If Obama won't act to stop slaughter in Aleppo, Congress can
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Assad regime forces and Iran-backed foreign fighters are about to overtake the last opposition areas in east Aleppo City, where some 100,000 civilians are crammed into six neighborhoods under fierce Russian bombardments and a crippling siege.

There are already horrifying reports of mass arrests and mass executions with the worst likely yet to come.

Activists and civil society figures have sent their final goodbyes as regime forces close in. Women have committed suicide to avoid mass rape. Rescue workers have stopped counting the dead because "destroyed buildings are filled with dead bodies."

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Make no mistake: the United States, and especially President Obama, can stop this.

 

It seems wrong to call the ceasefire deal that was agreed upon Tuesday a sign of hope — the deal effectively requires all residents to vacate their homes to a foreign-fighter-dominated invading force that has called Aleppo a "Shiite city" — but in truth, that deal is the only alternative to slaughter for 100,000 Aleppo residents.

The deal, which was negotiated primarily between Russia and Turkey, calls for all rebel fighters to leave Aleppo. Civilians have the "option" to leave alongside rebel fighters or to risk torture, arrest, and conscription in regime-held areas.

Unfortunately, when implementation time arrived Wednesday morning, the Iranian field commander in Syria refused to allow residents safe passage. Bombardments instead resumed, Iranian and Assad ground initiated new attacks, and death continued to closed in for tens of thousands of trapped civilians.

Preventing what could be the worst massacre of the entire Syrian conflict will require urgent American action to pressure Iran and Russia into upholding the ceasefire.

If President Obama were right now to pick up the phone, call the Pentagon, and order one round of airstrikes on Assad regime facilities in Syria, then a road for Aleppo civilians to evacuate to safety would open.

Russia would have no cause to complain, since the U.S. would be enforcing a ceasefire agreement that Russia had itself negotiated.

Assad and Iran would have no incentive to respond in kind and turn a one-off strike into something more.

Secretary of State Kerry has been privately calling for such strikes since mid-2015.

Israel carried out such a strike last week and has carried out similar strikes for years without adverse impacts. While this option is not risk-free — no option is, including leaving Aleppo to slaughter — it is clearly doable and is the most feasible way to stop the worst single massacre since Srebrenica from taking place within days.

President Obama will never do it; Tuesday, it was revealed that Obama was so fearful of a face-off with the Russians in Syria that he refused to even tell the American public about Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee in advance of the presidential elections.

American and Iranian officials alike have similarly revealed that Obama cancelled his 2013 Syrian chemical "red line" and has maintained a "hands-off" Syria policy since then for fear of challenging the Iranians. Since Obama has not stood up to Russia and Iran's butchery in Syria all this time, I do not expect him to do so now.

This leaves Congress, and while Congressional capacities to save Aleppo are far more limited, they are not zero, even during a recess.

Members of Congress should continue to publicly condemn the current assault on civilians in Aleppo, as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Lobbying world MORE (D-Calif), Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) already have. But words are not enough.

Members of Congress should also make clear that Russia and Iran will face concrete consequences if they fail to carry out their part of the Aleppo ceasefire.

To this end, it is incumbent that members of Congress — especially those in the relevant House and Senate committees on banking and foreign affairs — publicly express their intent to pass targeted sanctions against Russia and Iran if these countries proceed to exterminate Aleppo residents.

House and Senate leaders of both parties should follow suit by announcing that if a Srebrenica-style massacre occurs in Aleppo, then sanctions on those responsible will be one of the first orders of business when the next Congress begins work in 2017.

Americans need to understand that the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo also has serious national security implications.

Aleppo City is not extremist territory; Aleppo is the place where the first democratically-elected provincial council anywhere in Syria since the 1960s took office.

Key groups now struggling to defend civilians from slaughter  have taken thousands of fatalities fighting ISIS; have been fighting ISIS since early 2014; and have branches fighting ISIS in the Aleppo suburbs right now.

Assad regime, Iranian, and Russian forces — who have made virtually no gains against ISIS over the past year, even though the stated purpose of Russia's intervention was to fight ISIS — are now so intent on wiping out the moderate rebels of Aleppo City that they have ignored ISIS entirely.

Just since Sunday, ISIS forces have recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, then continued to advance toward a strategic nearby airbase while seizing an advanced SAMS anti-aircraft system in the process.

These represent the most substantial gains for ISIS against Assad regime forces in over 18 months.

Recent events show quite clearly where the pro-regime side's priorities lie: Their efforts against ISIS are half-hearted and ineffective, while the slaughter of innocent civilians commands their full attention and firepower.

At some point, Americans will see through the Assad-Russian-Iranian lie that their forces are "killing terrorists" or "combatting extremism."

But by that point, the victims of U.S. inaction — who show real potential to fight terror and rebut extremists — are likely to be either exiled or dead and gone.

There is still time. The United States must act now.

Shlomo Bolts is the policy and advocacy officer at Syrian American Council and the co-founder of Jews for Human Rights in Syria. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.