The ancient tragedy John Kerry used to explain Syria

In a Wednesday session on Syria at the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry deployed a curious historical reference.

“Those who believe this crisis couldn’t get worse are dead wrong, as are those who believe that a military victory is possible,” Kerry intoned at the special session, after urging a cessation of hostilities.

“This could be like Carthage with the Romans, if you call that a victory,” he said, referring to the conquest and devastation of the ancient city in what’s now Tunisia by Roman forces in the 2nd century B.C.

Kerry was aiming his analogy as a rebuke to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which remains convinced of its ability to win a decisive military victory against the constellation of rebel factions and militant groups that now have de facto control over a vast tract of Syria.

Even if such an outcome was possible — and the White House seems certain it’s not — it would be ruinous for Syria. Assad’s opponents are hardly on the verge of defeat, and the toll of half a decade of bloodletting and destruction would make it very unlikely that the current regime could ever regain the trust of the entire battered nation.

So what about Carthage? Some 22 centuries ago, the Mediterranean empire of the North African city-state rivaled the power of Rome. In two successive conflicts, known as the Punic Wars, the Carthaginians and Romans battled across a wide expanse of the ancient world, from Sicily to Spain to North Africa. In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with his army of elephants in what eventually was an unsuccessful, albeit epic, invasion of Italy.

By 149 B.C., Carthage had been largely defeated and subdued. But it refused to bend to Rome’s will. A punitive Roman force, determined to stamp out the Carthaginian threat, marched on the city. A Roman embassy made striking demands: Carthage’s population would leave their homes and move inland, away from their maritime base of power. Their city would then be razed.

“Such a diktat was the equivalent of a death sentence,” wrote 20th century French archaeologist Serge Lancel. “There was no precedent in antiquity for a state’s surviving the eradication of what constituted it on the sacred plane: the destruction of its temples and cemeteries, the deportation of its cults, were a more surely mortal blow than displacing the population.”

Unsurprisingly, the Carthaginians refused. A three-year siege ensued that ended in the sacking and desolation of the city. The Roman chronicler Appian detailed the last days of Carthage, including the massacre of its civilian population.

“All places were filled with groans, shrieks, shouts, and every kind of agony. Some were stabbed, others were hurled alive from the roofs to the pavement, some of them alighting on the heads of spears or other pointed weapons, or swords,” he wrote. He went on:

Then came new scenes of horror. As the fire spread and carried everything down, the soldiers did not wait to destroy the buildings little by little, but all in a heap. So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst. Others were seen still living, especially old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries. Still others, thrust out and falling from such a height with the stones, timbers, and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled.

This gruesome spectacle, as well as the six days of looting that followed, is probably what Kerry meant when he declared: “This could be like Carthage with the Romans, if you call that a victory.” For the Assad regime, total victory would involve a tremendous slaughter.

But the Romans certainly could call it a victory — their great nemesis was quashed once and for all. Appian recounts what happened when news of the siege’s end reached Rome: The city’s populace “poured into the streets and spent the whole night congratulating and embracing each other like people just now delivered from some great fear, just now confirmed in their worldwide supremacy, just now assured of the permanence of their own city, and winners of such a victory as never before.”

This is very far away from the Syrian conflict and the international community’s inability to bring it to an end. But even as Kerry sounded his warning, the Assad regime continued to embrace a zero-sum game, flouting a cease-fire and expanding its bombing campaign and ground offensive against rebel-held areas in eastern Aleppo.

“This means welcome to hell,” a teacher who lives in rebel-held Aleppo told my colleague Liz Sly. “We expect extermination.”

More on WorldViews

How ancient ruins are perfect propaganda in the Middle East

When mercenaries go wild: a history lesson

Carthage was a “paradise for homos.e.xuals”

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