As was clear a few days ago when the Syrian Army liberated the Old City of Aleppo, it was just a matter of time before the remainder of rebel-held Aleppo would be recaptured.
The dramatic, wildly conflicting, reports circulating in the last 24 hours confirm that Aleppo has been fully liberated by the government forces: or about “99%”, according to official Syrian state sources. And I said a few days ago that when President Assad “declares victory”, it will be interesting to see how international leaders and agencies respond: well, that’s basically where we are now.
The coverage of these events has been incredibly dramatic and unsettling; and also, as mentioned, highly conflicting as usual. To start with, what is called a ‘liberation’ of Aleppo by many – particularly in Syria – is being presented as a ‘massacre’ by Syrian government forces by various Western officials and news outlets, in keeping with the same disparity of portrayal that has characterised the entire Syrian conflict since 2011. Or it has been depicted as the ‘fall’ of Aleppo instead of the ‘liberation’.
Either way – and whatever you want to call it – the ‘rebels’ in Eastern Aleppo are done. As I thought would be the case months ago, the foreign-backed rebel occupation of Eastern Aleppo is over before Christmas; Syrian official sources have in fact reportedly explained that they want to finish all of this before the next US president is sworn in in mid-January.
An estimated 3,500 civilians left the remaining rebel-held parts of Aleppo via the Russian-organised humanitarian corridors over the last 24 hours. In the preceding two days, Russian agencies reported that some 13,000-plus civilians – including nearly 6,000 children – had also evacuated the eastern neighbourhoods (general estimates seem to be around 20,000), where they had been essentially held hostage by armed jihadists. According to the same sources, some 728 gunmen handed over their weapons and were evacuated to western neighborhoods where their legal status was to be determined in accordance with Bashar Assad’s amnesty decree.
Per that agreement, fighters of Syrian origin are – according at least to the official statements – afforded the opportunity to return to their normal lives in exchange for laying down their weapons; a policy that echoes the same (though unsuccessful) offers Gaddafi had made to Libyan rebels in 2011. What’s interesting about the language here, however, is that it doesn’t specify what will be done about NON-Syrian fighters – of which we know there are a great many. Perhaps the Syrian government should make a formal offer/request to all the foreign governments who allowed fighters or mercenaries into Syria for those governments to come collect their people.
As is to be expected by now, however, a very different version of events is being presented in international media, in which there is talk of Syrian government forces carrying out a massacre in Eastern Aleppo. There has also been a dramatic level of lionisation of the falling rebels in Eastern Aleppo, with headlines like ‘The Revolution is Over’ and with widespread coverage of ‘activists’, as well as children, sending their ‘final messages’ on Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms.
Whether any of it is true or not is another matter; in this ‘post-truth world’ we’re in, as some are calling it, everything is either Western propaganda, Russian propaganda, or Syrian government propaganda. Ascertaining precise truth is often very difficult.
But what the coverage we’ve been seeing on mainstream outlets does is create a very powerful image of brave, noble victims facing their deaths and literally saying goodbye to the outside world, some of the messages having a resigned, bittersweet tone, while some others complain that the West and the UN did nothing to come and save them from the slaughter. The narrative has an almost cinematic quality.
Some of this may be true in some sense or to some extent. But some of it presumably isn’t; and there’s something about the idea of people facing bombardment, ground troops and their imminent deaths taking time to post messages to Twitter or other platforms to say “goodbye” to their international audiences that doesn’t strike me as likely.
It also strikes as unlikely that, with Western officials having spent months *predicting* that Russia and Assad would carry out a final ‘massacre’ in Eastern Aleppo, the government would then go and do exactly that. Or that – if they were going to do that – they would leave the Internet connections in rebel-held territory unhindered for ‘activists’ and rebels to continue sending out anti-government messages and accusations to the outside world.
For that matter, if Eastern Aleppo has no food or medicine, no supplies or services, does it really still have perfectly functioning Internet good enough for Skype calls to the BBC, such as have been broadcast this morning?
Maybe it does – I’m not an electrical engineer or Internet expert. But one wonders, really, whether the White Helmets are even *in* Aleppo. It’s a serious question – we know, for example, that during the Libyan Civil War in 2011 a ‘reconstruction’ of Tripoli was created in Qatar to fake ‘footage’ of events in the Libyan capital.
A number of mainstream media outlets have reported civilians being lined up and executed by the government forces, as well as a report of children being burned alive.
There doesn’t appear to be any substantial evidence or imagery of alleged Syrian government crimes of that type having been carried out, even in articles that seem to be taking those claims at face value. I’m not dismissing the possibility that such things might’ve happened (in the ugliness of war, such things could certainly be happening; and it was never a great idea for Iranian/Shia militias to be used in Syria to deal with predominately Sunni Arab rebels; though Assad arguably simply needed the help) – I’m just asking where the evidence is.
In this example of how much of the media is covering the Aleppo situation, what’s interesting is how obvious pictures of rebel fighters are nevertheless labelled by the report as “activists” instead of fighters or even as people fighting “for civilians”. The infamous White Helmets are of course also cited a lot as the reliable source for what is happening.
