“Aleppo is now a synonym for hell,” were the stunning words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his last press conference on December 16, 2016. “The carnage in Syria remains a gaping hole in the global conscience. We have collectively failed the people of Syria. Peace will only prevail when it is accompanied by compassion, justice and accountability for the abominable crimes we have seen,” he stressed.
Similarly, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, minced no words while speaking at the UN Security Council emergency briefing on Syria on Tuesday. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo.”
The situation is so alarming that France has now called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation, especially asking for international observers to oversee the evacuation of Aleppo.
Steeped in history
Aleppo was the largest city in Syria and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was the Ottoman Empire’s third-largest city, after Constantinople and Cairo, and won the title of the ‘Islamic Capital of Culture 2006’ for successfully restoring its historic landmarks. The historic city centre of Aleppo, also called the Old City of Aleppo, was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986. Known for its medieval architecture, the ancient metropolis was a famous tourist destination.
But things started falling apart for the city when the Battle of Aleppo started in 2012, resulting in massive destruction. In fact, Aleppo has been the worst-hit city in the Syrian Civil War.
Syrian Civil War
The Syrian civil war has its roots in the Arab Spring that swept large parts of the Arab World, beginning December 17, 2010. In 2011, this grew into an armed conflict after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests demanding his removal.
On the other side of the war is a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups, Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups, Islamic State of Iraq, Free Syrian Army, and the Levant Front. These Syrian opposition groups have seized control of various areas such as Aleppo, Palmyra, another Unesco World Heritage site, Idlib, Qaryatayn, and parts of southern Syria.
The Syrian government prefers to call them “armed terrorist groups” and has not shown much interest in serious and credible negotiations with them.
A UN report released on August 20, 2014, stated that “at least 191,369 people have died in the Syrian conflict.” Thereafter, the UN stopped collecting statistics. A study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, published in February 2016, put the death toll at 470,000, with 1.9 million wounded.
This has led several international organisations to accuse both the Syrian government and the rebels of brutal massacres, rapes and severe human rights violations.
Battle of Aleppo
The Battle of Aleppo, the key battle in the Syrian Civil War, began on July 19, 2012. Fought between the Syrian opposition (consisting of Free Syrian Army, Sunni fighters, Levant Front, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and the Syrian Government (supported by Hezbollah and Shiite militias, Russia and Iran), it spread over four years, leaving over 31,000 people dead.
The battle, now also referred as ‘Syria’s Stalingrad’, saw the Syrian army indiscriminately using force, including rape, explosions, shelling, execution, shooting, aerial bombardment, chemical and toxic gas attacks, and targeting of civilians, hospitals and schools. Many civilians have been left with no option but to evacuate, leaving behind their dead and their memories. The battle has also caused incalculable harm to the Unesco World Heritage site of Aleppo.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, while pointing out that hundreds of civilians have perished because of the “indiscriminate shelling of residential areas across Aleppo”, called the battle as one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times. “The human cost of the fighting in Aleppo is simply too high,” it rued.
The Turning Point
The Battle of Aleppo was fiercely fought and for all its twists and turns, it was evenly matched. But the support of Iran and more importantly Russia to Assad’s regime changed the game.
In September 2016, Russia began air raids during nights on rebel-held parts of Aleppo. Russia’s ruthlessness to destroy Aleppo from the air and no qualms about using brutal military methods to bring about a decisive end to the conflict, even at the cost of huge civilian casualties, meant the fall of Allepo to the Syrian government this December.
The fall of Alleppo is seen as the “turning point” in Syria’s civil war, encouraging Syrian President Assad to call it “historic.” On the other hand, the brutal battle has evoked widespread criticism. “Is there nothing you will not lie about? Do you have no shame?” questioned Samantha Power, mincing no words and accusing the three allies of barbarism and atrocities during their forceful intervention.
Silence of America
Russia, for decades, has been a patron of Syria, and with Russia actively backing Assad, there were not many options. Any joint proposal to take on Syria would have been vetoed by Russia in the United Nations. The option of a Nato-led coalition-of-the-willing was always open but the bad experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan cautioned America to keep away from direct combat.
When Russia got involved, President Obama had warned Moscow that Russia will get “stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” But worked it has and the world’s most powerful nation just stood by as sheer brutality kept increasing the death count, resulting the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in recent times.
Though Obama had called upon Assad to step down as early as 2011, America refused to get involved directly. He even backed off from carrying out the threatened air strikes to enforce his 2012 “red line” over Al Assad’s use of banned chemical weapons.
Obama did say recently that the grim situation in Syria “haunts me constantly”, but his risk averse approach and focus on his “overriding responsibility” to protect the interests and safety of the American people first, has left a big vacuum.
When this vacuum is filled with ruthlessness and self-interest, the collective voice of the world goes unheard and leads to tragic consequences. With Trump indicating that both Russia and Assad are on his friend list, the world needs to be worried.