REPRISE — Civilization falters: Aleppo Burns; Obama looks the other way; Putin threatens, Petraeus underlines feasability of military options; U.S. government paralyzed by Obama’s obstinancy (Updated October 8, 2016)

Check back for further updates

UPDATE: October 8, 2016

Russia has this afternoon vetoed a French-sponsored Security Council resolution aimed at halting the war crimes in Aleppo and Syria, just as it vetoed a Security Council resolution on February 4, 2012 which, had it been adopted, might have helped save a half a million lives.

Signficantly, China abstained in the vote on the resolution, as did Angola. Venezuela voted with Russia, underlining the depths to which that country has sunk.


Julian Borger (World affairs editor), “Russia vetoes UN resolution to stop bombing of Aleppo; Resolution called for end to bombing of city by Syrian and Russian jets; Russia says ‘distorted’ resolution would provide cover to terrorists, The Guardian, October 8, 2016 (17:36 EDT).

Edith M. Lederer (AP), “Rival Syria resolutions by West and Russia defeated at UN,” Yahoo News, October 8, 2016.

What’s in Bluue: Insights on the Work of the Un.N. Security Council, “Syria: Vote on a Resolution Demanding an End to Military Flights over Aleppo,” October 7, 2016(5:09 PM).

So, action by the Security Council is blocked. It is as if Nazi Germany had a seat on the Security Council and vetoed a resolution aimed at halting the mass executions at Auschwitz. No surprise there. But action would still need to be taken.

What is stupefying is that the EU and the U.S. fail to take the least action possible against Russia and Syria as their militaries continue to commit brazen war crimes in Aleppo.

The least the European Union and the U.S. might do, this week, is to adopt much stronger economic sanctions against Russia than currently exist, specifically to deter Putin from the further commission and complicity in the commission of war crimes in Aleppo and Syria.

The U.S., moreover, is in a position to act quickly, simply by moving forward in the House of Representatives the draft “Syria Civilian Protection Act”. The bill has overwhelming bipartidsan support. Barack Obama and the Democrats in the House blocked a vote on the bill recently, when there was hope for agreement with the Russians on a ceasefire and military cooperation against ISIS in Syria. That consideration, of deeply dubious validity at the time, no longer exists.


“Separation of Powers in the White House: Obama works to block vote on war crimes and sanctions in Syria in House of Representatives,”The Trenchant Observer, September 20, 2016.

Congress should enact the bill on an urgent and immediate basis, this week.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama continues to lead U.S. foreign-policy decision making from behind, from way behind.

While he waits for a consensus among his advisers to form, instead of leading, the human beings in eastern Aleppo are being exterminated.

Here, action not words, are what counts.

Timing is the critical element of effectiveness.


Karen DeYoung, “Little consensus within administration on how to stop fall of Aleppo to Assad,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016 (4:42 p.m.)

Berthold Kohler, “Putins Krieg in Syrien Der Kreml und die Krämerseelen; Die Welt weiß, wer Assad dabei hilft, sein eigenes Volk in Aleppo zu massakrieren. Doch der Westen schreckt selbst vor Sanktionen gegen Russland zurück,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7. Oktober 2016.

AFP/DPA, “Steinmeier warnt vor Konfrontation zwischen Amerika und Russland; Der Außenminister hält die aktuellen Spannungen zwischen Ost und West für bedrohlicher als während des Kalten Kriegs. Das Vertrauen zwischen den Großmächten sei aufgebraucht,” Frankfurter A;;gemeine Zeitung, 8. Oktober 2016.

Gilles Paris (Washington, correspondant), “La défiance s’accroît entre les Etats-Unis et la Russie; Washington met en cause Moscou dans une série de piratages liés à la campagne présidentielle américaine et durcit le ton face à la poursuite des bombardements sur Alep en Syrie,” Le Monde, le 8 aôut 2016 (à 07h41, Mis à jour le 08.10.2016 à 09h53).
Russians and al-Assad’s Forces conntinue bombing, war crimes, and all-out assault on Aleppo

As the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries with the military means to change the equation stand by, Aleppo and over 200,000 people in rebel-held areas of the city continue to die under a withering assault characterized by the shameless commission of war crimes on a large scale, with Russian and Syrian planes bombing hospitals, humanitarian aid workers, civilian apartment blocks, and civilian infrastructure, with impunity.

No one, in the whole wide world, will stand up to Russia’s barbaric commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.


