Argument

The Cynical Horror of Assad and Aleppo

This is not civil war; this is war on civilians.

TOPSHOT - Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. 
Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

I just returned from the Syrian-Lebanese border, a mere 150 miles from Aleppo, where unspeakable savagery is underway.

The Assad regime is committing horrific war crimes — from mass murder and industrial-style torture to forced starvation and barrel bombs, even the systematic rape of women, children, and men in detention centers. Thus far, 500,000 Syrians have been slaughtered, 6 million people displaced internally, and another 5 million forced to flee as refugees across the border. This is the textbook definition of genocide.

Aided by the Russian army and Iranian militias, the regime is slaughtering noncombatants on a scale rivaling the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. This is a grand-scale humanitarian catastrophe. Russia and Iran have funneled weapons, training, and funding to Syria’s regime. Their assistance has ensured Assad’s victory and the continuance of uncontested political power, at any price.

While museums and libraries are still being built to remind us of the horrors of the Holocaust, right now, before our very eyes, tens of thousands are being burned alive by Assad’s bombs.

Assad has surely earned the title of monster of the new century. He is a man who inherited the presidency from his father in 2000 along with his father’s penchant for violence. The senior Assad even bragged about slaughtering 20,000 civilians in the city of Hama, leaving bodies burning on the ground for days. This was to instill terror and assure that Syrians never again dared to challenge their ruler. But the pupil has outdone the master: Bashar has ruled with an iron fist, and his corrupt, sectarian, mafia-style regime has exceeded even his father’s savage brutality.

Despite social media and real-time documentation of ongoing offenses, Assad’s regime has impudently committed gross war crimes against his people — cavalierly burning civilians alive in the streets with incendiary bombs intended to inflict maximum terror. With these methods of state terrorism, Assad has bombed into oblivion a democratic experiment that began peacefully in 2011, and that might have become a civil-society ray of hope in the Arab world.

It is paramount to remember that the Syrian uprising began as a peaceful movement, with hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets seeking only social justice, political reform, and freedom and democratic representation — much like their counterparts in Tunisia.

The Assad regime responded by unleashing its state security apparatus on anyone who dared challenge him. This transformed a peaceful uprising into a crisis and, soon, a brutal civil war — one where civilians and pro-democracy activists were arrested, tortured, and murdered en masse. Meanwhile, a veritable rogue’s gallery of jihadists were cynically released from state prisons onto the streets — swelling the ranks of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The notion was brutally simple: cast the regime as a partner in the war on terror and the only viable alternative against jihadists.

Let us recall that, in the early days of the uprising, the first victim of the Syrian regime was a 13-year-old boy named Hamza al-Khateeb, from the city of Daraa. Hamza had been detained and tortured by the police, and then executed with three bullets. Images of this young boy’s mutilated body circulated on the Internet, leading to mass demonstrations from Daraa to Aleppo. But these expressions of basic human indignity at the brutal torture, mutilation, and murder of an innocent child were met by the vicious force of Assad’s military. He thereupon unleashed an orgy of violence against the citizens of his own country that has now lasted more than 5 years.

Assad will not stop until every single person or group who challenged him is annihilated. Despite the regime’s success in quashing the resistance, military operations continue. With the help of Russian forces, he is seeking to obliterate the entire population of Aleppo.

Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election has only compounded matters. Assad now has given Russia free rein to burn eastern Aleppo to the ground, in contravention of all international laws and norms. In response to crimes against humanity during the Bosnian and Rwandan Genocide, a U.N. resolution was passed titled “the responsibility to protect.” Despite this, the international community has abrogated that responsibility, and done so willfully.

The complete failure to support or nurture Syria’s democratic movement was tragic in and of itself. But the subsequent failure to take effective measures to end the civil war — or even compel Assad to adhere to the rules of war — represents moral collapse on a different order of magnitude.

Assad’s victory will come back to haunt the international community. Our generation looks back today and asks how the world could have allowed the horrors of the Nazis. In Syria, we have found the answer, and history will judge us harshly for it.

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Rula Jebreal is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst.

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