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Aleppo’s Sobering Lessons

NEW YORK – The fall of Aleppo to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is neither the end of the beginning nor the beginning of the end of Syria’s five-and-a-half-year-old civil war – a war that is also a proxy, regional, and to some extent global conflict. The next major battle will be fought in Idlib province; the only question is when. And even after that, the war will continue to fester in various parts of what will remain a divided country.

Even so, now is a good time to take stock and focus on what has been learned, if only to learn from it. Little in history is inevitable, and the outcome in Syria is the result of what governments, groups, and individuals chose to do – and what they chose not to do. Indeed, not acting in Syria has proved to be as consequential as acting.

At no point was this clearer than when the United States did not fulfill its threat to make Assad’s government pay for its use of chemical weapons. That proved to be a missed opportunity not only to alter the momentum of the conflict, but also to underscore the principle that any government that uses weapons of mass destruction will regret it. Enforcement, after all, is essential to the effectiveness of future deterrence.

Deriving additional lessons requires going back to 2011, when peaceful anti-government protesters were met with deadly force, leading US President Barack Obama and others to demand that Assad step down. Here, too, no action or resources backed the strong rhetoric. The emergence of such a wide gap between means and ends almost always dooms a policy to failure.