CNN reports ‘Relatives of Free Syrian Army rebels, including women and children, were among those executed, activist Mohammad Basbous of the Aleppo Media Center told CNN Monday. “Every hour, butcheries are carried out,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding evidence to earlier reports from the United Nations of atrocities against a large number of civilians.’
It’s worth noting that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has already long since been debunked as a virtually one-man operation located in London. CNN, to its credit, does add that it ‘has not been able to verify the execution reports.’
The Independent also cites the SOHR in reporting that ‘at least 79 civilians, including women and boys, had been lined up against walls by pro-government militias and shot in the neighbourhoods of Fardous and Saliheen’. Again, given that the pro-government forces on the ground aren’t all Syrian Army, but include Iranian militias, I am not dismissing these claims out of hand. But, even in reporting this, The Independent admits these are ‘Unconfirmed reports’.
UN officials are reporting that ‘Syrian pro-government forces have been entering homes in eastern Aleppo and killing those inside, including women and children’.
Russian officials refute this claim: and no real evidence as yet has been provided. It is also interesting that the wording has it that ‘pro-government forces’ are accused of doing this, as opposed to ‘government forces’; and if there have genuinely been killings of this type going on, is that choice of wording significant? It does seem odd that Assad’s government would evacuate thousands of civilians via humanitarian corridors and then allegedly massacre other civilians inside the neighborhoods. It also seems odd that Assad would even offer amnesty to surrendering rebels and yet then have his forces murder unarmed civilians.
The one reason I would remain open to the possibility that these killings have occurred is because we know the Syrian Army isn’t acting alone on the ground, with much of the ‘pro government’ fighting being carried out also by Iranian/Shia militias and Hezbollah: and anything could happen amid on-the-ground tensions, particularly when deeply-felt sectarian hatred is involved.
Another source cited by some outlets – Brita Hagi Hasan, the ‘president of the Aleppo local council’ – says there is “documented evidence” that civilian men under 40 were being targeted by government forces. But Brita Hagi Hasan of the ‘Aleppo Local Council’ – just like the London-based SOHR – is based in France and not Aleppo. Again, I’m not dismissing those claims, just urging scepticism.
If images also do emerge of murdered victims, we would have no way of knowing who carried out the killings: we’ve been here in this double-bluff territory before, with the Houla massacre, with the sarin attacks, and various other killings in the course of the Syrian war. And it has been clear that rebels in Eastern Aleppo have also been killing people, which means imagery of bodies or victims doesn’t actually prove or explain who the perpetrators are. As I typed that sentence, I feel a little sick in my stomach, because I know I’m making it sound like an abstraction instead of the real-life horror and human cost that it is we’re talking about. But that is precisely what war is: fucked up, horrible and dehumanising.
It should also be borne in mind that the reason for such a concerted propaganda exercise as Aleppo falls to the Syrian government would be because the war in Syria is not considered over by foreign parties: and therefore the widespread perception that the Syrian government forces – and Russia – carried out a massacre in Eastern Aleppo would still be very useful going forward (potentially even as a final, last-ditch premise for humanitarian intervention or regime-change).
As usual, RT presents the entirely opposite story, reporting that civilians fleeing rebel-held Aleppo have claimed the rebels had been executing people and committing war crimes.
The case – largely undocumented in mainstream media outlets – has been made for a long time already that civilians in Eastern Aleppo were being held there as human shields. As Eva Bartlett (a regular visitor to Syria) was writing just days ago, ‘Family members of civilians still there [in Aleppo] say their loved ones are being used as human shields by groups like the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, or Nour al-Din al-Zenki — the so-called “moderate rebels” and “opposition forces” backed by the United States, NATO, Israel and Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.’
There has also been, for days, seemingly reliable footage and reports of civilians leaving rebel-held Aleppo and seeking refuge in government-held territory and of government forces opening up humanitarian corridors and overseeing evacuations of civilians prior to major offensives. There have also been scenes shown of civilians celebrating the liberation of Eastern Aleppo. In the interests of balance, I will acknowledge that RT showing positive footage isn’t necessarily any less bias or selective as CNN or the BBC depicting negative coverage: and that RT would, by default, be presenting a very one-sided version of events.
But, in keeping with the general nature of propaganda and accusation and counter-accusation that has been going on in regard to Syria for several years now, there is little reason to take Western media coverage of Aleppo now – at the end – with any more trust than before. Particularly if groups like the White Helmets are still being cited as primary sources for information.
If civilians have been killed – by either side – it is a tragedy. And I also genuinely feel sympathy for even some of the armed rebels who may have been fighting to the end and met their deaths: because I am, by nature, compassionate and not bloodthirsty.
But, as much as people might want to paint them firmly as victims of the Syrian government or Russia, they are just as much victims of foreign governments and agencies who for years now have filled their heads with hopes of a military victory in Syria, and – even after Russian intervention – continued to fill their heads with hopes of military victory in Aleppo and promises of undying, unwavering support: yet, in the end, left them there to face a final, futile battle, like the disposable, cannon fodder they always were.