What is Aleppo? Five and a half years ago, the city was known as the “Jewel of Syria,” a bustling economic hub and culturally-diverse metropolis inhabited by lively merchants and wide-eyed tourists. Today, rebel-held east Aleppo is destined to become “one giant graveyard,” according to the UN’s humanitarian chief. As the pro-Assad coalition, consisting of a depleted but battle-hardened Syrian army, Iranian-equipped Shiite militias, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and, of course, the Russian air force, mercilessly plough through the streets of east Aleppo, the civilian body count continues to rise. The term “war crimes” fails to encompass the sheer extent of the bloodshed wrought by the triumvirate of Syrian, Iranian, and Russian menaces.
Already, the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have captured nearly a third of rebel-held east Aleppo. Along the way, they have left mangled bodies, disembodied limbs, and rivers of blood.
In the last week alone, the Syrian army has been accused of deploying chemical weapons over civilian-populated neighborhoods, leaving infants and toddlers unable to pull oxygen into their little lungs. Again. Last Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the presence of helicopters indiscriminately unloading containers of what appeared to be chlorine gas over the neighborhoods of al-Qaterji and Dahrat Awad.
After months of bombardment, there are no functioning hospitals left in the area. The handful of unfathomably brave doctors that have chosen to remain in east Aleppo have done so with the tacit acknowledgement that death will soon take them, too.
Tens of thousands of people have already fled for their lives. Some managed to escape and seek shelter in Kurdish-held territories. Others weren’t so lucky. Nearly 500 young men and boys were rounded up by Assad’s secret police as Syrian government forces overtook rebel strongholds.
To the Assad regime, there is no difference between a young, fighting-age male civilian and an enemy rebel, let alone a Salafi jihadist. Both Moscow and Damascus are on the same page when it comes to “terrorism” in Syria: Everyone, from Free Syrian Army moderate rebels, to US-backed forces to actual jihadists like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is all “al-Qaeda.” Men and boys who remained in rebel-held territory, often involuntarily, are considered complicit in anti-regime “terrorism.” The males seized may never be heard from again. They may be subject to brutal interrogation and torture before getting executed. Disappearances and summary executions are common in Assad’s Syria. The regime may very well deny these men ever existed.
Indeed, the dead may be luckier than the disappeared. But even the dead get no rest in east Aleppo.
“It's too dangerous to bury east Aleppo’s dead in the daylight,” writes Washington Post freelance reporter Louisa Loveluck. “So when night falls, an imam slips out to the latest mass grave, conducting the briskest of rites and thanking God that the skies have stayed silent.”
Despite clear documentation (by way of photos, videos, and testimonials, released by aid agencies like the Syrian White Helmets) of the carnage, the Russians continue to shamelessly claim that pro-Assad forces are heroes fighting to “liberate” the city from “terrorists.”
“Half of the territory in parts of eastern Aleppo occupied by militants in recent years has been completely freed,” stated Russian defense ministry spokesperson Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov. “Most importantly, more than 80,000 Syrians have been liberated, tens of thousands children. Many received for the first time water, food, medical care from Russian humanitarian centres.”
“Our Western counterparts are showing surprising blindness when it is time to assess the real situation in Aleppo,” continued the spokesman.
Unsurprisingly, Konashenkov failed to mention the hailstorm of Russian cluster munitions and bunker-busting bombs falling over the heads of East Aleppo’s inhabitants. He also failed to the mention that fact that Assad's forces have blocked food and aid from entering the city, leading to a starvation crisis.
Approximately 250,000 people remain trapped in East Aleppo. A significant number distrust the Russians' promise to give residents safe passage. Others are afraid of being detained and tortured by the Syrian secret police. In a choice between death and Assad, many are choosing death.
The city’s “slow-motion descent into hell” is all but certain, explains World Food Programme spokesperson Bettina Luescher. For five and a half years, Western powers have refused to get involved. This stubbornness is unlikely to change now as the purge of East Aleppo is nearly complete.
North east Aleppo is expected to fall relatively soon, while rebels in the south east are expected to be up somewhat of a fight. Nonetheless, with rebel forces fractured and outgunned, the Assad regime will likely take over the entire in the city in a matter of months if not weeks.
Despite French and British critiques of the Assad regime’s genocidal campaign, the language of empathy rings hollow when it’s not backed by the promise to cut the hand off the oppressor.
With over a month left in office, President Obama still remains cloistered in the White House, presiding over a foreign policy legacy so horrific that historians will one day shudder at the moral cowardice of the 44th president of the United States. To this day, the Obama administration continues to believe that peace negotiations with the Russians is possible. Secretary of State John Kerry’s naive “agreements” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are beyond self-parody at this point.
But there’s at least one person in the administration who knows, or at least should know, that Obama’s tenure in office will be remembered with revulsion by Assad’s victims.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has begun to largely part ways with the administration by directly implicating Russia in the mass slaughter of civilians in Syria. This is a woman who wrote a book lambasting previous US administrations for failing to intervene in the genocides of years past. She’s now come full circle, serving an administration that stood by and watched as a power-hungry dictator butchered over 400,000 civilians.
The woeful words of UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Stephen O'Brien say it all:
For the sake of humanity we call on - we plead - with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard.
There’s no way around it. As the world’s sole superpower with a unique and unilateral ability to stop, or at least lessen the destruction of mass atrocities, America has a “responsibility to protect” the innocent from large-scale crimes against humanity. It’s a basic tenet of modern international law. In failing to act, the United States of America, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, is complicit in genocide.