In my review of Gilbert Achcar’s “Morbid States”, I referred to the imminent fall of East Aleppo—an event that would likely mean that the war would end on terms favorable to the Baathist dictatorship. Just three days after posting the article, I was quite surprised and elated to discover that the battle had turned against the Baathists. In a surprise attack on the Ramosa military base, an alliance of rebel groups gained control of its weaponry and opened up a corridor that will allow food and medical supplies to be shipped in to the besieged slums.
Essentially Assad and Putin were carrying out the same strategy that was used in 1999 against the people of Grozny in Chechnya, almost to the last detail. Putin had leaflets dropped on the city announcing a safe corridor for civilians just as was the case in East Aleppo. And as they began leaving in trucks, the Russian air force bombed them. That is probably one of the reasons the people in East Aleppo decided to take their chances on staying put.
And those that stayed put had to face the same kind of criminal attacks that the Chechens faced in 1999:
At least 10 explosions devastated a downtown market and maternity hospital in Grozny, Chechnya, on Thursday evening, according to accounts from the breakaway Russian republic.
The explosions reportedly killed scores of people and injured hundreds more in a scene of panic and horror. Chechen officials told The Associated Press that at least 118 people died and more than 400 were injured, although the number could not be confirmed.
Ultimately, the Chechens could not withstand such attacks and a puppet government was installed that rules in mafia style to this day.
Aleppo has been a microcosm of the war in Syria with seemingly unresolvable contradictions. In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the legendary communist opponent of Baathist misrule who was imprisoned for 16 years for the crime of writing critiques of the regime, touched upon some of these contradictions in an article titled “Aleppo: a tale of three cities”.
The first two Aleppos were in the regime controlled western part of the city and the third was in the east that has proven indomitable up to this point, about which Saleh noted:
The third Aleppo, the one now in open revolt, started from the rural parts and from the most marginalized slums: Salahuddin, Alsakhur, Alklaseh, Bab Alhadid, Al Shaar, Al Zabadieh…. As if these neighborhoods had retained their spirit and personality while the major districts had become devoid of them, with the state having sizable presence, capital and domesticated religiosity.
When it comes to the spirit and personality of a city, the regime exhausts itself trying to eliminate them and pursue their ghosts. When it feels endangered, it kills. It has already killed Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and nothing will deter it from killing Aleppo if it could. If left alive, this wild monster will kill all of Syria.
I remember when the better-off parts of Aleppo were reported to be disturbed by what they saw as revolutionary invaders from the “rural parts”. Edward Dark, who washed his hands of the revolution when it proved too crude and unruly, could barely contain his disgust with the riffraff. In a 2013 article titled “How We Lost the Syrian Revolution”, he accused them of betraying the original goals of the revolution:
They were the underprivileged rural class who took up arms and stormed the city, and they were out for revenge against the perceived injustices of years past. Their motivation wasn’t like ours, it was not to seek freedom, democracy or justice for the entire nation, it was simply unbridled hatred and vengeance for themselves.
Extremist and sectarian in nature, they made no secret that they thought us city folk in Aleppo, all of us, regime stooges and sympathizers, and that our lives and property were forfeit as far as they were concerned.
Using a pseudonym, a young educated Aleppoite who left Syria, echoed Dark’s complaints in a Vanity Fair article from July 2015 :
But most of Aleppo regarded the Arab Spring with indifference. When the revolution broke out in earnest later that year, much of the city distanced itself from the turbulence. Demonstrations remained confined mostly to slums like Al-Saladin, Bustan Al-Qasr, and Al-Marijah. Protests were brief, with demonstrators chanting before running from the security forces.
In Aleppo, the revolution gives the impression that it is a revolt of the poor. When rebel groups from the northern countryside pushed towards the city, these slums were the first that welcomed them, unlike the richer neighborhoods, which, instead, remained in the hands of the regime.
Despite this, the author captures the spirit of solidarity that exists in the slums:
The Syrian air force has a habit of following their first barrel bomb with a second. People say this is to kill first responders. (The government still denies that it uses barrel bombs.)
