Christmas in Aleppo

A long-term peaceful solution is not on the cards for the foreseeable future but for the sake of the innocent people caught up in this ghastly inferno, the rest of the world must redouble its efforts to at least broker a ceasefire lasting longer than a single day

20 December 2016, 10:15am
No one side can ever claim a monopoly over carnage and butchery
No one side can ever claim a monopoly over carnage and butchery
As we enter a traditional period of festivity, it is sobering to remember that Christmas is a luxury denied to large parts of the world which are ravaged by war and disaster. 

In Syria – where civil war has been raging for six years – not even the most fragile of temporary cease-fires could last more than a day. On Friday, a deal to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians from the besieged districts of east Aleppo was suspended. The delicate operation had begun on Thursday; when it ended the following morning, only 8,500 people had reportedly left the city.

This leaves thousands more to face atrocity and terror. In the past few days, the United Nations has reported civilian massacres perpetrated by Syrian pro-government forces, with victims including women and children. Thousands of people are still trapped in the last remaining neighbourhoods still in rebel hands.

In all civil wars, however, no one side can ever claim a monopoly over carnage and butchery. Though broadly referred to as rebels fighting an insurgence against a military dictatorship, the forces challenging Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are far from coherent and unified. What started as a struggle originating from army defectors – the Free Syria Army – has grown to include a wide variety of often conflicting interests, moulded into an uneasy alliance by common purpose. 

These include al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, whose brutal track record includes the Adra massacre, which saw the killing of at least 32 Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ismailite civilians in the industrial town of Adra in December 2013. 

Other factions, loosely grouped on the rebels’ side, are in reality fighting on more than one front. Kurdish fighters in the north have reportedly clashed with both sides. Meanwhile, other factions which have resisted ISIS along with the Assad regime, may even be forced to join ISIS by encroaching Russian intervention.

The ‘pro-government’ side, too, seems to be steeped in similar apparent contradictions. Reports of the atrocities committed are too severe to dismiss as unfortunate casualties of war; together with their foreign allies, Assad’s forces stand charged with crimes against humanity. 

But at the same time, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the two sides and their demands. The Syrian conflict was not born in a vacuum: it formed part of the complex tapestry of the ‘Arab Spring’: a spring that, in such a short time, turned into a tempestuous winter of discontent.

Experience with similar national uprisings only illustrates the difficulty in picking sides. Libya’s Gaddafi was overthrown in a similar bid for ‘freedom’ from dictatorship. The results speak for themselves: Libya is a country teetering on the very brink of disintegration.

Like Gaddafi, who promised to crush the rebels ‘like cockroaches’, Bashar Al-Assad has not been light-handed in his response to the insurrection. At least 136 people were killed in the initial clashes with armed forces in February 2011 – and tens of thousands more since – yet the fate that might befall Syria in the case of a rebel victory is far from certain. 

For all its flaws, the Assad regime is credited with preserving Syria’s religious diversity, which includes sizeable Druze and Christian minorities. This alone can hardly exonerate the government for the brutality of its response… but it does illustrate the difficulty posed by the conflict for the rest of the world.

One of the problems in Syria is that too many actors have a finger in the pie. This is partly because the conflict has degenerated into a sectarian one pitting Sunni backed by the Gulf States against Shiites and Alawites backed by Iran. While Iran-sponsored Hezbollah militias have teamed up with Assad in attacking the rebels, Qatar has been accused of bankrolling a key rebel figure affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

Iran is moreover an ally of Russia, which in turn has other reasons to want to protect its interests in Syria. Russia has had a military presence there since the Cold War, and this gives the country the only direct naval access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Erdogan’s Turkey also has a finger in the pie; but while it has used Isis as a pretext for intervention, its main targets so far have been the Syrian Kurds – who are allied with the PKK in Turkey itself, and have been at the forefront in the battle against Isis.   

What is clearly missing from the equation is a corresponding interest on the part of other nations, in particular Europe and the USA. Pressure has been mounting on outgoing US President Obama to show some form of leadership; but the reality is that the present instability in the Middle East owes much to past US military involvement such as the Iraq war. The EU, too, has its recent skeletons in the closet: as attested by the results of European intervention in Libya.

Clearly, a long-term peaceful solution is not on the cards for the foreseeable future. But for the sake of the innocent people caught up in this ghastly inferno, the rest of the world must redouble its efforts to at least broker a ceasefire lasting longer than a single day.