After four years of bloody war of attrition, Aleppo has fallen. For the rebels and their foreign backers this represents a humiliating blow which will have major consequences internationally and domestically. Hamid Alizadeh looks at the stinking hypocrisy of Western imperialism regarding the tragedy of Aleppo.
Aleppo has fallen. After four years of bloody war of attrition, the pre-civil war commercial hub and Syria’s largest city is once again under the complete control of the Assad regime. For the rebels and their foreign backers this represents a humiliating blow which will have major consequences internationally and domestically.
The price of these four years of war has been thousands of dead, tens of thousands maimed, and hundreds of thousands driven out of their homes. Aleppo sums up the tragedy of the Syrian civil war. An ancient city, with a modern people, rich with culture, turned into bloody piles of rubble and dust. The effect of the crimes committed here will be felt by generations to come.
Since August, the rebel stronghold of Eastern Aleppo has been de facto under siege. For the past month, a meticulously planned operation led by Syrian, Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian militias has advanced steadily, with close air support from Syrian and Russian jets and bombers.
Day in and day out we are constantly told that the Russians and the Syrians are commiting war crimes. Of course we have no illusions either in Assad or in Putin. They act out of self-interest with no regard to the interests of the Syrian people. But there is a deafening silence concerning the barbaric conduct of the so-called rebels and their American, British, Saudi and Turkish backers.
A history of atrocities and hypocrisy
To find the truth about this reactionary war one has to dig through a mountain of lies, deception and stinking hypocrisy. The leaders of the so-called “free world” are all in tears, with the mass media pouring scorn on the brutal Russian and Syrian forces that have fought in Aleppo. They condemn Putin and Assad for bombing, shooting and killing people (in a war!). Yet they have no problems with their own “moderate” militias doing exactly the same, and in no more humane ways than those of Putin. While the media have been flooded with stories about the bombing of “the last hospital of Aleppo” every week for the past year or so, no mention has been made of the constant and indiscriminate shelling of Western Aleppo or the Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsood. One can only imagine the scale of horror and destruction had the opposition militias themselves had an air force. Murder seems only to be a crime when it is carried out by Western ruling classes’ opponents.
The war crimes of Western imperialism throughout history are endless: the killing of hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the bombing of the civilian population of Dresden in WWII, with almost 4000 tons of bombs killing more than 25,000 people; the murderous Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Vietnam. These are hushed up - or even glorified - in the history books.
The behaviour of these ladies and gentlemen in modern times in the Middle East is no any better. A 2015 investigation by Physicians for Social Responsibility concludes that, “the wars have, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e . a total of around 1.3 million. (...) The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.” Put together, the murderous deeds of Assad, Putin and even of ISIS would not reach the levels or destruction unleashed by Western imperialism in the Middle East.
The criminal war in Iraq, meanwhile, completely destabilised the country and the region and unleashed the most backward and reactionary forces. The tragedy goes far beyond the mere numbers - albeit huge - of killed.
Even today, the siege and indiscriminate bombing of Yemen by Saudi planes, closely supported by US and British forces, has left more than half of the 28 million population at risk of starvation. And yet this humanitarian disaster and tragedy is conveniently ignored by politicians and the press in the West. A UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen said that the war is "probably one of the biggest crises in the world but it's like a silent crisis, a silent situation and a forgotten war."
Likewise nothing is mentioned of the civilian casualties caused by the siege and onslaught on the city of Mosul, which holds far more civilians than eastern Aleppo. Ironically, some of the same groups in Aleppo that are being criticised by the West have been hired to do the dirty work in Mosul with Western air-cover.
Our dear leaders are full of concern for the plight of their Syrian people. But their actions tell a different story. A recent internal UN report leaked by The Intercept characterises Western sanctions on Syria as “some of the most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed.” They report that the U.S. sanctions are exceptionally cruel “regarding provision of humanitarian aid” [our emphasis]. Another UN leak in the same publication names sanctions as a “principal factor” in the degradation of the healthcare system.
In addition, it is deeply ironic that these peace-loving gentlemen and women have now promised to pour more arms and money into Syria following the fall of Aleppo.
