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Wednesday 21 December 2016

How to justify mass-murder: Aleppo and the apologists

Interview with Syrian activist Lina Al Shamy while she was still in Aleppo, 19 December.

By Amr Salahi

Last week, as Assad’s forces and their foreign militia allies closed in on the last remaining opposition enclave in East Aleppo, the horrific crimes being committed during their assault became headline news across the world. In one massacre alone as many as 82 people were reported killed, and there were reports of children being burned alive.

Activists and civil defence workers in Aleppo uploaded photos and videos, and gave interviews to international media, telling the world that they were trapped and completely surrounded in East Aleppo. Nearly 100,000 people were herded by the Assad regime and its allies into an area of less than two square kilometres. The people in this tiny enclave were deprived of food, medicine, and electricity while cluster bombs and barrel bombs dropped by the Russian and Syrian air forces rained down on them.

Eventually, what was called an ‘evacuation’ agreement was signed. This was a misnomer. The people remaining in East Aleppo were being given a choice: either a horrific death at the hands of the regime and its militia allies, or permanent forced displacement from their city to other opposition-held areas of Syria—where they would be subject to continued aerial bombardment by Russia and the Assad regime.

In the age of digital media, it is very difficult to prevent photographic evidence of such atrocities or to silence the voices of those trapped in conflict zones. However, there is a concerted effort by some advocacy groups and some sections of the media to do just that. Other articles have dealt with the efforts of Russian media and activists associated with them to misrepresent the situation in Aleppo. This article will look at what was said in the United Kingdom, examining statements published on the website of the Stop the War Coalition and an article by Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who has been widely and misleadingly quoted as an authoritative source on Syria.

Stop the War: War Crimes are Fine as Long as We Don’t Get Involved

One would expect that an organisation called ‘Stop the War’ would have something to say about the killing, starvation, and siege of civilians in Aleppo. It would be easy for them, for example, to publish links to some of the English-language video reports uploaded to YouTube and Twitter by Syrian media activists trapped in Aleppo. But there was no mention of these, even though Stop the War does have a lot to say about Aleppo.

In two articles on Stop the War’s website, the organisation’s National Convenor, Lindsey German, took the greatest pains to make sure the attention of Stop the War supporters was drawn away from the atrocities taking place there. One of these, entitled ‘Aleppo Debate: MPs in Denial Once Again,’ began with the sentence ‘The usual stench of hypocrisy is oozing from the Palace of Westminster’ and attacked ‘right wing Labour MPs’ for daring to suggest that intervention in 2013 would have prevented what German herself admits is a ‘terrible situation’ in Aleppo.

German justified this by saying that the ‘ongoing catastrophe’ in Libya since 2011 was ‘solid proof that western bombing and intervention only makes things worse.’ Apparently, no matter how hellish a situation is, no matter how many people are being slaughtered, and no matter how much intervention there is from non-Western countries (there are reports now that the foreign Shi’i militias fighting for Assad in Syria now actually outnumber his own forces) any intervention anywhere by Western countries will ‘only make things worse.’

She misleadingly said that 30,000 Libyans died as a result of NATO intervention in the country, when this often quoted figure in fact applies to all casualties of the war, including those killed by Qadhafi. (Human Rights Watch confirmed a minimum of 72 civilians killed by NATO’s Libya intervention.) German could have looked at the speeches Qadhafi made about what he was going to do to the ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ who rose up against him in Benghazi in 2011, or she could have compared the 2016 death tolls documented by Libya Body Count to those in Syria documented by the Syrian Network for Human Rights to see whether Western intervention had led to the worse outcome. But who is she to let facts get in the way of a good argument?

In the rest of the article she went on to blame the UK government for its alleged support for the opposition. This apparently, is the reason for what’s happening in Aleppo. Assad and his allies are killing and starving people in a besieged enclave, but it is all the West’s fault for supporting his opponents. Once again it doesn’t matter that Syrian rebels have complained of a lack of meaningful support from the West since 2012 and have not received any weapons capable of changing the game in their favour in Syria. Nor does it matter that they are hopelessly outgunned and that the regime and its allies continue to have a monopoly on aerial power and heavy weaponry in Syria. For German it is the MPs criticising inaction who are in denial, and the stench of hypocrisy is so strong she can’t actually smell where it is coming from.

Patrick Cockburn: Anyone reporting from Aleppo is Al-Qaeda

In The Independent, Patrick Cockburn went much further. His article began with the words ‘There was a period in 2011 and 2012 when there were genuinely independent opposition activists operating inside Syria, but as the jihadis took over these brave people were forced to flee abroad, fell silent or were dead.’ Reading the rest of the article, the last part of the sentence sounds more like an aspiration than a statement of fact.

According to Cockburn, the reason Western journalists can’t make it to Aleppo is because the ‘jihadis’ hold power there. Never mind the fact that East Aleppo is surrounded and besieged by Assad’s forces and his (religiously motivated) Iranian-run militia allies, never mind the fact that Turkey has closed its border with the rebel held areas of northern Syria, making it impossible for journalists to enter, Cockburn has decided that the reason he can’t go and investigate what’s going is because ‘al-Qaeda type jihadis’ are in control. These same people, he informs us, have kidnapped and killed Western journalist journalists and this is a ‘smart move,’ all part of a conspiracy to control the flow of information to the West and make sure that anyone reporting from East Aleppo or uploading images to the Internet from the city, from seven-year-old Bana al-Abed to members of the Syrian Civil Defence, are jihadist sympathisers and fellow-travellers.

The threat to Western reporters is ‘very real,’ Cockburn points out: ‘James Foley had been ritually beheaded on 8 August 2014 and Steven Sotloff a few days later.’ Cockburn conveniently omits to mention that these journalists were murdered by ISIS, and that ISIS were driven out of Aleppo by the very same ‘jihadists’ who are now in control of Aleppo. The majority of the rebels who controlled East Aleppo until last week in fact owed their allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, which is motivated by a nationalistic opposition to the Assad regime, rather than by Islamism. Fighters from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a group which was previously affiliated with Al-Qaeda, accounted for no more than 900 people or 11% of opposition fighters in the city, and may have been much fewer. Like Western journalists, rebel fighters have been ritually murdered by ISIS and their deaths have been even more brutal—they have been publicly crucified in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

But none of this is important when you’re out to prove that everyone being targeted by Assad in Syria is a ‘jihadist’ and that every single fact being reported from a city subject to a bombardment and siege of unprecedented ferocity is ‘jihadist propaganda.’ It doesn’t take much effort to identify the subtext of Cockburn’s article: everyone remaining in East Aleppo is a legitimate target.

‘News organisations,’ he concludes ‘have ended up being spoon-fed by jihadis and their sympathisers.’ If you are a civilian or an activist trapped in what is now the most heavily bombed cities on earth, waiting for forced displacement to a marginally less dangerous area at best or a horrific death at the hands of sectarian-motivated militia at worst, you are by default a jihadi sympathiser and have no right to tell your story to the world. Only Western journalists are capable of telling the truth.

While the people of Aleppo have been literally going through hell this past week, waiting either to be ethnically cleansed from their city or to die horrific deaths, those cited as authoritative sources on the Syrian situation and those claiming to represent a progressive movement working for have been bending over backwards to make sure that their story isn’t told. They have not stopped short of slander and racism in their efforts to obscure the suffering of thousands of innocent people. It doesn’t get much lower than this.

Protesters call for action to save Aleppo and for sanctions against Putin, 17 December.