Calcutta, as in Aleppo today, bloody conflict had been going on for many months. As the British prepared to depart from India, religious strife between Muslims and Hindus intensified. Gandhi came to the city on a peace mission. Although at first conflicts subsided, by September 1 Gandhi became troubled enough by renewed violence that he announced that he was going to begin a fast and “end [it] only if and when sanity returns to Calcutta.”
As his fast continued, various Muslim and Hindu groups became alarmed at the prospect of being responsible for his death, and pledged to end the violence. As biographer Louis Fischer wrote, even “the leaders of hooligan bands, burly ruffians, came and sat at Gandhi's bedside and wept and promised to refrain from their usual depredations. Hindu, Moslem and Christian representatives, workers, merchants and shopkeepers gave a pledge in Gandhi's presence that there would be no more trouble in Calcutta.”
They kept their word. The violence stopped. After 73 hours of fasting, Gandhi ended it, and several days later left Calcutta.
So what lesson does Gandhi’s example set for President Obama? And why should Syrian doctors or anyone address their appeal specifically to him?
The lesson Gandhi’s leadership offers is not that President Obama should fast until the killing of Aleppo civilians stops. A president’s responsibilities are different than those of a moral leader like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But at least President Obama could demonstrate more passion and imagination (as Gandhi did in Calcutta) to stop the senseless killing—at a minimum it would have been nice if he had taken a few moments out of his family vacation to respond to the doctors’ personal appeal and not just leave it to a White House spokesman.
Two years ago, I lamented the lack of passion and imagination for peace among world leaders today. Four years ago, in an article about whether Obama possessed political wisdom, I concluded that he demonstrated many wise qualities but that some observers questioned his passion and political imagination. His recent reactions to the ongoing Syrian crisis suggest that these are still two of his weakest traits.
But why single out Obama? Surely Syria’s President Assad and Russia’s President Putin bear greater responsibility for the killing of civilians about which the Syrian doctors cry out. True enough, but the Syrian doctors apparently believed that a letter to the U.S. president would do more good than appealing to the two leaders most responsible for the civilian suffering. And the United States is involved in Syria by using various military means to weaken ISIS while at the same time maneuvering to replace Assad.
It is not uncommon for U.S. politicians to claim that the United States is an “exceptional nation.” At the 2016 Democratic convention in Cleveland, Hillary Clinton suggested, as she often has, that we are just such a nation. But if we aspire to such greatness, such exceptionalism, do we not then have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership beyond the ordinary?
President Putin is very concerned about Russia’s reputation in the world. Is there not some way that the Obama administration can shine such a spotlight on the atrocities against children and others in Syria that Putin would be embarrassed not to help stop them? Now is the time to go beyond normal diplomatic dealings. It is a time for sustained moral outrage.
Walter G. Moss