The catastrophe unfolding in Aleppo shows Europe, and Britain in particular, of the need to remain a powerful player on the global stage
Images from Aleppo – warplanes in the sky, terrified children, families struggling with luggage, wheelchairs and IV drips in rubble-strewn streets, doctors blinking at ruined hospitals – have been plastered across our television screens for months, peaking this week with the imminent triumph of the Syrian army and the reconquest of the country’s second city.
The images are disturbing but hardly surprising. Over the last year, people all over Europe – transfixed by an unprecedented refugee influx- were moved by the sight of the lifeless body of the Kurdish child Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach at the end of a brief but failed quest for safety; and by five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, alive, dazed, bloody and covered in dust, in the back of an ambulance fleeing the hell of barrel bombings.
Neither of these Syrian boys were nameless, yet their suffering made little or no difference. Reports of summary executions of civilians and bodies in the streets of Aleppo – marking a new phase in the worst crisis of the 21st century – are grim but predictable details to add to the tally of the hundreds of thousands of dead and the millions already made homeless in a war that has destroyed a country and destabilised the Middle East.
The denouement in Aleppo – accompanied by cliff-hanging uncertainty over the prospects for a ceasefire, humanitarian access and evacuation – has happened because of the relative strength, coherence and commitment of Bashar al-Assad’s friends and enemies.
Russia and Iran showed from the start that they were more steadfast and clear-eyed allies of the Syrian president than the Arab and western countries and Turkey that supported the rebels who were fighting to overthrow him.
And opposition forces were fatefully divided: moderate voices were drowned out by brutal extremists, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, who were foolishly promoted and thrived in the chaos of war and the hateful sectarianism it bred as tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims were played out in strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
ISIS atrocities – in Syria and Iraq as well as those it planned or inspired in Brussels, Paris or further afield – were a horrible if understandable distraction from the root causes of the crisis. Violent jihadism shows no signs of fading away – as the latest assault on the desert city of Palmyra has demonstrated yet again.
In the final weeks of a year which has seen Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and right wing advances across Europe, it is important to remember that the opening pages of Syria’s bloody chapter of the Arab Spring were written in March 2011 by ordinary people who yearned for universal rights and values – freedom, democracy, and accountability – and hoped to secure them peacefully at what looked, briefly, like a time of epochal change.
Ghiyath Matar, a young activist from Daraya, south of Damascus, led anti-Assad demonstrations until he was detained, tortured and murdered by the mukhabarat secret police – his bravery documented in the moving film Little Gandhi. In Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, in early 2012, I met excited protestors who called for the president’s departure, filmed the rally on their smartphones and uploaded it to YouTube – partly because they believed that would protect them.
In the digital age, surely it was impossible that there could be a repeat of the 1982 massacre at Hama, carried out by Assad’s father, Hafez? That cost the lives of up to 20,000 people. Yet cumulatively, far worse atrocities have taken place in the last five and a half years as the world stood by and watched.
Syria’s disaster was completely home grown – borne of the actions of a dictator who decided that his own continued rule mattered more than the wellbeing of his 24 million subjects. ‘Assad, Assad, or we will burn this country,’ his supporters chanted. The president’s enemies were all terrorists, he insisted. That was the end of the story as far as Damascus was concerned. By releasing radical Islamists from his own jails, he helped to make it come true.
But the disaster was made far worse by the actions – and inaction – of foreigners. In August 2011, after weeks of dithering, Barack Obama called for Assad to step down – and was followed by David Cameron, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel – and the EU. Obama did little to make that happen: he openly provided limited support for vetted ‘moderate’ rebel groups and clandestine backing for others, though that remained strictly limited: there were, for example, no anti-aircraft weapons that would have given them a chance against the Syrian air force. He raised expectations that were never met.
Europeans backed the mainstream Syrian opposition and called consistently for a political transition to end the war. EU sanctions were imposed on Assad’s inner circle, security chiefs and other cronies. Efforts were urged to hold the leadership accountable for war crimes. Russia used its UN veto to block them. Vladimir Putin insisted that while he was not personally attached to Assad, he would support the Syrian state. The hope in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels was that Moscow would bring pressure to bear on Damascus. All too often, that sounded like wishful thinking.
