THE Syrian army’s recapture of eastern Aleppo after months of intense fighting opens a new phase in the country’s conflict, putting rebels groups firmly on the back foot. As opposition fighters withdraw from Aleppo, the intensity of civilian suffering in the city, and the atrocities carried out against them, are starting to emerge.
Aided by Russian and Iranian military support, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces earlier this week regained control of the country’s second-largest city, thus releasing a significant degree of the pressure that opposition groups had placed on him under for five years. The battle for Aleppo has also shown unequivocally that Russia has become the master of Syria’s longer-term future, while the rest of the international community hovers nervously and indecisively on the sidelines.
One of the results of this prolonged hesitation has been an inability to come to the aid of the many thousands of civilians trapped, sometimes for years, in unspeakably awful conditions: extreme danger to life from the bombing and shelling, and deprivation of food, medicines, and other basic essentials.
The end of the siege of east Aleppo has enabled news to emerge of atrocities committed against civilians. A spokesman for the UN Commission for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said late on Tuesday: “Civilians have paid a brutal price during this conflict, and we are filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held eastern Aleppo. While some reportedly managed to flee yesterday, some were reportedly caught and killed on the spot, and others were arrested.”
The UN official cited “multiple reports” that said that “tens of civilians” had been shot the previous day in various neighbourhoods of Aleppo “by government forces and their allies, including allegedly the Iraqi al-Nujabaa armed groups. . .
”We have also been informed that pro-government forces have been entering civilian homes and killing those individuals found inside, including women and children.” Mr Colville said he hoped profoundly “that these reports are wrong, or exaggerated, as the situation is extremely fluid and it is very challenging to verify reports”.
The full truth may not emerge for a long time, if ever. Having taken back control of eastern Aleppo, government forces will be careful to vet who is allowed to enter. While politicians and diplomats exchange accusations at the UN Security Council and other international forums, the priority for humanitarian bodies will be to try to help the civilian casualties caught in the crossfire.
World Vision’s response manager for northern Syria, Chris Latif, speaking on Tuesday, said: “These heart-breaking reports of violence against the children of Aleppo signal a terrifying and chilling new chapter in the Syria crisis. Terrified families are saying goodbye to each other because they don’t think they’ll make it out alive.”
The tragic fact is — as rebel fighters and civilians climb aboard buses provided by the Syrian authorities to take them to safety — that the government’s recapture of Aleppo represents no more than a new phase in the Syria conflict. The war is by no means over: armed opposition groups will take the fight elsewhere; and the Islamic State group remains a potent force, as its recent recapture of Palmyra shows.
The international community, meanwhile, is likely to vacillate further. The United States is paralysed by transition to an uncertain political future, and other states are as reluctant as ever to commit themselves to taking action to help resolve the crisis.
A rough assessment of the Syria conflict today reveals, however, that Russia and the Assad government are inching ahead, while the array of fractious opposition groups and their international supporters are slipping back. Syrian civilians, as ever, will remain the helpless casualties caught in the middle, whichever side eventually triumphs.
MPs: UK cannot escape the blame for Aleppo. THE ghosts of Srebrenica stalked the House of Commons chamber on Tuesday, as MPs discussed the costs of non-intervention, writes Madeleine Davies.
In an emergency debate on Aleppo, several speakers suggested that the UK was complicit in the atrocities perpetrated in the city. The defeat of the 2013 motion to allow a military response, lost by 13 votes (News, 30 August 2013), was held up by some as a tragic abandonment of the UK’s standing on the world stage.
”We are deceiving ourselves in this Parliament if we believe that we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria,” the former Chancellor George Osborne said. “The tragedy in Aleppo did not come out of a vacuum; it was created by a vacuum — a vacuum of Western leadership, including American and British leadership.”
Britain had reached a point where it was “impossible to intervene anywhere”, he argued. Events in Syria, he hoped, would enable us to “learn the price of not intervening”, which included tens of thousands killed, millions of refugees, the emergence of a terrorist state, and a resurgent Russia.
“Let us be clear now that if we do not shape the world, we will be shaped by it,” he concluded.
Others shared his view. Andrew Mitchell, co-chair of the cross-party Friends of Syria, who tabled the motion (”That this House has considered international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria”) reminded the House of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, established to prevent genocide in the wake of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
”That responsibility was signed up to with great fanfare, and embraced by all the international community, great and small. Yet here we are today witnessing — complicit in — what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.”
He called for the urgent deployment of humanitarian teams who could deliver aid and bear witness to what was occurring on the ground, and a UN-led evacuation of those caught up in the violence. The Government should also consider bringing another resolution for military action.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, spoke of “tragic limitations”. Dropping aid from the air was too great a risk, he said. Even if Russia were to give consent, British planes would have fly over areas “hotly contested by a multitude of armed groups, including Daesh and al-Qaeda”, who would make “efforts to shoot down a British plane”.
The 2013 vote meant that the UK “vacated the space into which Russia stepped. . . Ever since that vote, our ability to influence events in Syria, to protect civilians, or to compel the delivery of aid has been severely limited. The dictator was left to do his worst, along with his allies, Russia and Iran — and the bloodiest tragedy of the 21st century has since unfolded.”
Responsibility: George Osborne speaking in the emergency Commons debateCredit: PA
Responsibility: George Osborne speaking in the emergency Commons debate