After five years of a simmering conflict that has produced many horrors some degree of weariness is natural to set in. Our capacity for compassion is overloaded. We numb ourselves to suffering.
But in the past couple of days only the heartless have been able to withhold tears at the terrors that have befallen Aleppo.
Aleppo — this palimpsest whereupon 8 millenia of civilization are inscribed — has been ravaged more ruthlessly than Baghdad was ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century. But the Mongols never had the terrifying firepower that the Syrian regime and its Russian masters have brought to bear on the city; they also lacked the kind of mercilessness with which Aleppo was starved and slaughtered by Hezbollah and the international horde of sectarian mercenaries assembled by Iran.
For the people of Aleppo this sustained nightmare has now reached a crescendo. The city has fallen. A slaughter is underway. The UN has confirmed that “pro-Assad forces, including the Iraqi Shia militia Harakat al-Nujaba, had carried out summary killings of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, in four different neighbourhoods of east Aleppo that had fallen under government control”.
But this is a nightmare from which there is no waking. Some civilians who accepted the regimes amnesty and tried to flee Aleppo were massacred. Male residents who made it out of the besieged zones have been forcibly conscripted. Women are fearful of surrendering to forces that have used rape systematically as a weapon of war. Everyone is fearful of a regime that has practiced torture on an industrial scale.
To trust the regime to honour its words is to gamble with ones own honour and forfeit ones life. The regime has already breached a ceasefire enacted yesterday.
Meanwhile, inside eastern Aleppo, a terrorized population awaits its fate, praying for a miracle but preparing for death — and hoping that it is sudden. Because without medical care, even small injuries can prove fatal. According to the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Syria “there has been deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities” by pro-regime forces, with “at least 20 hospitals and clinics” destroyed in eastern Aleppo. By October 7, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had recorded “at least 23 attacks on eastern Aleppo’s eight remaining hospitals since the siege began in July”. Pro-regime forces have also actively and systematically targeted first responders using the criminal “double tap” policy. Reports have already emerged of people trapped under rubble with no one to rescue them.
Here, in this purgatory, it seems there is no why. Why this cruelty? Why this sadism? Why this torture of a population when Russia and the regime already enjoy military superiority?
But there is of course a macabre logic to this. Russia and the regime do not just want to capture territory, they want to extinguish all revolutionary sparks. Aleppo is meant to be a deterrent. If in 2011 the chants of the unarmed protesters were said to have toppled Syria’s ‘kingdom of silence’, then Aleppo is where silence will be restored. If in 2011 the barrier of fear had been broken, Aleppo is the return of fear.
This is the profundity of evil. The UN has called it “a brutal meltdown of humanity”. But even as the UN’s statements have become more unequivocal, inertia remains, with the institution crippled by the Russian and Chinese veto. Meanwhile the Arab League remains AWOL, testifying to its own irrelevance.
This is the new world order — an order in which every man is an island. In which apathy kills, doubts absolve, and flattery pays.
Profound evil only exists because it is insulated against reproach by a penumbra of pettiness. The injuries the regime has inflicted have been enabled by the insults its supporters have hurled. Medical facilities are only targeted because compromised hacks are at hand to suggest they are storing weapons; rescuers are only attacked because suborned scriveners are willing to malign them as “terrorists” to court Kremlin cash.
Even children aren’t spared. Nothing has brought out this ugliness more starkly than the responses to Bana, the 7-year-old girl facing death in Aleppo. This is the banality of evil enabling the profound criminality of the regime. The girl was abused, mocked, taunted, threatened, and reproached — only because her innocence held a mirror to a world that would rather ignore the murder of children; it would rather treat a city as an abstract conceit and speak of its fall as if it were nothing more than a chess piece.
All of this happened in front of our eyes. It was all predictable. “Never again” wasn’t even a question in Aleppo. For as the Syrian intellectual Rime Allaf noted, “what has been done to Syria has never been done before. Our tragic fate is to be the modern age’s ‘never before.’”
If Guernica foreshadowed the Blitzkrieg, then we can only imagine the horrors that Aleppo portends. When crime and punishment are decoupled then criminality is normalized and evil triumphs. If there is no reckoning for Aleppo, then we would have entered a very dark period indeed.
We conclude with the words of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht who foresaw this:
Like one who brings an important letter to the counter after office
hours: the counter is already closed.
Like one who seeks to warn the city of an impending flood, but speaks
another language. They do not understand him.
Like a beggar who knocks for the fifth time at the door where he has four
times been given something: the fifth time he is hungry.
Like one whose blood flows from a wound and who awaits the doctor:
his blood goes on flowing.
So do we come forward and report that evil has been done us.
The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered
there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But
when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the
butchery, a blanket of silence spread.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, no body calls out ‘stop!’
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings
become unendurable the cries are no longer heard.
The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.