If you compare that map there to the one we saw yesterday, which was current as of Saturday, you can see how quickly the Syrian army is gobbling up eastern Aleppo. At least a third and perhaps as much as 40% of the territory the rebels controlled just a few days ago is now in government hands. As you might expect from forces who have been deprived of food and medical care while facing daily air bombardments, the rebels left in the city have largely collapsed as the Syrian army rolls through in force. Aleppo’s fall will be a significant, though not immediately life-threatening, blow to the rebels; it will not, as Charles Lister says in that CBS piece, be an “existential blow to the moderate opposition,” which existentially has long since ceased to exist as a separate pole in Syria’s civil war–if it ever did exist, the term “moderate rebel” being something of an oxymoron. Even if we allow that Aleppo has remained a bastion of moderate rebels–which is questionable, considering the degree to which much of the resistance in recent weeks has involved “moderates” fighting alongside extremists from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and Ahrar al-Sham–if besieged eastern Aleppo was all the moderate rebels really had left, then they didn’t have very much.
“Thousands” of people have reportedly fled the city amid the fighting, but tens of thousands were reportedly in the city when the fighting began, and we won’t have any idea as to the scale of what is likely to be a massacre until after the Syrian army completes its work and the dust settles. Given the nature of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we may never really know the scale of the massacre, but we’ll be able to hazard some guesses. And while humanity won’t miss any extremist al-Qaeda-types who may not make it out alive, it will miss the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of non-Islamist, non-extremist Syrian men, women, and children who have been or are about to be slaughtered by the army of a man who pretends to be their rightful head of state, for no reason other than that they picked the wrong place to live. I don’t think you have to be in the tank for either side in this epically shitty war to say that it is a goddamn atrocity what has happened to the Syrian people for the past five plus years, and that eastern Aleppo may be the worst episode yet.
Which is not to say that the blood of the people who are dying in Aleppo right now is entirely on Assad’s hands. There have been plenty of reports, and not just from Syrian state media, over the past couple of weeks suggesting that rebels, including those moderate rebel types so beloved here in DC, have been preventing civilians from evacuating the city because they didn’t want to lose their human shields. The thing is, though, keeping human shields only works when you’re fighting an opponent that cares in any way about minimizing the loss of life. Of all the things you could say about Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, “they cared about protecting people’s lives” is not among them.
And yes, the international community, including and most especially the United States, has failed, unless you count repeatedly “tut tutting” Assad as a victory. Their failure was not a failure to more heavily arm the rebels, which would’ve meant heavily arming al-Qaeda and maybe enabling Syria’s transformation into Taliban Afghanistan with extra pogroms. It was not a failure of the United States to knock out Assad’s air force or impose a no-fly zone over the country, which just would’ve drawn Russia into the war more quickly and even more provocatively than it was. It was a failure of the post-WWII institutions that were supposed to be set up to deal with situations just like this one. It was a failure of the fundamentally broken UN Security Council–just get rid of the fucking veto already–to do literally anything of substance. It was a failure of 26 years of mind-bogglingly counterproductive, “spike the ball” US and European foreign policy toward Russia, which helped turn a country that could have been America’s most important international partner into a socioeconomic basket case and then into what is at best America’s number one international frenemy. It was a failure of American vindictive Iran policy, which has kept a country that could be working with America on any number of fronts as an enemy because Washington’s foreign policy establishment is nursing a 36 year grudge over the Iran hostage crisis. It was a failure of the Obama administration’s tepid response to the Arab Spring, when, given a choice between preserving short-term American interests or finally, for once, standing up for long-term American ideals, it made the spectacularly incoherent decision to do neither.
The blood that’s being spilled in Aleppo comes courtesy of all of us–some more than others, to be sure, but all of us. And as we ponder what happened here, and what may still happen in Idlib, in Sanaa, in Mosul, in any number of other places around the Middle East and around the world, we can only hope that the people who make decisions on behalf of the rest of us learn the right lessons from Aleppo. The chances of that are slim at best, but they’re really all the rest of us have to cling to.