An Aleppo neighborhood in 2013. Photo by Basma, courtesy the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
In the early 1980s, the town of Hama, Syria served as the setting for a bloody endpoint to an uprising against the country’s president.
Then-President Hafez Assad, the current president’s father, ordered the army to lay siege to the town where Syria’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood based its operations. It is unclear how many were killed in the massacre; conservative estimates begin around 10,000, while others put the number as high as 40,000. To this day, the Syrian government strictly suppresses mention of the massacre within the country’s borders, so we will likely never know the true scope of the atrocity. The Syrian opposition asserts that the vast majority of the casualties were civilians.
Watching the events unfolding in Aleppo is eerily, and tragically, like watching history repeat itself.
Last week, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal to end the battle that has torn the city apart since 2012. A ceasefire and an organized evacuation process were meant to ensure safe passage to those who wanted to leave, including opposition fighters and civilians. Yet, less than 24 hours after the agreement was announced, the ceasefire was falling apart before anyone made it out of the city. The Associated Press reported that bombing resumed on Wednesday as if the ceasefire did not exist. Turkey accused government forces of breaking the truce; Russia blamed the rebels.
After days of holdups, some evacuees made it out of Aleppo on Thursday, and more left the city as of Sunday night. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that 12,000 civilians have been evacuated from Aleppo thus far, Reuters reported. But these numbers belie the fact that thousands of people are still stuck in city, and that the potential for renewed violence interrupting the process remains.
I firmly believe that, like his father in Hama, President Bashar Assad has no intention of willingly allowing anyone to evacuate from Aleppo, though he may cave to Russian pressure. The battle may be effectively over, but just as in Hama, those in charge in Damascus would prefer to draw a picture in blood for those who might consider opposing the Assad family in the future. The residents of Aleppo who do make it out of the city reportedly face the potential of imprisonment or torture for even peaceful dissent or providing medical aid to rebels, should they end up in areas controlled by Assad’s forces. (The evacuation deal from last Tuesday included a provision to allow civilians and rebels alike to head for rebel-held areas in the country’s north or to Turkey.)
The world is watching the fallout in horror. France’s ambassador to the U.N., Francois Delattre, said outright that “The worst humanitarian tragedy of the twenty-first century is unfolding before our eyes.” Al Jazeera reported that government forces had deliberately targeted hospitals and medical facilities. Reports of extrajudicial killings, detentions and forced recruitment have followed the Syrian army’s advance through the city. The destruction has been compared to that of Stalingrad in World War II.
Meanwhile, both Assad and the remaining opposition have vowed to keep fighting after Aleppo – meaning the end of battle, whenever it comes, will not be the end of Syria’s horrifically bloody civil war.
The West did not commit the crimes unfolding in Syria. We are not responsible for what has happened there. But it did not have to play out the way it has, and for that, we are at least partly to blame.
First, real support for the rebels against Assad back in the early days of the conflict would have given them a fighting chance at success. It also would have filled the vacuum that Iran, Hezbollah and, eventually, Russia occupied in affecting the war’s outcome.
These are the same Russians, incidentally, about whom the outgoing president said dismissively in 2012, “The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” This year, Russia is not only arguably Assad’s most important ally in his efforts to wrest back control of Syria, but the Russians are willing to actually bomb us in the course of assisting his regime. Without Russia’s support, it is unlikely Assad would have been able to secure a renewed grip on Aleppo. And while American actions in the region have been scrupulously concerned with the preservation of civilian lives – occasionally to the point of paralysis – Russia is clearly hampered by no such concerns.
Second, keeping our word about retaliating against Assad for introducing chemical weapons to the battlefield could have ended the war years ago. At a minimum, it certainly would have changed the war’s course while maintaining American credibility in the region. It also would have preempted Putin’s own, more recent, intervention. Yes, our European allies share some of the blame for inaction. But America should have been a leader in Syria, and instead we let Assad cross line after line without reacting.
Today hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, with millions more displaced and, in the process, tearing apart the social fabric of Europe. Entire cities have been leveled, and Moscow and Tehran have gained a strategic platform they will exploit for years.
Our losses are nothing in comparison to what the people of Syria have endured, and are still enduring. Aleppo thus becomes the latest piece in a long trail of smoldering Middle Eastern wreckage the outgoing administration leaves in its wake.