The price for Russian war crimes in Aleppo
At this rate, Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo alongside the Syrian air force will enter the annals of infamy long before the US or Europe can stop it. In a bid to crush a rebellion that the crumbling Syrian army is incapable of defeating on the ground, Moscow is helping to turn the city into a vast mass grave, pulverising from the air the eastern neighbourhoods where some 250,000 Syrians are trapped.
Through the course of the Syrian war, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have used the most depraved methods, deploying munitions proscribed by international law against civilians, hitting water and food supplies, attacking medical services and using starvation as a weapon. Aleppo is the culmination of these tactics, the scene of a war crime matched in scale by few others in recent decades and for which both Moscow and its Syrian ward must be made to pay.
The immediate victims are buried in the rubble. But western countries must recognise that in Aleppo the international rules-based system forged in the aftermath of the second world war is also under attack — and by a leading member of the UN Security Council.
Russia has bombed aid convoys. It has contributed to driving hundreds of thousands of refugees out of Syria. It has not only rescued a dictator who has ruined his country for generations to come but it has also undermined diplomatic moves towards a political compromise that might end the war.
But just like the Dutch peacekeepers who stood by during the massacres at Srebrenica, the US and Europe share some of the blame. President Barack Obama showed weakness in Syria from the outset, ignoring his own red line, handing a mandate to his secretary of state to negotiate a transition while at the same time tying his hands, and then allowing Vladimir Putin to step in to the vacuum. Distracted by internal crises, Europe has abetted this inaction.
Enforcing a no-fly zone was always a risky proposition that could have sucked Washington into a war for which there was no obvious political endgame. It is even more difficult to envisage a no-fly zone now that Russia has installed anti-aircraft weapons. Any attempt to do so would risk a direct military confrontation with Russia. But if the slaughter does not stop in the near future, a no-fly zone will have to be considered again.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Mr Putin has set out to challenge the post cold war order. Emboldened by the ineffectual response of the west, he has scrapped important arms control agreements. He has moved nuclear missiles back to Europe’s borders. Russia is also suspected of using cyber warfare to meddle in US elections. Relations between Moscow and the west are at their most precarious in more than three decades.
Friday’s summit provides an opportunity for the EU to show that there is a price to pay for this aggression. What is happening in Syria should strengthen the resolve of any EU members wavering in their support for extending sanctions over Ukraine.
Russia’s economy is vulnerable to sanctions. Singling out suspected Russian war criminals may be effective too. But these are only immediate measures. So long as Mr Putin remains on this path, Russia will remain a strategic adversary. To rein him in will require a patient strategy of containment.
The west must redraw the red lines, and show Moscow that there is a real cost to crossing them. A more conciliatory stance of political and economic engagement might defuse tensions in the short term. In the long term it will only embolden Mr Putin to flex his muscles more.