What is Aleppo? Unlike Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who did not know what and where Aleppo was, assuming it to be an acronym, most of us know of the tragic fate of the worst-hit city in the Syrian war.
We know Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a vibrant metropolis where for centuries Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived congenially together. Aleppo, which has suffered starvation, 29,000 deaths and ceaseless aerial bombardment these last five years, has been reduced to rubble and to a population of 300,000 from an original figure of two million. Aleppo, where images of ordinary Syrians hauling their relatives from collapsed buildings have, alas, ceased to horrify us — including that image last month of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, covered head to toe in a thick layer of dust, his face bloodied, as he sat dazed on a chair after being rescued from a building hit by a Russian air strike.
It was an image reminiscent of that iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken at the tail end of the Vietnam War in June 1972 by AP photojournalist Nick Ut, depicting a nine-year-old girl running naked on a road after being severely burned by a South Vietnamese government napalm attack.
But it is not just Aleppo. The carnage is manifest everywhere in Syria — in Darraya, in Homs, in Zabadani, in Yarmouk and elsewhere, where Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Syria’s blood-drenched dictator, has subjected his people, his very own citizens, to sieges and used starvation against them as weapons of war, weapons that, let’s face it, have proved effective. And though you have long since become numb to the figures, consider this: More than 4.8 million Syrians have already fled abroad, where life in host countries, mostly in squalid refugee camps, is hardly halcyon.
And 6.5 million others are now displaced within the country, but in dire need of international humanitarian aid. One third of all these refugees are children and a majority of them do not attend schools, representing, by the time they reach adulthood and are repatriated, a mass of under-educated, semi-literate and unskilled adults, useless as a work force able to rebuild their nation when the time for it to be rebuilt arrives.
What do you do with people who had spent their adolescent years engaged in child labour, the kind of menial work that leaves even sturdy adults broken in back and spirit at the end of the day? In developed countries in the Euro-American world, whose leaders recognise the organic attachment between education and prosperity, knowledge and social integrity, parents can, and often do, face criminal charges for allowing their children to skip school, let alone not attend it altogether.
And this is on top of the more-than 300,000 lives that have already perished, according to documented records.
Last Monday, an alleged ceasefire, or partial truce, was brokered by Washington and Moscow. Oh, Ya? Well, hours before it was signed, Al Assad, whose regime was tottering a year ago but is now emboldened by Russia’s intervention, repeated his vow to recapture “the whole of Syria from the terrorists” by force of arms, rather than reach a settlement by force of reason. And hours after the truce was signed, the United Nations said that the government refused to allow unhindered access to besieged eastern Aleppo of a mere 20 of its trucks loaded with food and medicine.
Those of us who know the regime, know that we should expect other and more serious hurdles in the coming days.
Officially, John Kerry, whose first major effort as American Secretary of State (reaching a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians) collapsed, but his second (the Iran nuclear deal) did succeed, is reportedly “optimistic”, though he claims that the Syria deal is far more complex than either, because of the “involvement of so many players” in the conflict. That’s the public stance. “In private, however, he has conceded to aides and friends that he believed it will not work”. That is what the New York Times asserted last Wednesday. “But he has said he is determined to try, so that he and [President] Obama do not leave office having failed to alleviate a civil war that has taken roughly half a million lives,” the report added.
More than 300,000 lives is a lot of lives, wouldn’t you say?
Al Assad has agreed to several previous ceasefires, truces and deals over the last five years — and violated every single one of them, making a mockery of diplomatic niceties, while receiving from the US a barely forceful response. Indeed, he has received, if indirectly, more concessions, more proposals, more deals. Remember President Barack Obama’s explicit “red-line” on chemical weapons — a line that Al Assad has crossed repeatedly, brazenly and seemingly without fear of retribution, beginning with that deadly attack on Gouta in suburban Damascus in August 2013?
Now with Russia backing him militarily, diplomatically and economically, and with Iran stepping up to the plate on all three fronts, Syria’s tyrant finds little incentive to pursue a peaceful settlement. If there were a chance that your side might achieve total victory, why should you be seduced by the prospect of a compromise through negotiations? Thus confident, you become ten times more dangerous, 20 times more cocky and a hundred times more committed to the slogan coined by your supporters, mostly the minority Alawite clan, namely: “Al Assad stays [in power] or Syria will burn down.”
And now this man, feisty in his confident posture, as a leader backed by a world power, along with a regional power and its proxies, he effectively seems to be telling the international community: I may be a two-bit dictator, but whatchu gonna about it, fellows?
A call for “peace in our time” won’t cut it. It failed in the 1930s. It will fail again in our time, for you can’t be nice with dictators. You cut them down to size. Or, better still, you cut them down.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.