The Dirty War in Aleppo

European Pressphoto Agency

European Pressphoto Agency

Sieges, modern, medieval or ancient, are savage affairs. The violence unfolding on the streets of Aleppo have long been a symbol of Syria's suffering. Civilians situated in eastern Aleppo have been sandwiched between the coalition assembled by Bashar al-Assad and the assortment of rebels and jihādists left in the shattered enclave. After years of urban warfare (a gruelling psychological experience for most combatants), Western ambivalence, the bloody nature of the opposition, the paralysis of the United Nations and the lethal conviction of Assad and his allies, the massacres which have unfolded and have already occurred since the battle of Aleppo begun were a certainty.  

Aleppo has produced spectacular acts of violence. Vladimir Putin, after honing his craft of raining fire and death down on Chechens in Grozny, has reapplied his vicious doctrine in northern Syria since Russian intervention in 2015.  Assad's airforce pound the city relentlessly, killing thousands of innocent civilians while his militias have conducted vicious extra-judicial killings against military and civilian foe alike throughout the war. The disappearance of men and women across the city in recent months, the torture of civilians at Saydnaya and the Assad family's historical record when dealing with uprisings (best exemplified by Hama where 20,000 Syrian civilians and rebels were butchered by Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad), have characterised the extreme response of a regime desperately surviving the Syrian revolution in 2011. 

 The rebel coalition in Aleppo, spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra and extremist cells, have committed its own atrocities. They have mercilessly executed Syrian soldiers and civilians. Human Rights WatchAmnesty International, Al-Jazeera,  ReutersAl-MonitorThe Huffington Post and Al-Masdar News and The Guardian have all reported incidents of rebel forces executing POWs and/or committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo. The mass execution of fifty-one POWs and civilians in Khan al-Assal, fourteen kilometres from Aleppo in 2013, also bears mentioning as an example of the ruthless nature of the "moderate" rebels. Who can forget the video of Jahbat al-Nusra's affiliate Nour al-Din al-Zenki slicing off the head of a twelve year old Palestinian boy in an ISIS-style execution in Aleppo? 

There is ample evidence to suggest the fractured opposition, the rebels many want in power in Syria, have committed horrendous war crimes. However, Aleppo has become a symbol of information and disinformation, not simply a symbol for the suffering of the Syrian people. Aleppo is a narrow tunnel vision through which many public, human rights activists and political commentators in the West view the Syrian War. While human rights are undeniably being violated in cities such as Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa, the wars in Iraq and Syria are not a war about promoting democracy and human rights, nor is it a war wholly dictated by religious zeal, sectarianism, or the fight against "terrorism". The term "terrorism", so overused, generalised and generic, has become almost useless as a convincing explanation for reporting effectively on a war. 

This does not excuse acts of horrific violence committed by Assad loyalists or Putin. However, the online abuse levelled against seasoned journalists such as Patrick Cockburn, Max Blumenthal and Robert Fisk for questioning the conventional narrative that only Assad is committing atrocities in Aleppo and across Syria is extraordinary. Equally extraordinary is the Western powers inability to admit its regional allies complicity in driving Syria into the ground. 

Smearing seasoned journalists as apologists, regime supporters and "useless" for attempting to objectively analyse and report on the conflict from a different angle and fairly pointing out legitimate flaws in the Western media coverage of Aleppo is trash journalism. It speaks of an inability to critically analyse a conflict from several perspectives at once, a civil war in which "all sides are terrified of each other and with good reason." 

Civilians in eastern Aleppo fear Assad's barrel bombs. Civilians in western Aleppo face the terror of car bombs deployed by Gulf-sponsored neo-Wahabbi extremists. Sunni Arab civilians face displacement by Kurdish peshmerga in Raqqa. Activists are afraid of capture, torture and execution at the hands of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence. Shiites, Christians, Alawites and Druze families are terrified of the prospect of ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of Sunni extremists if Assad falls from power. Western journalists and charity workers fear being captured by ISIS. The last moments of over thirty children in Houla were that of horror as Alawite and Sunni Shabiha militias descended on them to commit grotesque murder. Russian pilots are afraid of being captured by anti-Assad rebels. This fear has fed the brutality of this civil war and major actors across the board have played to these fears for global, regional and local influence and power.  The result has been catastrophic for Syria. 

What happens next? No one faction or country militarily embroiled in the Syrian War can or will emerge untainted and none, not even the Western powers, can remotely suggest they were acting in the interest of the innocent. Nonetheless, the political battle for Syria will continue. After the horrors of Sabra and Shatilla (1982), the war in Lebanon, which had already been raging for years, continued for a further eight years and remained occupied by Israeli (2000) and Syrian forces (2005). As American forces occupying Iraq lauded the capture of Saddam Hussein (2003) as the pivotal moment in the Iraq War, little did they expect that civil war in Iraq would rage on into 2017. 

After the recapture of Aleppo, the war in Syria will snail on as siege warfare devolves into counter-insurgency against the insurgencies of Al-Qa'ida, ISIS, and al-Nusra. The city, while pivotal, remains one piece of the regional conflict. The question of Kurdistan is far from complete. The Kurds renewed conflict with Turkey and local Syrian factions vying for power will feature heavily in the future of the Syrian state and its sovereignty. The Turkish military's repeated aerial bombardment of Kurdish positions in northern Iraq and its invasion of Syria have illustrated Erdogan's intentions to fold Kurdish advances and curb its national project.

The assault on Raqqa, a major city which remains under ISIS's control,  is gaining momentum and for all their setbacks ISIS have successfully recaptured Palmyra from Assad's military days before Aleppo's fall. It will take years to uproot ISIS and affiliated jihadists groups from Iraq and Syria and the fresh outbreak of hostilities between the opposition (including Al-Qa'ida, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and The Islamic Front) and Bashar al-Assad's military in northern Syria only strengthens ISIS and prolongs its stay in Syria where its power and influence is greatest. The Syrian War is not over, it is entering a new phase. 

Matthew Williams


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