“You bear responsibility for these atrocities,” US Ambassador Samantha Power said to the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia and Iran at Tuesday’s UN Security Council emergency briefing on Syria. She was referring to the mass atrocities committed against Syrian civilians in eastern Aleppo, including 82 people who were gruesomely executed by pro-government forces on Monday. While Power was correct in her anger toward a regime that has killed over 400,000 people and displaced millions in the last five years, she was wrong to insinuate that the international community, including the US, is excused from blame.
“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there no act of barbarianism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?” Power pressed.
The Assad regime certainly did not express shame when it ignored President Obama’s famous “red line” warning in August 2012 and launched chemical weapons against civilians. There was no acknowledgement of wrongdoing the numerous times it was criticized by the UN regarding chemical weapons, access to humanitarian aid and attacks on civilians. And with the disintegration of the ceasefire declared Tuesday evening, the Assad regime will also ignore the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ declaration that the regime has violated international law and is likely committing war crimes by bombing civilians there.
Aleppo was Syria’s most populous city before the war, and the battle for control of it has been ongoing since rebel fighters took the eastern part in 2012. With the addition of Russian airstrikes in October 2015 government forces were able to increase pressure until finally fully encircling the city in July of this year. In September, the government announced a new offensive to retake Aleppo, bombing hospitals and infrastructure and killing hundreds. It briefly paused the campaign in October, urging civilians and rebels to withdraw, but the offer was rejected. Advances in late November and early December allowed the regime to take much of the city, leaving about 50,000 Syrians trapped in small rebel-held areas.
These civilians and rebels planned to leave eastern Aleppo after Russia and Syrian rebels reached a ceasefire agreement. But the agreement was broken shortly after and they remained trapped. Buses waiting to evacuate them departed empty, leaving behind an uncertain and bleak future, even considering another ceasefire agreement announced hours later. All hospitals and medical facilities have been destroyed, food is dwindling, and people who were once hopeful about escaping are now terrified of leaving their homes for fear of being massacred by airstrikes and heavy shelling. Many, including “the last gardener of rebel-held Aleppo,” have already fallen victim to the bombs.
Photos and videos of children mourning their dead family members are numerous, as are those depicting shredded bodies of men, women and children littering the streets. No ambulances are available because they either lack fuel or are destroyed. People pray for rain in hopes that the low visibility will deter pro-Assad regime forces from flying and bombing them.
Citizens and journalists on the ground are tweeting and sharing videos of their farewell messages, concerned they may also soon perish.
“You really blew it,” journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem said to Turkish president Erdogan in his final message, also noting complacency by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “You had the opportunity to be the hero, to fly in here with a cape and help out these poor people with your troops just 25 kilometers away.”
On Wednesday, Erdogan accused the Assad regime of breaking the truce.
“I call all parties and international society to respect the ceasefire, to support it. A humanitarian corridor should be open and innocent people should be able to leave with no obstacle and sabotage. People of Eastern Aleppo should leave safe and sound,” Erdogan said.
While the condemnations are highly warranted, it is naïve to think that they would impact such a ruthless aggressor and naive to suggest that the international community is an innocent bystander. What was once a civil war quickly turned into a proxy war in Syria, with countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US reinforcing rebel fighters with arms and training, and Russia and Iran directly supporting Syrian government forces with arms and soldiers. Politically motivated denial of access to certain areas has prevented aid from being delivered to civilians, and now the possibility of a death or starvation trap looms for those remaining in east Aleppo. Syrians are convinced the world has forgotten about them or fated them to become another Rwanda, Holocaust or Srebrenica.
A diplomatic solution, which addresses the current power struggle, is the only means to creating lasting peace in the region. Much like the Dayton Accords, which ended the similarly brutal Bosnian War 20 years ago, such a solution must be pursued creatively and in solidarity with those suffering most. Unfortunately for Syrians, negotiations have broken down time and time again. Things have fared no better at the UN, with the Security Council failing to adopt two resolutions aimed at ending the bloodshed in eastern Aleppo in October.
If Power, Erdogan and others are serious about ending the carnage, then they must back their words with action and provide an incentive for all parties to cooperate. A ceasefire, for example, cannot succeed without the assistance of the entire international community, including pro-government forces and those rebuking them. In addition, any international move to support Syrians could lead to an escalation in violence or post-war institutional failure if not performed with the collaborative support of civil society.
International action will also likely require political sacrifice for the greater good.
This is true in multiple situations in the Middle East. The US halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the high rate of civilian casualties in Yemen is a perfect example. While it risks increasing existing tensions with the kingdom, which was utilizing the weapons against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, it also sends a strong message that the use of American resources to commit human rights violations will not be tolerated, politics be damned.
The same attitude must be taken to assist the Syrian people, who have faced and continue to deal with harrowing circumstances. While many countries, including the US, have provided significant amounts of humanitarian aid to Syrians, some have yet to firmly open their doors to refugees. The US has only accepted 10,000, the majority of them entering this year. To make matters worse, the refugee fate has become politicized, with some elected officials, including president-elect Trump, equating them to terrorists to discourage their admittance. If we do not prioritize opening our own country to refugees, how can we truly tell Syrians that we care about their lives?
With the war likely to continue even if Assad captures Aleppo, it is time for the international community to learn from past mistakes and move beyond rhetoric to put Syrians first.