To revisit the U.N.’s anointing of Aleppo as a World Heritage Site is a haunting exercise. The U.N. celebrated the city’s “13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams,” all of which constituted “the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric.” This Aleppo, after five years of brutal war, is a place now dead and buried.
The war has turned ordinary Syrians into flotsam and jetsam, lost amid national forces beyond their control, including the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, extremist groups such as the Islamic State, and regional actors like Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. But if the civilians were hoping for Western action to stop the bleeding, they have fallen prey to another set of dynamics they can’t govern or even necessarily understand. Historically, Washington’s zeal for intervention in humanitarian crises follows a cycle. And the Syrians, unfortunately, are dying during the wrong phase.
At the start of the cycle, Washington feels compelled to act by a mixture of moral concerns and security interests. The subsequent intervention is often branded as a failure. A negative “syndrome” emerges, and Americans say “never again.” During the next emergency, the United States stands aside and civilians are slaughtered. Memories of the failed military intervention recede, guilt sets in, new security interests emerge, the U.S. cavalry gathers once more on the horizon—and the cycle begins anew. Throughout the process, people focus almost exclusively on the last big debacle, whether it was a failure of action, or a failure of inaction.