International diplomatic efforts were unable to hinder the catastrophe in Aleppo. The photos of helpless civilians in East Aleppo circulating around the world for the last few months have dramatically underscored that bitter reality. The images document the miserable failings of the international community in the Syrian civil war in a most visceral way. They provide proof that the most important instruments of international order - the United Nations and the UN Security Council - have been unable to stop war crimes in the face of Russian and Chinese obstruction as the war has raged on for five years.
International law is not the problem
Yet, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that blame cannot be placed primarily on the failure of international law, which outlaws war crimes, such as targeted attacks on hospitals and civilians even in civil war.
Rather, the "catastrophe of Aleppo" is primarily a result of the brutal way in which Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad have been conducting this war - as well as the inaction of the Obama administration, which decided early on against military intervention to protect moderate opposition groups - a decision that, in turn, led to a decisive escalation of the conflict. The US fatally opted for inaction even after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
The situation has also been worsened by Saudi Arabian and Iranian efforts to exploit the conflict. Both regional powers are carrying out a vicious and religiously-charged proxy war, to the great detriment of the Syrian people.
What took place in Aleppo was a clear betrayal of civilization. Ultimately, atrocities were committed before the watching eyes of the world. The majority were carried out by the Assad regime, however, those committed by the opposition, with help from engaged activists and UN specialists, are well-documented as well. Nevertheless, it seems certain that the Syrians, Russians and Iranians responsible for these crimes against humanity will never be brought to justice. So what is to be done in the face of this constellation of conflict?
Aleppo: A partial victory, or a turning point?
Of course the reconquest of Aleppo by Assad's forces, alongside allied Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani militias, was an important victory for Syria's dictator. Perhaps later it will even be seen as having been a decisive turning point.
Assad supporters are already dreaming of "final victory over the terrorists." Even media outlets under the control of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Revolutionary Guard in Teheran are convinced that "divine" victory will soon come in the Syrian civil war.
Yet a military solution to this complex conflict is unrealistic. Moreover, it seems virtually impossible that the demoralized and emaciated Assad army will be capable of gaining control over the entire country.
Get Russia back to the negotiating table
Since Russia, unlike Iran, is pursuing negotiable interests in Syria, and sees no advantage to an endless religious guerrilla war in the fragmented country, the West must start there: It must do everything imaginable to facilitate a return to the political process. The fact that Moscow has already achieved its aims in Syria could help to that end. Regime change has been successfully averted, and there is no avoiding Moscow when it comes to a post-war order.
Until President-elect Donald Trump takes office in late January, the West will have no choice but to support efforts to protect civilians - and hope for a speedy agreement between the US and Russia on a political transition for the war-torn country.