The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports the casualties of the siege of Aleppo in halting English, unbroken by punctuation. “The airstrikes on both camps had damaged and burning about 10 tents in addition to the death of two female children and injured about 30 people including children…helicopters bombed areas in Owejil village in the western countryside of Aleppo, which killed five people including a woman and her son and two other children and also injured others”. The number of anonymous victims of barrel bombs, snipers and ceaseless aerial bombardment grows day by day in these dispatches from Aleppo province. The words are accompanied by pictures of grey-dusted Syrians hauling their relatives from collapsed buildings, eyes full of bewildered fear. This is the reality of life inside the city, a reality reported by Doctors Without Borders, the UN, the Observatory itself, and by people trapped within Aleppo, connected by mobile phones to an outside world that seems to have forgotten them.
The world has of course not forgotten Syria. How could it, as the war spews hundreds of thousands of refugees in rubber boats into Europe, triggering the inevitable backlash of extreme nationalist sentiment with all its political implications? How could it, as the country’s ancient cities become hotbeds for the radicalisation of maniacal terrorists, whose tendrils stretch across the miles that distance them from us to unleash visceral violence on our streets? How could it, as a revolution that sprang from the hopes of the Arab Spring spirals into a proxy war that threatens to tip the world’s largest powers into direct confrontation? Events in Syria are inextricably entwined with the terror and uncertainty that afflicts much of the West today. Some on the Left assert that too much attention is paid to tragedies that impact the West directly, while the rest of the world goes unnoticed. Whatever you may think of this issue, the assertion holds generally true for the suffering of the Syrian people. As the effects of the conflict in cities such as Aleppo are felt across the world, the brutal reality of life in them has become something of a sideshow.
As with many humanitarian catastrophes, the blind eye being turned on Aleppo is in many cases neither racist nor intentionally malicious. The truth is possibly bleaker: nothing is being done to save the city because of the complexity of the situation that surrounds it. Diplomats fear escalating the situation in the region, the UN is rendered impotent by the divisions between its member states, and aid organisations are physically unable to access trapped civilians. At the same time, the ‘humanitarian corridors’ proposed by Assad’s Russian allies were almost immediately rejected for various reasons by NGOs. An overwhelming sense of powerlessness surrounds the city’s inhabitants and those who would try to help them. Those working to end the siege or ease the plight of those within Aleppo undoubtedly feel the weight of similar past tragedies such as the siege of Sarajevo. But while children burn tyres on the streets of Aleppo to fill the sky with smoke and grant themselves a reprieve from the bombing, the world’s eyes stay fixed on the upcoming Olympics, the circus of the US elections, and the fallout from the surprising British referendum on Europe. The difficulty of doing something to help Aleppo seems to be deterring anyone from doing anything.
Aleppo lies in the north-west corner of Syria, about an hour’s drive from the border with Turkey. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with an incomparably rich history; at one time or another Alexander the Great was there, it was a provincial Ottoman capital, it was referenced in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, and was the starting point of the Silk Road to China. UNESCO designated its ancient centre a World Heritage Site in 1986, though this has now been almost completely destroyed by fighting. At the time that protests against the Syrian government broke out in 2011, Aleppo was the country’s largest city with an estimated population of 2.5 million people. The city itself was increasingly the site of demonstrations from the spring of 2012, and later that summer rebel forces incorporating the Free Syrian Army, foreign and Islamist fighters and groups such as al-Nusra front converged on the city from the surrounding area. The ‘Battle of Aleppo’ as it has since become has seen the deaths of over 29,000 people, both combatant and civilian, according to the Syrian Centre for Violations Documentation.
Both the government and the rebels have held the upper hand at different times during the battle. Particularly bloody moments, such as the government’s bombardment of the city in October 2013, or the encroachment of ISIS into villages in the north east of the province, have pulled the city momentarily into the news. The current military situation has drawn global attention given the potential for it to be uncharacteristically decisive in affecting the course of the war. On July 27th the Syrian Army, having some months before begun an offensive on the north east of Aleppo, announced that it had captured the Castello highway and thereby cut off the last supply line into the rebel-held eastern part of the city, trapping those inside with no access to food and supplies. Whilst much of the area to the West is occupied by rebels, this eastern part remained marooned in government territory. On August 5th, a coalition of jihadist fighters and rebels began an offensive to retake key positions in the south and break the siege, including the key Artillery and Air Force Technical colleges. On Saturday afternoon reports suggested that this coalition, the so-called Jaish al-Fateh or Conquest Army, had pushed through to meet the Free Syrian Army in the besieged eastern part of Aleppo. Jubilant combatants pronounce the seige to be broken, although the battle for the city is not over, and reports suggest over 100 civilians were killed by rebel shelling during the course of the offensive.
