United Nations aid convoys and civilian hospitals and clinics regularly attacked by planes. Civilians deprived of water and food. Hundreds dying every week. Thousands of refugees fleeing, while hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped. Such is the situation in eastern Aleppo, Syria, as the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran and its proxies commit one of the greatest war crimes so far this century.
Over the past several years, eastern Aleppo has constituted the largest population center living under Syrian rebel rule. As rebel forces have reeled in the wake of massive Russian intervention beginning in fall 2015, the fortunes of the civil war have been tipped in favor of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies. If Aleppo falls completely, which may well occur in the coming weeks, thousands will die and tens of thousands will face imprisonment, torture, execution, or exile. If that horrible day arrives, the regime will have essentially won the civil war, with the rebels reduced to underground opposition and a low-level guerrilla war.
Despite their crocodile tears, this outcome is also welcomed by the Obama administration and its Western European allies. All these politicians and powers want one thing above all, a return to stability in Syria and the region, so that the oil can continue to flow, Suez can remain open, and capital accumulation can continue. In this sense, Trump only says openly what Obama, Kerry, and Clinton have articulated in more nuanced fashion. The overweening goal of these liberal US politicians, as with Russia’s Putin, is to prevent the outright collapse of the Assad regime. They differ from Trump and Putin only in that they continue to support, albeit ever more weakly, some kind of negotiated settlement that would give a few token concessions to the rebels.
As in the pre-2011 era, the US and its allies seem prepared to rely on local strongmen, not only Assad, but also the likes of Sisi in Egypt, as bulwarks against radical Islamism as exemplified by the reactionary and misogynist ISIS. What the Western powers and the dominant media seldom mention is that the Assad regime’s record of mayhem against its own population has vastly outdone that of ISIS. Where the latter’s victims number in the thousands, the widely accepted death toll for the Syrian civil war stands at over 500,000, with the vast majority attributed to the Assad regime and its allies.
How could this have come about? In 2011, a large democratic uprising broke out in Syria, at the same time as the other the Arab revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere. As elsewhere, the Syrian movement was not merely for democracy, but also contained some social justice elements, as seen in the fact that its initial support was concentrated in some of the poorest and most neglected regions. Given the brutal repression carried out from day one by the Assad regime — shootings, torture, mass arrests — the uprising shifted to armed struggle late in 2011. For various reasons, which included (1) regime manipulations like releasing jihadists from prison and appeals to sectarian fears on the part of religious minorities against the Sunni Arab majority, (2) aid from Turkey and the Persian Gulf states that strengthened fundamentalist groups among the rebels, (3) the failure of the USA and Europe to aid more secular and democratic rebel groups, and (4) warlordism among some of the more secular rebels, various Islamist forces became more and more prominent in the leadership of the Syrian uprising.
Still, it would be totally wrong to compare the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo to ISIS, as Russia and Trump have done. The lie was given to this nearly three years ago, when relatively moderate Islamists and democratic rebels drove ISIS out of eastern Aleppo, where it has been unable to return. This was seen even more dramatically last spring, when, during a brief truce, thousands of civilians in rebel-held areas of Aleppo and other cities poured into the streets, often in secular garb, and chanted the democratic slogans from the original uprising of 2011. Of course, people with such perspectives no longer control the leadership of the armed uprising.
While the global left has little power to shape events in the Middle East, it has all too often missed the boat on Syria. Some, like the vice presidential candidate of the US Green Party or the Stalinoid ANSWER Coalition, have openly supported the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition against the Syrian revolution, in the name of what they call anti-imperialism. (Of course, such a politics ignores Russia’s imperialist intervention in Ukraine, its imperialist bases in Syria, and Iran’s role as a subimperialist power in the region.) Others have thankfully held back from supporting Assad, but too quickly amalgamated the Syrian rebels, who have admittedly experienced a troubling and growing Islamist influence, to utterly reactionary forces like ISIS. Still others on the Left have laudably supported the Syrian Kurds, while neglecting the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. These various lacunae on the Left are a big part of why we have not witnessed mass demonstrations around the world against the siege of Aleppo.
The tragedy of Syria looms as large in its own way as the one we will face as a result of the reactionary Donald Trump coming to power in the world’s sole remaining superpower. Failing to face up to Aleppo would in the end be as great a mistake as would minimizing the danger of Trump.
We on the Left who are forming coalitions against Trump and his ilk in the USA and other countries cannot — without losing our internationalist, humanist principles — remain silent about the murder of Aleppo. If we fail to protest Trump specifically on his open support of Putin and Assad, we will have missed a great opportunity to reach across the world to the Arab masses, even as we target Trump’s racism, climate denial, nativism, and misogyny inside the USA. Failing to do so will also make it harder for us to defend the Syrian refugees, another wave of whom are sure to follow in he wake of Aleppo.
And where would any of our progressive and radical movements in the US and Europe be today — from Occupy to the Sanders and Corbyn movements to Black Lives Matter — without the “spark” of the 2011 Arab revolutions. When the Arab revolutions burned so brightly that year, they showed the world that the greatest, seemingly most solid power structures can crumble in a week, if the masses of the working people and the youth mobilize fully against them with a social justice as well as a democratic agenda. It is above all that lesson from the Arab world that all the global rulers — from Russia to Europe and from China to the USA — want to put back into the bottle, as they either stand by and watch Aleppo burn or actually participate directly in its destruction. I hope that we will not let them do so.