Louisa Loveluck, “Bombing in Aleppo puts another major hospital out of service,” Washington Post, October 1, 2016 (4:38 p.m.).

For perspective on Obama’s obstinate refusal to use force in Syria since 2012, against the advice of his top foreign policy advisers, see

Jackson Diehl, “Putin’s lesson for Obama in Syria,” Washington Post, September 18, 2016.

David Rohde and Warren Strobel (Reuters), “How The US’s Syria Policy Stalled Under The ‘Analyst In Chief’,” Bsiness Insider, December 21, 2014 (8:48 PM).

Valadimir Putin openly threatens the U.S. and its president, Barack Obama, to whom the threats are really addressed, in a tactic that has worked for Russia and Putin in the past.

See Martin Chulov, “Russia warns US not to intervene as hospital is hit in latest Aleppo blitz; Strike by Assad regime’s helicopters leaves residents in east of the war-torn city with next to no access to essential health care,” The Guardian, October 2, 1016 (01:40 EDT).

Petraeus Outlines U.S. Military Options

Meanwhile, Retired General David Petraeus, in congressional testimony last week, has spoken out explaining U.S. military options in Syria and stressing that a number of them would not be that hard to implement. Active-duty military and intelligence officials, due to the tight controls Obama places on their pronouncements, are unable to make such arguments.

The statement that the Chairman of the Joint Shiefs of Staff agrees with Obama’s strategy of inaction demonstrates only that he is not willing to give up his position to make his point.


John Kerry’s Lame Use of International Law as an Excuse for Inaction

John Kerry in a meeting with Syrians on September 22, 2016, according to a leaked tape recording on his remarks, said that he was one of three of four top U.S. leaders who had argued for military action in Syria with President Obama, and he (and they) had lost the argument.

“I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument.”

See Anne Barnard, “Audio Reveals What John Kerry Told Syrians Behind Closed Doors,” September 30, 2016.

He also said that the United States could not intervene militarily in Syria because it was prohibited by international law from doing so.

“At the meeting last week, Mr. Kerry was trying to explain that the United States has no legal justification for attacking Mr. Assad’s government, whereas Russia was invited in by the government.”
-Barnard, above.

This is an incredibly lame and prepoterous assertion. The U.S. has used international law only as an excuse for not acting militarily in Syria.

According to Kerry’s logic, it is legal for Russia to intervene militarily in Syria and commit war crimes against the civilian population on a massive scale, but any attempt to slow or halt the commission of such crimes is prohibited by international law. That is not what international law provides today, in 2016.

International law is not a straitjacket which allows innocent civilians to be slaughtered as if they were fish in a barrel, with civilized nations not permitted to do anything to halt the barbarism.

Of course, you have to have a more sophisticated understanding of international law than that of a high school student reading a single article in the U.N. Charter.


“Obama’s failure to justify military action against Syria under international law, and its pernicious impact,”The Trenchant Observer, September 4, 2013, and the articles by The Trenchant Observer listed therein.

A good international lawyer uses the law and explores interpretations of the law that help his client achieve important objectives, while not undermining the strength and structure of international law and institutions themselves.

This, as far as we know, Obama has not done in Syria with respect to al-Assad’s and Putin’s barbarism and ongoing commission of war crimes. With respect to targeted executions by drone aircraft outside of the Afghanistan war theater, in contrast, Obama has shown no such diffidence toard the observance of international law.

Indeed, Obama has carefully avoided using the term “international law” in his discourse, and uttered these spcific words only on rare occasions.

Today, in 2016, international law would not prohibit the use of force to intervene and halt the operation of extermination camps like Auschwitz during World War II.

Nor, under a modern interpretation, would it necessarily prohibit intervention to halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, which has already led to the deaths of a half a million people.

State Department lawyers, and international lawyers in the foreign offices of other civilized countries, could provide a sophisticated analysis of what is and is not permitted in Syria under modern international law, including qustions relating to Russian commission of and complicity in the commission of war crimes.

In the U.S., Congress should request and publish memoranda setting forth the analyses of the lawyers in the Office of the Legal Adviser in the State Department.

With respect to Kerry, there is the added incongruity in his recorded remarks of his simultaneously saying he argued for the use of force, and lost, and that the use of force in not permissible under international law.

Jet lag, perhaps?

The Trenchant Observer

Further Reading

“Aleppo: Srebrenice on a massive scale,” The Trenchant Observer, September 29, 2016.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.