Despite this, the crowd did not run away. They dug in the rubble with their bare hands—old men, Civil Defense volunteers, and militants alike—all except the media activists shooting video. When they found a victim, they gathered to help snatch them out, screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they did. Once they laid the victim in an ambulance, they began to dig again.
“If you see a body lying down, are you going to hesitate? Even when you know that if you stop to move it away, the sniper is going to make them two?,” a shopkeeper in the Al-Qasr neighborhood once asked me. “No! Your conscience wouldn’t let you walk away.”
Steps away from the scene, neighbors thanked God for safety.
In the best of all possible worlds, Bashar al-Assad might have been less savage and less determined to turn the country into a sectarian battleground. He would have actually protected his own class interests by stepping down and allowing some rich Sunni to take his place in the same way that the English-speaking ruling class of South Africa persuaded or coerced the Afrikaners to allow Nelson Mandela to become president.
This would have allowed the democratic opposition to organize itself into an effective movement capable of convincing people like the better-off Aleppoites to make common cause with the rural poor. Clearly, the university students were in the vanguard of the protests and most educated and professional Syrians would have preferred to live in a country where you didn’t have to worry if a loved one was going to be tortured or killed just for demanding change.
But Assad was a master strategist understood in narrow terms. He polarized the country along Sunni and non-Sunni lines and militarized the conflict so that those that had access to money and arms could dominate the opposition. If you had co-thinkers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, you could rely on them for support even if they had no interest whatsoever in democracy or socialism—god forbid.
The net effect of all this was to give added weight to Islamist militias in East Aleppo, including al-Nusra that was critical to the breaking of the siege. It was their suicide bombers that were critical in storming the Ramosa military base. Speaking of al-Nusra suicide bombing, it is worth mentioning that it bears little resemblance to ISIS terrorism. The targets are always military as a search in Google would reveal:
A Turkish suicide bomber from the Syrian Al-Qaeda group “Jabhat Al-Nusra” attempted to drive his vehicle into a National Defense Forces barricade at the village of Deir Zeitoun in northern Aleppo; however, the vehicle was allegedly destroyed before it could reach its destination, according to a military source.
The suicide bomber was identified by Jabhat Al-Nusra social media pages as “’Usama Al-Turki” – a Turkish “Mujahid” carrying out his “martyrdom” operation for the militant group’s offensive that directly followed his death on Monday night.
A suicide bomber from Syria’s al Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front blew himself up in a Syrian army outpost in a contested neighborhood in the divided northern city of Aleppo and killed at least 25 soldiers and allied militia and injured scores, a monitor said.
For the past year or so, there has been a rapprochement between the USA and Russia over the need to prioritize attacks on ISIS in Syria even to the point of the Pentagon having demanded that rebels sign a contract agreeing that any arms they receive will only be used against ISIS and not the Baathist military.
Over the past few months, Russia has escalated its demands. It insists that the rebels separate themselves physically from al-Nusra so that its bombers can destroy the group and presumably any civilian that backs it. In other words, Grozny deux. Consider what this would have meant for East Aleppo. To start with, if it was risky for civilians to exit the slums, what would have happened to anybody considered a fighter? Which for all practical purposes would have meant men between the ages of 16 and 60. And those that remained behind? If you consider what has happened in Aleppo over the past 5 years, the results would have been horrific.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. Without a doubt, al-Nusra and probably most of the militias that defended East Aleppo over the past five years would seek to impose their vision of an Islamic society. But we can all agree that it would be a step forward if it allowed the population relief from barrel bombs, Russian missiles and the various militias intent on killing anybody who dares to oppose Bashar al-Assad. Well, maybe not Patrick Cockburn or Seymour Hersh who must be wearing sackcloth and ashes since the recent turn of events.
When asked for what he saw as a solution to the Syrian misery, Yassin al-Haj Saleh offered the following. Needless to say, a precondition for it taking place is an end to the war and the sectarian impasse that the demon of Damascus created:
One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…
This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.
The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.
What a terrible shame that so many on the left, including Jill Stein I am sad to admit, were indoctrinated by the writings of Patrick Cockburn and Seymour Hersh, et al without ever having the opportunity or the desire to track down the writings of a Syrian revolutionary anti-capitalist.