“Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being.”
Almost every nation in the world strives to uphold the above belief – to give all humans equal rights and uplift the backward and oppressed, with the United Nations acting as the supervising body. It, however, is imperative to take note of the usage of the word “almost” in the above-stated lines- not all nations can afford this ideology. Yes, the nation being referenced here is the war-torn Syrian Arab Republic – with the Government forces, led by the President Bashar Al-Assad, fighting the rebel factions for control over Syria. Against this backdrop, Aleppo, which was the key economic hub before the start of the war along with being the most populous city of the Republic, has stood out as an important location. Why the city is important and what it means for the future of Syria, these questions will be addressed in the following paragraphs.
The Syrian war, currently in its sixth year is a result of a long history of mistrust by the people of Syria, against the Assad regime. The government has held power in Syria since 1971, and not only failed to deliver on long-promised economic and political reforms but has been accused of mass atrocities. This marked the birth of the rebels, who then formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). With the spread of the Arab Spring to Syria in March 2011, a series of questionable events began to take place. A war which originally wore the mask of a black-and-white crusade, with oppressed rebels looking to oust an outdated dictatorship, later came to unfurl an entirely different picture.
As the rebellion grew, bad guys on both sides took to killing innocent civilians thereby making the assurance of the protection of basic human rights seem like a myth to countless Syrians who were murdered, kidnapped, raped, tortured and radicalized. The tear-jerking images of Syrian children crying out for help, formed only a small fraction of the enormous volume of the victims of human rights violations. It has become a part of their daily routine to witness buildings collapsing, roads being littered with countless corpses, both old and young and grave atrocities being perpetrated all around. They have grown so accustomed to the war that sleeping without the fear of never opening their eyes again is a luxury they cannot afford. The current generation of kids will never know how it is to wake up in the morning to a cuckoo singing or a thrush knocking, for in their hearts and souls will be imprinted the sound of bombings and the scenes of war.
This is the reason why so many Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. They risk their lives and all that they have, just to escape the war and have a hope of leading a life, and if lucky, a better one. This exodus has not only forced mass internal displacement, with civilians fleeing from war zones to protect their lives and that of their families, but also has resulted in problems for the neighbouring countries.
Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city and the capital of the vital Aleppo district, situated in the North-Western part of Syria. It was also a major economic and trading hub, and a strategic location for either of the sides to conquer and control. The western half of Aleppo was until recently occupied by the Assad-backed government forces while the eastern half was occupied by the FSA, thus keeping the focus on Aleppo for the majority of the War. As a result, the citizens of Aleppo were sitting ducks, trapped between the firing from both sides.
In the early days of the war, the rebels seemed to have an edge and were expected to overthrow the Syrian Army in order to win a significant chunk of Aleppo. The twist in the tale came when the government forces started being backed by Iran and Russia to fight the rebellion. This development fuelled the preparation of war on the other side too-the rebels were now trying to regain their position by taking aid from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others. This seesaw shift in power continued for some time as both the factions fought for Aleppo. The decisive point was in September 2015, with the direct intervention of Russia through the medium of air strikes, which was a blow to the position of the rebels. In July 2016, these airstrikes severed the rebels’ last remaining road to the east, effectively placing them in a pincer trap.
The strategy that Assad has been applying to completely crush the rebel movement in Aleppo is rather shady – it is, in fact, illegal under the international law. Assad has enforced a full siege on the rebel-controlled eastern part of the city and has prevented all humanitarian need and food supplies from reaching the rebel camps. His ultimate aim is to starve the rebels and deprive them of all common needs so that they cannot continue to fight and get the civilians to cooperate with them. With the help of Iran, Assad successfully suffocated the rebellion and as a result also regained control over more and more of the rebel territory.
The rebels were down, but not yet out. At the end of July 2016, they launched a coordinated offensive which caught the government forces off guard, and temporarily broke the siege, but this victory was short-lived as the siege was reimposed in September. By the beginning of December, 2016, the Government had conquered an estimated 90% of the rebel land. With another blow from the Government on December 13, the rebels were further forced to withdraw from all districts on the east side of the Aleppo River.
“The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They (rebels) don’t have much time. They either have to surrender or die,” Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, head of the government’s Aleppo security committee, told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of the city on December 13. On December 15, President Bashar Al-Assad hailed the “Liberation of Aleppo”, saying that it was a historic moment and congratulated the people of Aleppo for their steadfastness, bravery and sacrifices.
Although Bashar Al-Assad has seemingly won, the war in Syria has not ended. Yes, the government now has control over Aleppo, but the same cannot be said for the entire country as the rebel forces are still present in many places. They will hit back harder at the Syrian army because of their defeat at Aleppo and the war will linger. Politically, too the war is at a stalemate because there is no part of the globe which is not involved. The USA is supporting the rebels and the Russian Federation is supporting the Assad Government, resulting in Syria becoming a battleground for a proxy war. In the end, however, it doesn’t even matter because the civilians are the ones who are losing the war irrespective of who wins it. They are the ones suffering on a day-to-day basis, and even if this war draws to an end, there might be no one to celebrate the victory, because when humanity loses, a victory is not worth celebrating.
As we have seen in this chessboard of politics, the civilians were the ones to suffer the most. Unless timely humanitarian aid is provided to all the victims and their human rights safeguarded, the very existence of humanity is at stake. Syria, which was once the cradle of civilisation, is dying a slow death as a result of this war. The golden history of Syria is now smeared with blood, death, war and the evils that come along with it. With age-old monuments and historic landmarks like the Umayyad Mosque and the medieval market destroyed due to the airstrikes, everything that Syria once stood for is now destroyed. Everything that tied the present to the glorious past has been left in ruins, just like the country.
This is the direct result of the fight for power and the long-term implications that it has on the common man. Is this what the world has come to? The children of Syria will no longer be able to live up to the glory of its rich heritage and in order for them to grow up in a country without strife, a lasting solution to the conflict is needed.
Every solution that the world has come up with involves difficult decisions which have to be made. Nothing is for certain though, as this mess has become even more complicated due to the intervention of third parties, and untangling it will take time.
Till then, the primary focus for the rest of the world should be the humanitarian side of things. All of us can contribute to this cause, to ensure that our fellow human beings get the basic human rights that should never be deprived of anyone, regardless of circumstances and to ensure that not a single voice pleading for help goes unheard, for as Albert Schweitzer said, “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into an instant flame by an encounter with another human being”.