Children suffer the most in war. Consider the compelling image of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting dazed and bloody in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo, Syria, after being pulled from the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike. His 10-year-old brother, Ali, wounded in the same bombing, survived a few hours before succumbing to his wounds.
Omran and Ali personify the suffering in Syria, in which an estimated 400,000 have died in the past five years. The siege of Aleppo has been one of the most brutal episodes in the war. Syrian troops and Iranian-backed Shia militia have pounded the city, supported by Russian air power. Rebel groups, including the U.S.-backed Nour al-Din al-Zenki, have mounted a desperate and probably doomed defense.
It raises the question: To what extent is the United States responsible for the continuing carnage?
The Obama administration seeks to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad, but the White House has balked at making the necessary effort to do so. The lack of resolve was evident in 2012 and 2013, when Syria crossed Obama’s “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons in the civil war and the U.S. response was to simply blur the line. Anti-Assad rebel groups have been given covert aid and arms by the CIA, but not enough to win. A separate Defense Department program seeking to train Syrian rebels from bases in Jordan collapsed.
The Kremlin showed how things should be done last fall when Russian forces intervened to defend Assad. Obama dismissed the move, claiming that it would make Russia weaker. But it decidedly made Assad stronger and changed the nature of the proxy war. The rebels were put on the defensive and pushed back into strongholds such as Aleppo. Diplomatic efforts to stem the bleeding have failed; it has been six months since Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Munich that a peace deal was on the horizon.
The conflict is further complicated by the parallel effort the United States is making against the Islamic State terror group, which occupies swaths of eastern Syria. The U.S. is working directly with Kurds and other groups in operations that Washington sees as part of the War on Terrorism, not the anti-Assad fight. However, Damascus views any anti-Assad forces as fair game, and this week it bombed U.S.-backed Kurds in strikes that could have wounded or killed American advisers. The Pentagon warned Syria the U.S. would exercise the “inherent right of self-defense” for American troops, even those operating on Syrian soil in a legal gray area. The potential is growing for a clash between Syrian (or Russian) warplanes and U.S. ground or air assets, which would represent a dangerous and pointless escalation.
If the covert war against Assad were succeeding, it might be worth the effort and the sacrifice. But it is not. In addition, Washington is failing to keep the anti-ISIL effort in Syria compartmentalized from the larger civil war, setting the stage for a much more perilous conventional conflict.
The U.S. did not make the necessary commitment to win in Syria years ago when it had the chance, and it’s now giving just enough support to a losing cause to keep the war grinding on. The result is more innocent deaths, more refugees and more misery. It is time for the Obama administration to admit that its policies are doing more harm than good. The president should seek peace the only way he can, by bowing out of the anti-Assad fight.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.