From Halabja to Aleppo: U.S. Foreign Policy in Crisis

 by: Dana Nawzar Jaf 

"Are you truly incapable of shame,” asked Samantha Power, the United States of America’s ambassador to the United Nations. That was only one of many strong condemnations of Russia, Syria and Iran in her speech at United Nations Security Council meeting on Aleppo. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo,” Ambassador Power said during the same speech. While Rwanda and Srebrenica massacres are internationally well-known cases, her reference of Halabja was somehow surprising.

Halabja, where I have spent my childhood, is a small Kurdish town near the Iraqi-Iranian borders and one of the hot spots of Iraqi-Iranian war in the 1980s, was attacked by Iraqi warplanes with chemical gas. An estimated 5000 civilians died in a matter of few hours. Thousands more were injured and many more flee the city towards Iran. Halabja is considered one of the worst chemical massacres in history.

Halabja and Aleppo are not two alien names to each other. Historians writing about Halabja have given different explanatons for the reasons that name has been given to the city. Some have argued that ‘Halabja’ has come from ‘Halabcha’ which means ‘the small Halab’. Halab is the Arabic name of Aleppo. The reason for this, they argue, is that Halabja’s weather has been very similar to that of Halab or Aleppo. Whether a valid explanation or not, Halabja’s name is being mentioned more frequently with the tragic situation unfolding in Aleppo.  

When the chemical attack on Halabja took place, not only U.S. did not condemn Saddam Hussein government, but initial reports from U.S. intelligence were blaming Iran for it while evidence and eyewitnesses were telling the opposite. Moreover, secret CIA files revealed decades later showed that U.S. had provided intelligence support for Iraqi army on Halabja and other areas in the period when the chemical attack took place. Although years later, the American administration began picking up the Halabja massacre and used it extensively as a proof for Saddam’s possessing chemical weapons and being ready to use it against civilians, U.S. does not have a very honorable mention in Halabja tragedy.

Criticizing U.S. silence to Saddam’s atrocities in Halabja is not only a moral argument but a criticism deeply targeted at the way U.S. foreign policy is shaped towards crisis in the Middle East. Ambassador Power’s strong language on Aleppo does not hide the fact that U.S.’s position on Aleppo is not any less problematic than its attitude during Halabja massacre. Contending with verbal and diplomatic condemnation of the allegations of mass killings taking place in Aleppo is equivalent to helping Saddam and keeping silent on Halabja. Not only it is very hard for people in the region to believe that America is sincerely concerned with the safety of civilians in Syria, but it has made it even more difficult for different groups in the region to see in America a viable ally and partner. America’s inaction accompanied by a very strong language of condemnations is a retreat to an ‘observer’ status which is not looked at with respect in the region.

America’s inaction cannot simply be explained in terms of Obama’s desire not to engage in a new war and end his legacy with no troops deployed to a foreign soil. This inaction is mainly caused by the lack of vision. While Russia is quite sure of who the enemy is and who to support in Syria, America is still struggling to come up with a list of friends and foes in Syria. While Russia is successfully defending Assad against all its enemies under the pretext of fighting ISIS, U.S. and allies are only certain in their fight against ISIS. They do not want Assad in power, but also do not support removing him militarily. They support ‘moderate Syrian opposition’ but are not sure who can be put under that category. They also support the Kurds to fight ISIS, but they do not want them to have their autonomous Kurdish region which is regarded a national security threat by Turkey, another ally. Simply, while fighting ISIS can help with marketing, as Russia does, it is not enough to help formulate a vision on Syria. ISIS could have been the straw which broke camel’s back but Syria was already in a bloody warfare and deep political crisis long before birth of ISIS. Russia will not be winning only through helping Assad takeover rebel strongholds, but it will also be winning through forming alliances with states and groups in conflict with each other. Thus, while Russia is doing everything possible to crash rebels supported by Turkey, she is making deals with Turkey at the same time. While it strongly supports including the Kurdish PYD in the peace talks and plays the role of mediator between Assad and the Kurds, she is simultaneously trying to reassure Turkey of its interests. This diplomatic success is caused first and foremost by the clarity of visio of Russia’s part.   

Whether a moral blunder like that in Halabja or a strategic lack of vision and action like in the case of Aleppo, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has proved time and again that it suffers real dilemma. This existential crisis in U.S. foreign policy in a region home to world’s most heated political and humanitarian emergencies cannot be overcome with strong condemnation speeches in the United Nations. The more Americans speak with no clear vision or efficient action, the less people will be there to listen to them, trust them and choose them as allies. It will never be a surprise if the Syrian crisis ended with giving Russia the largest political and military victory since the end of the cold war.