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Lessons learnt from the fall of Aleppo

December 23, 2016 at 7:58 pm

A general view of a tent city as it snows in the Azaz town of Aleppo, Syria on December 21, 2016 [Mamun Ebu Omer / Anadolu Agency]

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the government restricted independent media outlets and barred international news agencies from covering the anti-government protests. As a result, a wave of Syrian volunteers from all walks of life became activists and citizen journalists; they started to report on the revolution, challenging the government’s official narrative of the uprising. Many of these activists became the voices of the people in besieged areas, revolution icons and, sometimes, the only source of information about the situation on the ground. Their media work varied and was complemented by Syrian and non-Syrian activists outside the country who often translated and coordinated the work of those inside.

The reactions of opposition activists within and beyond Syria to government-imposed sieges and atrocities can be characterised by three tactics. First, using social media to document the atrocities of the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies, and to share them in real time. Second, blaming the world for its continued silence towards the ongoing massacres in Syria, and more recently in Aleppo. Third, organising protests in solidarity with Aleppo across the world, especially during ongoing (or heightened) military campaigns by the Syrian and Russian forces.

These tactics have remained largely unaltered since the start of the Syrian uprising. In June 2013, days before the fall of my home town, Qusair, an opposition stronghold outside of Homs, I did what many other activists were doing; I posted updates across social media platforms, spoke to news agencies about the dire humanitarian situation on the ground and blamed the world for not doing enough in the hope of shaming the international community into action.

The atrocities committed by the Syrian government and Russian forces have long been well-documented by many human right organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. The UN has even accused pro-government forces of summarily executing civilians in Aleppo, and the UN human rights chief described the city of Aleppo as a “slaughterhouse”.

However, considering that the conflict has evolved, should the opposition activists change their narrative and strategies to adapt to developments on the ground? Based on my own experience, there are some changes that activists might consider.

For example, they could acknowledge the limitations of sharing updates on social media; six years of almost constant coverage of the crimes inside Syria has desensitised most people. While it is necessary for activists and journalists to continue documenting the situation on the ground, this does not guarantee immediate action and is unlikely to contribute directly towards a solution. Despite its limitations, the activists’ social media campaign before the fall of Aleppo was effective in highlighting the dire humanitarian situation in the city, leading to an international outcry. This has possibly pressured the Syrian and Russian governments to agree to evacuate the remaining 50, 000 civilians trapped there.

Activists could also avoid the blame game, as accusing the whole world of complicity because they are not doing enough in Syria creates new enemies and has proven ineffective. The Syrian opposition already has enough enemies, including Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. This does very little to change the reality of the suffering inside Syria. This is not about relieving the anxieties of those living outside Syria; rather, it’s about evaluating whether this strategy is effective in making a difference on the ground within the country. The activists’ campaigns should instead focus on appealing to people worldwide and suggesting how they could help.

Armed groups could be encouraged — and pressured — to unite. The lack of unity amongst armed opposition groups and inter-rebel fighting were cited as two of the main reasons behind the collapse of Aleppo. Civilians inside Syria should put pressure on the armed groups to unite and coordinate their efforts and operations. This may include staging protests that demand more unity and coordination among groups and driving Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra or JAN) out of opposition-held areas. Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham has been responsible for abducting many opposition activists, kidnapping foreign journalists and humanitarian workers, and forbidding the Syrian revolution flag in areas under its control. This has severely restricted foreign independent journalists’ coverage of the Syrian conflict from inside the country.

There should also be some forward thinking; Aleppo has fallen and the remaining civilians and rebels will likely be evacuated based on a deal struck between Russia and Turkey. It might be too late for Aleppo, but it is not yet too late for the opposition-held areas of Idlib, northern Homs suburbs, Daraa and Eastern Ghouta, potentially the next targets of Assad’s military forces. Civil resistance strategies should not be an afterthought. Thinking and planning must go into the strategies long before any potential atrocity. Proactive moves such as regular fundraising and engaging actively with politicians and policy makers have better chances of creating a difference.

Finally, activists should reconsider their public relations strategy. The Syrian conflict is six years old, yet a large number of people worldwide are not aware of the situation there. For many outsiders, the Syrian conflict is complicated, with too many sides and a flood of information that discourages people from getting involved. This presents a challenge and an opportunity for the Syrian opposition, especially the activist community, to develop a more coordinated outreach campaign to reach out strategically to people around the globe. Partnering with international governmental agencies and NGOs is key to meeting this goal.

Syrians cannot afford to keep waiting for the world to save them from this black hole of destruction and death. In an ideal world, the Aleppo tragedy would not have happened and the world would not have allowed it. However, realistically, the scenario of Aleppo is likely to happen again in other parts of Syria unless we change our tactics and find a way to prevent more massacres.

We must identify what can be done by Syrians both within and beyond the country without the rest of the world, and be realistic about what the world is willing to do for us.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.