Forget Brexit. Forget Trump. When historians look back at 2016, they will not care how many famous people died. They will look on this year as the year in which the international community stood back and watched the Syrian genocide.
I was brought up, like most Europeans, to believe that the reason we study the history of the Second World War is to ensure that never again could innocent people be slaughtered by government forces. Yet we keep letting it happen. It is happening today, not just in Syria, but also in Yemen, in Myanmar, and in South Sudan. If someone told me that another genocide was taking place in yet another under-reported part of the world, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised, because in 2016, we have lost interest in the suffering of those who live beyond our little bubbles of consciousness. Instead, we look inwards, caught up in petty domestic squabbles which seem engineered to distract the public from the real desperate problems facing humanity today.
This state of affairs is most clearly symbolised by the fall of Free Aleppo to Syrian regime troops supported by sectarian militias from Iran and Hezbollah. They are able to retake the eastern part of the country’s second largest city only because they, along with their other great ally, Russia, have bombed it to within an inch of total destruction. The final push to retake the eastern districts from the various anti-Assad groups which had controlled them since 2012 began immediately before the US Presidential election. Regime planes dropped leaflets on the city telling the people that their time was up, that the world had abandoned them, and that they had the choice to surrender or be killed in the bombing. True to form, Russia and Assad’s forces took the opportunity to openly defy international law, using banned weapons including barrel bombs, bunker bombs, and chemical weapons to try and pound the opposition into submission.
They have been doing this for half a decade now; similar operations were carried out at the same time in Idlib, to the south-west of Aleppo. Assad and Russia have weaponised food, water, and medicine in this unrelenting attempt to bring the country back under central government control, apparently at any cost. Anyone who opposes the regime is branded as a terrorist; civilians caught in the cross-fire are told to surrender or be punished as terrorist sympathisers. This narrative began in 2012, when the government justified its attacks on peaceful protesters in the same way. It released known extremists from jail in the hope that they would prove its point – that the status quo in Syria is the only alternative to terrorist rule akin to that of the Taliban over Afghanistan. To that end, it wilfully ignored the growth of so-called “Islamic State” (DAESH) while focusing all its energies on eliminating the various local militias allied to the Free Syrian Army, and the civilian Local Co-ordination Councils which had sprung up to provide anti-government areas with alternative administration. It slandered them through the media, calling them sectarian jihadists while brazenly pursuing its own sectarian policy of claiming that army massacres had been carried out against Sunni Muslims by minority religious groups such as Christians and Alawites, and vice versa. When faced with a choice between bombing DAESH and bombing other rebel groups, it chose to leave DEASH alone, because the existence of such a loathed terrorist group allows it to present itself as the lesser of two evils while raining terror on oppositionists and innocent civilians.
So why, after such constant bombardment, did the rebels of east Aleppo not surrender as soon as they had the chance? It’s because they know what surrender means in the context of this war. When other oppositionists have surrendered out of hunger and sheer exhaustion, they have either been arrested or relocated to distant parts of the country, often cities they have never visited before. Then, people loyal to the regime, along with the families of the foreign militias which have been supporting government troops, are moved into the now-emptied neighbourhoods. This has already begun in east Aleppo – the BBC has footage of pro-regime families being bussed in. Meanwhile, men and boys over the age of fourteen have been rounded up and disappeared. Their wives, mothers, and sisters have told journalists and social media activists that they have no idea where they were taken. Now the UN is reporting extrajudicial killings of civilians and fighters – the regime does not differentiate between the two. Those who are not shot are now likely in prison, crammed into small, dark cells with no light or access to water or toilet facilities. Syrian prisons are notorious for their use of all forms of torture; this has been documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as Syrian activists and writers like Mustafa Khaliah and the anonymous “Caesar”, who smuggled hundreds of photos of torture victims out of Sadnaya military prison in Damascus. One of the defining characteristics of Syria under both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez is that the repression can always get worse, the punishment can always be made more excruciating. I shudder to think what will happen to the male population of east Aleppo now.
History will judge us all.
This should not have happened; it should not be happening. No-one can plead ignorance of what is going on. The international community knew what the Syrian regime was like even before 2011, and yet at every stage those who claim to believe in freedom and human rights have bluffed and prevaricated, while those who never pretended to hold those values rubbed their hands with glee. Dictators everywhere now know that, with support from Russia and Iran, you can kill as many of your opponents as you like so long as you call them terrorists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, public apathy is stifling. Lazy comparisons with the war on Iraq (which, by the way, is a totally different country with its own separate history and socio-political context) have convinced most that it is best that the West do nothing. Some on the left and right of politics have even bought into the regime narrative, that this is simply a domestic counter-terror operation, and none of our business. No-one seems to make the obvious connection between the flow of refugees seeking a better life in Europe, and the violence which dominates life in Syria, as well as many countries in central Africa. They also fail to understand that the West’s complicity in so many cruel deaths will only push survivors into the arms of extremist groups who present themselves as the only real solution to the dark injustice of the war. Our government insists that any action whatsoever must be a last resort; our main opposition party prattles on about a “political solution” to the genocide.
What more can I say? History will judge us all.