Yes, our dear democratic friends are quick to point fingers. But they are equally quick to forget the terror and barbarism they have unleashed and continue to support throughout the region.
Syria and the "moderate" rebels
In Aleppo itself, the latest atrocities could have been avoided had the US agreed to a ceasefire deal with Russia and the Assad regime only one month ago. The deal fell after the US planes bombed and killed up to 100 Syrian regime troops fighting against ISIS in the besieged enclave of Deir Ezzor. According to the Middle East Eye, a recent report by the US central command clearly “shows that senior US Air Force officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:
- “misled the Russians about where the US intended to strike so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops;
- “ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Islamic State;
- “shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal Air Force procedures” (US strikes on Syrian troops: Report data contradicts 'mistake' claims)
The result of this strike was not only to break the ceasefire in Aleppo, but also to act as a major blow to Syrian forces who have been besieged by ISIS for more than two years.
Following the collapsed ceasefire, the Russian and Syrian aerial bombing campaign over Aleppo was halted for a three-week period, during which eight exit routes were created for civilians and militants to leave Eastern Aleppo and be transported either to regime areas, where rebels would be granted amnesty upon laying down arms, or to rebel controlled areas in Idlib along with their light arms(!). But the response of the “moderate” friends of the West in Aleppo was to shoot and shell anyone who tried to leave the area. In effect, the opposition militias took the whole of East Aleppo as hostages and turned them into human shields.
Yet Western media continues to support these “moderate rebels”, portraying them as freedom fighters who represent the people against the Assad regime. But who are these moderate groups? They are not directly mentioned anywhere by name. But looking at the groups in Aleppo, the strongest ones have been: Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (JFS), the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda originally set up by what is now ISIS; Ahrar Al-Sham (AAS), which has been running the whole of Idlib governorate along with JFS for several years, and which almost fused with it a few years ago; and finally, the Nour al-din al-zinki group, which is an Islamist group with close ties to the US. Last summer the Zinki group gained international fame for beheading a 14 year old boy. In one the many videos of the execution, the Zinki men are heard saying “we are worse than ISIS”. So, yes, these men might be “moderate” - but in relation to what?
The fact is that the “rebels”, as in many other urban areas in Syria, never enjoyed much support within the city of Aleppo. Aleppo only fell into opposition hands initially after an attack coming from the countryside. The Guardian, reported in August 2012:
“Opposition fighters – around 3,000 of them – are almost the only people moving around the eastern half that the Free Syrian Army now controls. The small numbers of non-fighters who remain seem to pay them little heed. Few seem openly welcoming.
“‘Yes it's true,’ said Sheikh Tawfik Abu Sleiman, a rebel commander sitting on the ground floor of his fourth new headquarters – the other three were bombed. ‘Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want.’”
In fact, once the initial revolution began to disintegrate into a sectarian conflict dominated by Islamist groups, the vast majority of the population, many of whom were sympathetic to the initial movement, swung back behind the regime.
Seeing the revolution destabilising the Assad regime in 2011, Western imperialism and their allies - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf states - began funnelling billions of dollars into Islamist groups in Syria. One revealing report by the Defence Intelligence Agency - the intelligence agency of the Pentagon - in 2012 stated: “Internally, events are clearly taking a sectarian direction (...) The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq and precursor to JFS and ISIS] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.(...) There is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Deir Ezzor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…”
The limits of US imperialism
This is the real reason behind the hue and cry raised by the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a seasoned diplomat who measures his words, told journalists that he was "tired of hearing this whining from our American colleagues.”
The fall of Aleppo is a complete humiliation for Western imperialism. While the annexation of Crimea - in itself a big humiliation for US imperialism - was in the “neighbourhood” of Russia, in Aleppo you have the public humiliation and crushing of US proxies in the middle of what the US has traditionally seen as its domain. As was evident in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, US imperialism has always thought that it could do whatever it wanted in the Middle East. But in Aleppo the limitations of US imperialism have been openly on display. It is no coincidence that the most serious negotiations surrounding Aleppo have been between Russia and Turkey, without US participation.
