Aleppo, a city which has held out for more than four years against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, is today under unprecedented attack. The Assad regime and its Russian ally are throwing everything they have at the defenceless civilians left in the city. The regime drops barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas on rebel-held East Aleppo to the indifference of a world which supposedly refuses to tolerate the use of chemical weapons. The weaponry used by Russia is more sophisticated. The Russians have dropped cluster bombs and bunker busters on civilian areas in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. Schools in Aleppo have been bombed before by the regime and this has forced them to go underground. There is now even an underground playground in the city. But the types of weapons Russia is using means that civilians can no longer even be safe underground. The Russian bombardment of a school in Hass in Idlib Province on 26th October, which killed at least 26 people, mostly children, and Russia and the regime’s deliberate destruction of every single hospital in East Aleppo shows that this is a war of extermination and annihilation. And it has been greeted by deafening silence from the world.
Nearly 700 people have been killed in the city over the past ten days, with thousands more being injured. The death toll may be much higher because dozens of people remain trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings with rescue workers unable to reach them because of the continuing bombardment, and because fuel has run out in the besieged city. The food supply in East Aleppo will run out in a few days’ time, and the first children have already died from starvation.
On Sunday, the regime and its militia allies advanced in East Aleppo, splitting the rebel held areas of the city in two and forcing 20,000 people to flee from their homes in the areas the regime captured. On Tuesday, 28 of these desperate refugees were killed in a regime airstrike. 500 men are missing, their fate uncertain, after they were captured by the regime’s allies. Before the Russians resumed their assault on Aleppo on 15th November 15, they publicly offered the 250,000 residents of East Aleppo the chance to leave through “humanitarian corridors”. No one took up the offer, and with good reason. Leaving the city would mean passing through regime-held territory and the Assad regime and its militia allies from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran have not been averse to massacring civilians in cities and towns they capture.
The regime has only been able to advance in Aleppo with massive support from foreign forces. An attempt by the regime and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies to take East Aleppo in February 2015 resulted in a humiliating defeat. Today, the Assad regime is not just backed by aerial support from Russia. Foreign militias supporting the regime actually outnumber regime forces. As many as 15,000 Iraqi militiamen have been sent to Syria recently and the ground advance into East Aleppo was led by Iraqi and Lebanese sectarian militias. On the other hand the rebels; often misleadingly depicted as “Western backed” in the media, not only have received little or no support from abroad, they have been actively prevented from acquiring anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons by the United States and its allies.
Since 2012, Syrians have been calling for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the regime airstrikes which have killed so many of the estimated 500,000 victims of the Syrian conflict. This could easily have been implemented at any time by the United States and it is still possible in some form now, without any possibility of a direct clash with Russian forces, despite the ongoing Russian intervention. The United States in fact recently threatened to intervene aerially against the Assad regime when the regime clashed with Kurdish YPG forces in Al-Hasakah in north-eastern Syria. The regime quickly backed downed in the face of the US warning. However, under Obama the US has completely abandoned the Syrian rebels, following initial rhetorical support, and President Elect Trump has indicated that he will change US policy to one of support for Assad, despite calling what is taking place in Aleppo a “holocaust”.
Russia has launched a massive propaganda campaign on both traditional and social media to justify its intervention in Syria. This campaign is not only directed at the rebels in East Aleppo, 90% of whom owe their allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil Defence operating in Aleppo, commonly known as the White Helmets, have been labelled as “Al-Qaeda terrorists” and accused of staging incidents by Russian state media. Videos of children being pulled out from under the rubble of destroyed buildings by the White Helmets, taken by activists and uploaded to the Internet; make for bad publicity for the Russian government. The only way that Russia can counter the documented evidence of its crimes in the age of digital media is to smear the rescuers. On the other hand, Russia and the regime openly admit their murderous intentions to the people of Aleppo. Before the current Russian assault began in 2015, regime and Russian planes dropped a leaflet addressed to the civilians of East Aleppo which read “If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated… You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom.” As far as the last sentence is concerned, this leaflet couldn’t be more correct.
Aleppo today has become the graveyard of the civilized values the world claims to uphold. Children are starved to death or buried under the rubble of their own homes and those who dare to rescue them are labelled terrorists for doing so. The assault that Aleppo is witnessing today is beyond imagination – deliberate starvation accompanied by chemical warfare, and the targeting of homes, schools and hospitals not only by Assad but by an international coalition of actors supporting him. It is likely that the city will fall by the end of the year but it is a miracle, given these circumstances, that Aleppo has held out against Assad for as long as it has. The fact that the world has stood by and watched an entire city destroyed in this way not only shows the emptiness of its rhetorical adherence to standards of human rights and laws of war, it gives a grim warning of what conflict in the future will look like and what crimes against civilians will be accepted and ignored.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.