Aleppo – liberated or fallen ?

The power has shifted in most parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo from the hands of anti Assad forces to Assad.  Should it be called as “Aleppo fallen to Assad regime” or ” Aleppo liberated by government forces ” ?

How it is termed depends on from which angle you view the Syrian civil war. Some feel anti Assad forces are hard line Islamists and are more dangerous, while others feel Assad regime is brutally violent on its citizen and has no legitimacy.

Image credit - AFP

Image credit – AFP

See here an interesting debate between two persons holding such contrasting views in Democracy Now. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and Stephen Cohen professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University are the participants.

Kenneth Roth:

The combination of the Assad-Putin air forces have been deliberately bombing civilians and civilian institutions, time and time again. You speak to people in hospitals who report being targeted over and over again, until ultimately the hospital is destroyed. And this, you know, sadly, has been the strategy that Putin and Assad have pursued in Syria. This is a blatant war crime. The Geneva Conventions require that you take all feasible precautions to spare civilians. In this case, the deliberate purpose has been to target civilians. It’s a blatant war crime.

Stephen Cohen:

There are several narratives about the Syrian civil proxy war—and that’s what it is, a lot of great powers, or would-be great powers, involved in Syria. The United States and Russia are involved in a proxy war there. It’s a civil war. The account Mr. Roth just gave is only one of two or three competing narratives. One narrative is—and in war, innocents die. That’s why we’re all antiwar. He says that the Russians joined with the Syrians in deliberate war crimes. This is based on very selective reports that come from sources that cannot be verified. For example, the White Helmet man, that you had testify to this, didn’t tell us how he knew that, how he observed it, how he escaped with his own life. Moreover, there are people who doubt the reports that come from the White Helmets, that they have an agenda. So the rest of us are left here trying to weigh the different narratives. Mr. Roth’s is a very extreme set of accusations.

The problem here is, is that what’s the alternative to ending the siege of Aleppo? Now, you, Amy, Mr. Roth and The New York Times have dropped the word “jihadist” and “terrorist” from your narrative. I don’t know if you’re aware you’ve done that. You may have done this because The New York Times, until September—why was September important? Because President Obama had proposed to join with President Putin in what Mr. Roth now calls war crimes—that is, a military alliance against the people who are holding Aleppo captive. And they called them terrorists. When our Department of Defense sabotaged that potential Russian-American alliance in Aleppo, in Syria, suddenly the narrative—and we’re back to the fog of war—changed. The New York Times, for example, and many of us who depend on the Times or The Washington Post for our information, suddenly changed their narrative. There were no longer any terrorists in Aleppo, no longer any jihadists, but people called rebels. And since our nation began in rebellion against Great Britain, rebels have a rather positive connotation. The reality is, I think—at least this is what the United States government told us until September—that terrorists were holding large parts of eastern Aleppo. They were not letting innocent civilians use the multiple corridors out of the city that the Russians—yes, there’s plenty of testimony to this—had opened up and guaranteed, that people could not escape the city because of these terrorists. Then, suddenly, when the American-Russian—Obama’s plan to cooperate with Putin there disappeared, apparently all the jihadists and the terrorists disappeared.

Kenneth Roth :

Now, what—you know, what could have been done? We speak about terrorists, and so let’s get specific here. When people use that term, they generally refer to two groups. One is the Islamic State, or ISIS. ISIS is actually not in Aleppo at all. The U.S., working with its Kurdish allies, is fighting ISIS, you know, in Iraq around Mosul and in Syria around Raqqa. And Russia, for the most part, and Assad have largely been ignoring that fight. They’ve been focusing on Aleppo. Now, in Aleppo, there are what are known as sort of the moderate rebels, and then there’s a group that the United States agrees is a terrorist, is an al-Qaeda affiliate—until very recently, when it supposedly distanced itself from al-Qaeda—traditionally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jabhat al-Nusra forces are a relatively small component of the people in Aleppo, but the U.S. has agreed with Russia that it would like to see those people defeated.

Now, you know, however you feel about that, however you feel about the other rebels, the issue is—here, is not who wins. The issue is the method of warfare. And the right way to proceed is you shoot at the combatants on the other side. That’s what the laws of war are all about. Unfortunately, Putin and Assad have chosen to target the civilians who also live there. It’s a very deliberate strategy: make life so miserable that ultimately the city has no choice but to capitulate.

