Tag Archives: Aleppo

Spot the difference

Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?

The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.

Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:

While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.

Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’.  And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.

It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the  UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’  Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results.  According to the BBC:

More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.

Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.

So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.

 

The peaceful city

The newspapers here in Canada (as elsewhere in the West) have been full of commentary lamenting the recapture of Eastern Aleppo by the forces of the Syrian government. For instance, in today’s copy of The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders says that ‘The Libyan option was preferable. … Libya is an unstable mess verging on a civil war of its own. But it is not the site of the sort of enormous-scale monstrosities, involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, that it would have been if Moammar Gadhafi had been kept in power.’ Saunders suggests that the Western world should have done in Syria what it did with Gadhafi and overthrown Bashar Al-Assad when it had the chance.

Elsewhere in today’s Globe, though, is an article by reporter Justin Giovannetti entitled ‘What the world lost by ignoring Aleppo’. Despite the headline, this contains a somewhat different message.

The article cites a former resident, Bakri Azzin, saying that before the war, Aleppo ‘was a warm, welcoming city, where you could spend your days in peace’. Giovannetti records that in those days, Aleppo was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city, which was ‘shaped by every major empire since the Roman and thrived through centuries of relative peace and stability.’ It ‘was a city that didn’t sleep’, says Mr Azzin, ‘I’ve never seen it anywhere else, whenever you wanted to go out, you could always find a restaurant that was open.’ Giovannetti writes that, ‘Centuries of trade had made Aleppo a welcoming place, where helping strangers was considered a duty, according to Mr. Azzin. If you got lost, you could knock on a door and get helpful directions.’

Similarly, the article cites a book about the city by British historian Philip Mansel, which says: ‘Until 2012, Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously.’ Giovannetti then quotes Canadian Tania Frangié, whose family lived in Aleppo for many years:

‘There was a joie de vivre in Aleppo, there was constant excitement,’ Ms. Frangié says of a city that has always loomed large in her life … ‘The biggest part of Aleppo that I remember was the harmony. … There was a marvellous energy everywhere’, she said. When her father returned from a trip to his hometown in 2000, she says he could barely contain his joy about how much the city had changed. Money was pouring in and new districts were going up, while UNESCO’s attention had helped propel conservation efforts in the city. ‘He was just so impressed about how modern it had become’, she said.

Finally, the article cites ‘Len Davis, an American film-maker based out of Seattle’, who ‘visited Aleppo during the same time as Ms Frangié was there.’ Mr Davis ‘says he was struck by its international feeling’, adding that:

Drinking in the shadow of the city’s centuries-old citadel, he later met a gay artist lobbying the government for more liberal acceptance in the art scene. ‘It was a capital of creative thought as I understood it’, he added.

But wait! Who was ruling Aleppo when it was such a booming, ‘modern’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘peaceful’ city, in which one could meet ‘gay artists’ lobbying the government for a more liberal arts scene? It was Assad!! And how much of this cosmopolitan ‘creative thought’ would have been likely to survive if the rebels had secured full control of the city? Given the rigid Islamism of many of them, not a lot, I suspect.

After four years of internecine violence, the fighting has now almost come to an end. Peace is returning to Aleppo. Let’s not listen to those who want to unleash the dogs of war all over again, but instead do what we can to see that the cosmopolitan Aleppo of old is reborn from the rubble.