The military narrative of the Battle for Aleppo thus offers a qualified hope for the city’s salvation. The human reality, however, is what should concern us. The weekend before the capture of the Castello Road, shelling by government forces, backed by Russian warplanes, obliterated the city’s last functioning hospital and six other clinics. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme and by the Washington Post, American surgeon Samer Attar provided a first-hand account of Aleppo’s humanitarian crisis. He describes children bleeding to death, crying out for their parents and siblings, because of a complete shortage of blood supplies. The Syria Campaign has also reported that doctors are having to donate their own blood mid-way through surgery to prevent their patients from dying. Doctors and nurses work for days around the clock, because colleagues that would usually cover their rest shifts are dead. Operating rooms are full of rubble, so Attar describes amputating on stretchers in the corridors of underground clinics. Organisations dedicated to recording the daily humanitarian abuses in Syria have proliferated over the last years, providing the photos, drone footage and videos with which the regime and its allies are further damned. The coming days will show whether the advances made by the rebel coalition will provide an avenue for aid into the eastern part of the city, or any respite from the bombing. Certainly Aleppo’s inhabitants must hope that the week’s events will mark a major turning point in bringing their situation to an end. Unfortunately, as one analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies has suggested, there is now the possibility of a siege by the rebels of the government-held western area.
Ending the suffering of Aleppo’s population is not beyond the capability of the watching world. Political anxiety chokes any inclination for direct involvement in Syria by America or other Western powers, or even for indirect involvement such as lobbying for a no-fly zone over the area. But there is also, as David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, explained to the Today Programme this week, “very little pressure, either on the Syrian government or on the Russians or frankly the Iranians, to curb the humanitarian abuse”. While the West fails to provide even this rhetorical pressure, the main clout in the advances made by rebels over the weekend has been provided by the salafist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the new name for al-Nusra Front since their formal split from al-Qaeda a couple of weeks ago). The Conquest Army coalition is made up of elements of these fighters, and other jihadist elements with direct links to al-Qaeda. Reuters reported that attacks on regime checkpoints in Aleppo as part of the offensive had been made by suicide bombers driving vehicles full of explosives.
While Russian and American foreign policy and attempted diplomatic and humanitarian solutions flounder, these victories against Assad are increasingly being won by extreme Islamist forces. The Syrian President’s confirmed use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in 2013 was called a “red line” by Barack Obama, but gas has reportedly been repeatedly used since then in areas across the country, with no practical response from the United States. Instead, while government atrocities continue, John Kerry is in talks to try to construct a deal with Russia to boost airstrikes against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JAN), admittedly as well as attempting to reduce regime bombing. In late July Kerry told press, “My hope would be that somewhere in early August — the first week or so, somewhere there — we would be in a position to be able to stand up in front of you and tell you what we’re able to do with the hopes that it can make a difference to the lives of people in Syria and to the course of the war”. The ambiguity of this statement is representative of America’s attitude towards the Syria crisis in its failure to turn words into action. The difficulty of America working with Russia (Assad’s ally) to try to prevent the ISIS-style rise to dominance of JAN, whilst JAN works with rebels to free Aleppo from Assad, is axiomatic. Too often though, the complexity of the geopolitical situation being played out in Syria, of which the surface is barely scratched here, deters attempts to try and construct solutions. The longer the war drags on, however, the more likely it becomes that we will ultimately be confronted with a choice between government or jihadist control of the country. Reluctance to help rebel forces has always partially stemmed from a desire to prevent the strengthening of the Islamist groups that they work alongside. However, the entrenched Western unwillingness to act in Syria has now resulted in a situation in which a jihadist-dominated group will be perceived- one could argue with good reason- as eastern Aleppo’s saviours.
It is impossible to measure how many lives might have been, or might yet be, saved in Aleppo given a more decisive response from the international community. The Syrian Civil Defense organisation (the White Helmets) reports barrel bombs, sometimes filled with chlorine, to be the biggest killer of civilians in Aleppo and the country more widely. The UN Security Council has demanded an end to the use of such weapons, but for all the good this has done the Syrian people such demands may as well be polite requests. A solution to the overwhelmingly complex situation facing Syria and the Levant more generally is beyond the reach of most of us. This complexity cannot, however, be allowed to engender apathy in the global public and political attitude to the Syrian Civil War. The UN and international governments must be held to account for failing to prevent the continued atrocities being seen across the country, in Aleppo but also in Homs, Darayya, Douma and many other cities. Unless they are, campaigns of intentional starvation and ceaseless bombing, with their unavoidable physical and psychological effects, risk becoming an accepted method of modern warfare.