Rebels in Aleppo say they have broken the siege of the city, but have yet to establish a secure route for civilians. Government forces under President Bashar Al Assad deny they have been pushed out of the city. The battle for Aleppo may mark a military turning point, but for Aleppo’s remaining residents, it marks only an intensification of a misery that seems to go unheeded by the international community.
No one is coming to save the Syrians. If United States President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 — after the chemical attacks in Gouta, where children died of asphyxiation, testing Obama’s “red line” — then he surely will not act now after footage of chemical attacks two weeks ago in Idlib showed fighters, allegedly poisoned by chlorine administered by the Al Assad regime, gasping for breath. Last Thursday, there were more reports of children and medical workers killed in renewed attacks. Jan Egeland, the head of the United Nations humanitarian task force on Syria, concluded that the West’s inaction in the face of these attacks and others on hospitals, doctors, nurses and civilians means “erasing a century of progress for humanity”.
Aleppo continues to face the risk of starvation. Meanwhile, the rebel coalition has evolved. In July, Jabhat Al Nusra, one of the dominant groups fighting Al Assad, formally split from Al Qaida in a rebranding exercise. The agenda remains the same, but the new group, Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, wants to distance itself from Al Qaida in the event that the Russian-American anti-terrorist cooperation targeting Jabhat Al Nusra Front — a diplomatic initiative that the US secretary of state, John Kerry, has been pushing — should actually happens.
According to Aron Lund from the Carnegie Institute, the rebel alliance fighting in Aleppo includes “lots of little Free Syrian Army-branded brigades … Dozens all in all, counting the smaller factions that arrive in tow of the big ones”. But, he says: “[Jabhat Al] Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham are the alpha factions in many of those areas.” If they succeed in breaking the siege, it will bring a huge boost in popularity for Fateh Al Sham.
The situation on the ground is desperate. In rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods of Syria, Unicef said that children make up a third of the 300,000 trapped residents. Some of those children are burning tyres to create a makeshift “no-fly zone”, so that the bombers can’t drop their payloads accurately. A Russian-backed plan to open “humanitarian corridors” only succeeded in frightening people who saw it as ethnic cleansing — a ploy “not for getting aid in, but driving people out”, said Bassma Kodmani of the Syrian opposition group HNC. In the rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods, there are only 34 doctors left. Physicians for Human Rights said that government forces launched deadly air strikes against six hospitals in and around Aleppo over recent days — the worst in the region since the civil war began in 2011.
Meanwhile, in the western government-controlled areas, 25,000 displaced people are sheltering from the intense fighting in mosques, university buildings and public gardens, according to Unicef. Food supply routes from the countryside have been cut off.
Fred Hof, a former US ambassador for transition in Syria, says that “saving Aleppo” at this point may boil down to merely trying to minimise the humanitarian disaster. “Nationalist rebels are outgunned,” he says. “They’ve not been as lucky as Al Assad in the quality of their external supporters. Clearly, for example, these rebels need air defence weaponry to counter Russian and regime attacks calculated to cause maximum civilian casualties.”
Hof suggests that there might be another UN Security Council resolution demanding access to Aleppo for UN humanitarian relief convoys. But he is sceptical: “If the past is prologue, the Al Assad regime — with full Russian and Iranian support — will defy it, if it survives Russian veto. And the hollowed-out West will wring its hands.”
Given what happened in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, because of global inaction, it seems inconceivable that western countries could stand back and let the ancient city of Aleppo be destroyed. So what has happened to the responsibility to protect, the global political commitment endorsed by UN member states in 2005 to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity? Dr Hatem, a senior doctor in Aleppo’s children’s hospital, argues that “every country has a responsibility to stop the bombs and prevent genocide”.
In Geneva, the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura persists in trying to restore talks between the parties and their proxies by the end of this month, but so far has been unable to do so. Diplomacy has failed, and De Mistura too seems a hostage to Russia’s demands.
A starting point would be to stop letting Russia dictate the agenda. The lack of a more robust US response, allowing Russia to take the lead in Syria, has been disastrous. Hof has favoured greater military aid and even direct, targeted intervention since 2012. “I’d not rule out [surface-to-air missiles] for defenders of our choice,” he says. “I’d not rule out cruise missile strikes on regime air bases.”
Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at the Paris School of International Affairs, says the bloodbath in Aleppo is a result of America’s tacit endorsement of Russian war objectives, “which means liquidating any third way between the Al Assad regime and the extremist groups, under the pretence of fighting those groups — whether Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or [Jabhat Al] Nusra”. For the US, he says, this is “a self-defeating policy since the revolutionary forces were the ones who expelled Daesh from Aleppo in January 2014”.
But there are difficulties associated with a military intervention. In the short run, action against the regime may empower whichever armed groups are currently strongest. In the Aleppo area, these are the extremists. But, says Faysal Itani from the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, the equation is more complex than that: “Restraining the regime also takes pressure off more moderate groups, allowing them to compete more effectively with hardliners for influence in the insurgency, especially if they also receive greater US support.” In any case, non-intervention must be weighed against the clearly calamitous cost of continuing the status quo.
On the wall of a building in Aleppo, one local photographer captured an image of a graffiti that encapsulated the exhausted yet indomitable spirit of the Syrian people. ‘You’re not besieged,’ it read, ‘As long as you keep resisting.’ The revolution started as a peaceful one and continued even after Al Assad shot down his people. Now, the rebels will neither give up nor will they surrender. In that case, unless there is intervention, this will become a decades-long war, like the one that scarred Lebanon.
The war in the former Yugoslavia was finally brought to an end with a negotiated peace agreement after Nato, in concert with the UN, intervened with air strikes to protect civilians threatened by Bosnian Serb forces — despite Russia’s support for its Serbian ally. Yes, there are crucial differences between the wars, but at this stage we must realise the importance of action. As Egeland, who was in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, grimly concludes, we can no longer turn away. “Aleppo is a test for humanity. There has to be relief,” he says. “If that doesn’t happen, it will be a black stain.”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Janine di Giovanni is the Middle East editor of Newsweek and an international security fellow at the New America Foundation. Her account of the war in Syria, The Morning They Came For Us, is published by Bloomsbury.