When the Pentagon disrupted the ceasefire in October, it was from a position of arrogance and defiance towards Russia. But then Russia, Iran and Syria proceeded to crush the US proxies - right in front of US (and Turkish) armed forces who were literally stationed a few dozen miles away...and the US was impotent to do anything about it. The West and its allies, who are used to calling the shots, have been reduced to mere spectators in Aleppo.
Not only did they invest a great deal in Aleppo itself, but the fall of the city means that the rebels have now been pushed out of all major urban areas in Syria. While the civil war could drag on for years to come, it is clear that the threat to the Assad regime has been shattered. The following collapse of morale amongst the rebels will add to this consolidation of power. All the plans of the interventionist powers are in ruins. This will have serious consequences.
The public display the US’ impotence means that it will come under pressure from a number of lesser powers internationally, who will test the limits of US imperialism and the US dominated “world order”. These “allies” and enemies will begin to assume a role that will be more independent from the US and its interests. This in turn will lead to even greater instability internationally.
In Turkey, the fall of Aleppo is a major blow to Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman plans of dominating the Middle East, seriously damaging his prestige, and coming just at a time when the Turkish economy could be headed for a serious crisis, which in turn could see an explosive development in the class struggle. In Syria, Erdogan is only aided slightly by the fact that Russia has allowed Turkey a certain presence in the northern Aleppo countryside - although even this pocket might come under pressure in the next period. In effect, all that is left from Erdogan’s policy in Syria is the utopian aim of defeating the Kurdish enclave of Rojava. But this itself could at a certain point backfire and lead to the breakup of Turkey.
The largest blow, however, was dealt to Saudi Arabia, which is rapidly seeing its international position decline. The reactionary kingdom no longer has any significant bargaining chip in Syria, with most of its proxies confined to their Islamic emirate in the Idlib governorate where they do not pose a threat to anyone. The failure of the Saudi interventions in Syria and Iraq, and the coming defeat in Yemen, will have major ramifications inside the kingdom, which is entangled in a web of social, economic and political crises.
What is to be done?
Many people are justifiably disgusted by the tragedy in Aleppo. “What can we do?”, those with genuine concern ask. Some propose that a no-fly zone should be imposed, as if a war without bombers is somehow more humane. But in real practical terms, the demand for a no-fly zone is just another way of calling for an aerial campaign by the West in support of the rebels and against the Assad regime. Far from being more humane, it would mean giving air cover to some of the most reactionary forces on the planet. Such an intervention would in fact only prop up support for the Assad regime amongst the Syrian population.
Western intervention would not lead to anything progressive in the Middle East. In fact, it is at the root of all of the barbarism which we witness in the region today. As the history of Western intervention outlined earlier shows, these governments do not take action out of “humanitarian” concerns, but for their own narrow imperialist interests. They curse the crimes of Putin and Assad, crying crocodile tears over the tragedy in Aleppo; and yet, at the same time, they sweep their own war crimes in Yemen and elsewhere under the carpet.
The interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen have not led to “democracy” and “freedom”, but have completely destroyed the foundations of civilised life in those countries. This should be a clear indication of what we could expect from any Western intervention in Syria.
If we want to do something; if we want to effect any kind of change, the first thing would be to begin a serious struggle against our own capitalist and imperialist ruling classes - which have committed the greatest crimes in the history of the Middle East.
Lenin once commented that “capitalism is horror without end”. Behind this aphorism there is a profound truth. War and instability are an inherent part of capitalism - a system that is based on anarchic self-interest, competition, and profit motives, and over which no-one exerts any real control.
In a period of crisis - when the class struggle is sharpened, the world economy is destabilised, and competition between the various nation states increases - internal conflicts and the general instability intensifies. The fact is that all the powers with interests in the Middle East want stability in the region - but only on their own terms, which are always in antagonism to and to the detriment of the other powers. To defend their own positions and narrow interests, they are willing to drown the whole region in a sea of blood.
The war in Syria, however tragic it is, will not be the last war of this nature. Capitalism will continue to produce more such wars until the day it is overthrown by the working masses. The only real thing to do is to prepare a revolutionary force that can hasten the downfall of this rotten system internationally.