Now, you know, there is tremendous fear on the part of civilians in all of these enclaves who are targeted, and they—on the one hand, they fear staying there, because they’re facing the bombardment by the Russian and the Syrian troops; on the other hand, they fear going over into Syrian hands, because, you know, we know what happens in Syrian prisons. We’ve seen extensive torture and execution. We have photos of, you know, thousands of people who have died in those prisons. And so, if you’re a young man, for example, you basically are facing a choice: You know, do you either risk your life in Assad’s detention facilities, or—you know, what they’re increasingly doing is forcing you to just get into the Syrian military and go to the front line—you know, essentially a suicide mission there. So, it is, you know, a very poor possibility. Now, many families are staying with their relatives who are fighters, and these are the people who are being first targeted by the pro-government forces that are coming in. So, we are—you know, this is not about how do you defeat terrorists. This is about slaughter of civilians. And we should keep that focus.

Stephen Cohen :

So Putin said we have a choice: Who do we want in Damascus, the capital of Syria? Do we want Assad, the president of Syria, or do we want the Islamic State in Damascus? This was the key policy difference between the United States and Russia. The Obama had—administration had pursued, in fact, a policy of overthrowing Assad. Dealing with terrorists in Syria, some of whom we’ve funded, as Mr. Roth well knows, because they claimed to be anti-Assad, meant that, in fact, as we pursued the war against Assad, the Islamic State turned—took more and more territory. And Russia decided it had had enough, because it believed Syria was vital to its national security, and it intervened, and the war has been turned around. The United States has been on the wrong side of history from the beginning of this. The United States has made its contribution, since Vietnam, at least, to the destruction of hospitals and civilian facilities, most recently in Afghanistan. Was it deliberate? I don’t know. It was probably an accident. In Mr. Roth’s absolutist view, everything is certain, everything is deliberate. I’m more problematic.

But look what’s happening in Syria today. It’s extremely interesting. The Russians and the Syrians, some months ago, took back Palmyra, this historic city, where the Islamic State had been chopping off heads in public, where it had lined up its victims and had young children—looked to be about 10, 11, 12—execute them. I’m sure Human Rights Watch reported that and protested it. And then the Russians and the Syrians liberated the city. Now Palmyra is under siege again. The Islamic State may take control of the city. What is the United States doing about it? This is what we should be asking. This is our country now, not Russia.

Thus the debate goes on and on.

One thing is certain. Assad regime is brutal to its own citizens. But if Assad regime fell there would be a power vacuum that will be readily filled by Islamists as it happened in Iraq and Libya. It is a choice between the Devil and the deep sea.



  1. secondtofirstworld says

    There is an ongoing debate about when the creation of the Soviet Bloc has begun, when democracy ended, and how long the occupation has lasted. There’s also an ongoing debate about how some pro-Axis dictators are to be seen during their tenure, and after the power vacuum, and how countries changed after they fell into the hands of occupation forces.

    During WWII, the front lines between pro-Nazi and anti-Nazi did not exist along national borders, so, with all due respect, Americans are the last of people on Earth to understand this, unless they can compare it to their own civil war. It’s almost 2017, and the term Northern Aggression is still being used. Syria and Iraq are no exceptions. Dictators have created artificial environments, where relevant issues were swept under the rug with the guise of Baathist secularism and socialism. Anyone thinking Russia acted only now, and not way back in the 1960s is gravely mistaken.

    Assad is today, for all intents and purposes a puppet of Russia, with a side serving to Turkey and Iran. Actually now Russia can create in Syria what Lenin and Stalin failed to create in Iran, a loyal part of the country that only serves them.

    It is very possible, that much like with the creation of the Eastern Bloc, many Syrians now in freedom and security won’t and can’t return to a country that will be worse than it started off 5 years ago.

  2. says

    I’d simply go for “at least for now the slaughtering has stopped”.
    I don’t think there are any “good” sides in this conflict. There are many groups involved, hardly any of them shying away from war crimes. Right now it looks a lot like Libya, only worse.

  3. enkidu says

    Meanwhile everyone ignores the real villain, Climate Change. A persistent drought in Syria drove many, mainly Sunni, from the land to the cities, where unemployed they became ready fodder for Wahabi Islamist propaganda and CIA manipulations. The Assad regimes, father and son, were no doubt equal opportunity oppressors, but were totally lost for solutions to this problem, as would be most governments.

    This is the first, but not the last of the Climate Change wars. I wonder, in the end, if there will be anyone left to write their history.

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