The turning point came in August 2013, with Assad’s use of banned chemical weapons against the Ghouta area east of Damascus, when 1,400 people died. Haunted by the ghosts of interventions past — Libya now, as well as Iraq – British MPs and the Obama administration decided not to act despite the blatant breach of the red line laid down by the leader of the most powerful country in the world. The response instead was a diplomatic disarmament deal brokered by the suddenly helpful Russians – that let Assad off the hook – and boosted rebel recruitment to more extremist groups. Impassioned speeches in the House of Commons this week replayed the arguments made at the time – with some striking regrets and conspicuous silences.
Two years later Putin intervened openly, claiming to be emulating the US and attacking ISIS. In reality he used Russian air power to keep Assad in place by targeting areas held by moderate rebel forces. Russian aircraft, along with Iranian advisers seeking to maintain Tehran’s foothold in the Levant and Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan helped tipped the balance of the war.
In a shrinking world it is truer than ever to say that the Middle East is Europe’s backyard. Aleppo, a cosmopolitan crossroads astride ancient trade routes, was famously the first city on any continent to have an English consulate – back in the 17th century. Now its magnificent citadel and covered market are half destroyed, its inhabitants desperate for an end to violence. Aleppans who wanted change have experienced untold misery and destruction – many fleeing for Turkey and on to Europe in fear of their lives. Some blame Islamist rebels and the countries that backed them; for others Assad remains the prime cause of their suffering.
Timing matters in this sad and unending story. Syria’s uprising came as America’s appetite for foreign, especially Middle Eastern, entanglements was waning in the wake of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. For many, Obama’s biggest novelty was that he was not George W Bush.
Still, on other international issues Europeans have made progress in recent years in acting together, improving the creaky and complex machinery of the EU’s common foreign and security policy to work, with Washington, for the successful nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, first under Catherine Ashton and then the Italian Federica Mogherini, the current high representative.
The EU collectively understands that Syria is about self-interest as well as common humanity. Linked to the refugee crisis, as Europol reported recently, there remains a high risk of new terrorist attacks by Isis.
‘It is time to acknowledge the grave cost of inaction and that what happens in Aleppo reverberates in Molenbeek and London,’ the al-Hayat columnist Joyce Karam commented last summer. ‘Not recognising this reality will only play into the hands of the Trumps and Farages of the west, who drive – unopposed – a narrative built on fear, continued suffering and isolationism.’
Assad, now confident that he has survived, has given no sign that what he calls the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo will alter his view of the crisis – even though there is little prospect that his overstretched armed forces will be able to regain control of all opposition-held territory.
Syrian officials simply played for time in the last sporadic rounds of indirect peace talks held with opposition representatives under UN auspices in Geneva earlier this year as the barrel bombs continued to fall. Power-sharing with those who have the temerity to question his authority is no more on Assad’s mind now than it was in 2011.
Against this bleak background Mogherini has been working to carve out a coherent if minimal European position: making clear that Syria needs an inclusive political system that will allow ‘broad social and political representation’ and warning that the EU will not pay to reconstruct the country if there is no move towards that. Perhaps, the thinking goes, the Russians will listen to THAT argument and act accordingly. Or perhaps it is just more wishful thinking. Assad, in any event, cannot be allowed simply to get away with murder without external pressure to bring about genuine change. Without it, there seems no prospect that the war will end.
Syria’s tragedy needs to be a reminder that the European Union – itself born of a war that changed the face of the continent and the world – is neither blind nor indifferent to the suffering of others. The Srebrenica massacre, in 1995, has not been forgotten. And it should be a reminder too to Britons, reeling from the deeply troubling implications of the Brexit decision, to think harder about their ability to be effective actors on the global stage.
It is hard at the end of this turbulent year to see the survival of a genuinely ‘special’ UK relationship with an American president who combines isolationist instincts with a penchant for autocrats – in Moscow and perhaps Damascus too. It seems a fair bet that Britain and France, still privileged permanent members of the UN security council, will see their weight diminish in a world dominated by like-minded leaders in the White House and Kremlin. Sticking with Europe, on Syria and other crises in our neighbourhood, looks like a more sensible option.
Ian Black is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, the London School of Economics, and a former Middle East editor, European editor and Diplomatic editor of the Guardian