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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

While the Trump Turns- the war in Aleppo continues

Although the political universe is focused on Trumpnian theatrics in the media hungry mogel's attempt to gain respect, the people of Syria continue to suffer, with little attention given to their horrific plight. Those continuing to bury heads in the wake of this humanitarian disaster are doomed to face the consequences of inaction.

By Steve Coll in The New Yorker

Syria - ASSAD’S WAR ON ALEPPO
An image of an injured child goes viral, but the fighting continues unabated.
Bashar al-Assad (January 2014)
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has confounded many observers by holding on to power while his nation is deteriorating and citizens are Mediterranean Sea refugees.
He will be held accountable for war crimes but meanwhile his genocide continues.
On August 18th, Omran Daqneesh, who is five years old, survived an air strike on the apartment building where his family lived, in Aleppo, Syria. Rescue workers pulled him out of the rubble and took him to an ambulance. Mahmoud Raslan, of the Aleppo Media Center, who works in areas controlled by the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, photographed the child on video. 
His face was coated with blood and dirt; he sat staring silently. 

Within days, millions of viewers had seen Omran’s image on social media; the Times put it on the front page. The picture recalled Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam War photograph of a nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, taken as she fled naked and screaming from a napalm attack, or the images widely shared last year of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the Turkish coast, and whose body washed up on a beach. For adults to pause and reflect upon the costs of war, they sometimes require confrontation with a child’s suffering.

Omran Daqneesh lived, but his ten-year-old brother, Ali, died from the injuries he sustained. The tragedy stimulated a brief news cycle about the plight of Syrian civilians living in besieged areas. Aleppo, the nation’s largest city, has been in the grip of a fratricidal war since 2012. Assad’s regime controls districts in the west, while rebels are embedded in the east. The rebels include both jihadists formerly allied with Al Qaeda and commanders aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which has been supported sporadically by the Obama Administration. The rebels fire inaccurately into government areas with improvised mortars that they call “hell cannons.” The rounds include gas cylinders packed with explosives and metal shrapnel, designed to terrorize and maim. Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militias, have a monopoly in the skies; their aircraft repeatedly bomb hospitals, markets, and residences. (The Islamic State holds territory nearby but is not organized in the city.)

It is hard to imagine a battle like the one in Aleppo getting worse, but it is. According to the United Nations, as many as two hundred and seventy-five thousand people may be trapped in rebel districts, because government forces have cut off the roads. Those people and hundreds of thousands of other residents have no electricity or running water. Despite ongoing international negotiations and periodic agreements to enact ceasefires and allow the provision of humanitarian aid, Assad’s government has slow-rolled or blocked aid deliveries, which often must be made by truck, on contested roads. In May, the Syria International Support Group, which includes Russia, China, the Arab League, European nations, and the U.S., endorsed another ceasefire and pledged to “ensure full and sustained humanitarian access in Syria.” This summer, that promise crumbled, like many before it.

The rebels and the civilians in Aleppo have endured, even though they are largely helpless against aerial assault. In addition to continued armed resistance, they have put together an extraordinary array of rescue workers, ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, underground hospitals, electronic I.C.U.s, media producers, and low-power radio stations that warn listeners about air raids. The U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other nations, along with nongovernmental aid groups and the Syrian diaspora, have financed this infrastructure.

On August 14th, Al Jazeera released a film made by the Danish journalist Nagieb Khaja about the Syrian Civil Defense, a network of nearly three thousand first responders in rebel zones, who are known as “white helmets.” S.C.D. has pledged neutrality toward armed factions, but Assad’s forces and their allies have targeted it in “double tap” attacks, in which Syrian and Russian aircraft strike a rebel target, wait for rescue workers to turn up, and then bomb them as well. Khaja shot his film late last year in Aleppo, where he accompanied a squad of white helmets to the site of an attack. “People! Stop gathering in groups!” one of the rescuers shouts. “Spread out or they will shell!” Assad, through the conduct of his forces, has left little doubt that he is deliberately seeking to destroy medical and civil organizations in rebel areas in order to demoralize and depopulate those districts. (He may be succeeding. On Friday, people began to evacuate Darayya, near Damascus; the population has apparently capitulated, after four years of encirclement and assault.) 

According to Physicians for Human Rights, government forces and their Russian allies have carried out ninety per cent of the more than three hundred and fifty attacks on medical facilities during the past five years. A week ago, Syrian or Russian planes bombed an S.C.D. station in Aleppo.

Since 2013, it has been plain that President Obama believes it would be a mistake for the United States to intervene militarily, except to weaken evil ISIS; last week, in the latest iteration of the war’s shifting and opaque battlefield alliances, Turkish forces, with American support, invaded evil ISIS territory in northern Syria. 

After the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya, it’s easy to understand the President’s decision to focus on the immediate threat that evil ISIS poses. Yet the U.S. has engaged in areas where evil ISIS does not figure directly, such as Aleppo, where its policy emphasizes the provision of “nonlethal aid” to civilians and opposition forces. 

That aid helped to keep the rebels in the field, but it has not been enough to defeat Assad, or to deter his forces from employing unconscionable tactics, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that this caution has enabled the apparent war crimes of Assad and his allies. There is surely more that the Obama Administration can do to stop the regime’s attacks on hospitals and doctors, for example, by making the crisis a priority with allies and at the U.N. Security Council, as Physicians for Human Rights and others have urged.

Photographs shared on social media are not a sound basis for making foreign policy, of course. In this conflict, online hoaxes and fake images proliferate, and, even when a picture can be verified, as in the case of Omran Daqneesh, it can be difficult from a distance to peer behind a portrait of individual pain into the environment from which it arose. The image of Omran might be understood as simply a representation of Syrian suffering. It might also be seen as a depiction of the resilient depth of local opposition to Assad’s regime. We saw Omran’s face because rescue workers saved him, a videographer recorded his shock, and an Internet connection carried his image abroad. If Aleppo’s rebels and its civilian volunteers and inhabitants collapse under Assad’s brutal siege, history will remember more than a photograph. ♦  (Yes....and those who continue to ignore this humanitarian disaster are doomed to live with the consequences of their- ie "our" inaction.)

Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reports on issues of intelligence and national security in the United States and abroad.
This article appears in other versions of the September 5, 2016, issue, with the headline “Images of War.”

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