Published in the November 2016 issue of Village
Why has rebel-held East Aleppo taken so long to fall, despite being besieged for months by Syrian Government soldiers, backed by Russian war-planes? Will ISIS-occupied Mosul hold out similarly against Iraqi troops supported by the Kurds and Americans? Or will agreed escape corridors in either case help the rebels/terrorists steal away?
World War 2 showed how costly it can be for troops to take besieged cities in house-to-house fighting against well-motivated defenders holding out in cellars, rooms and on roof-tops, with good sniper positions on all sides. The sieges of Stalingrad, Warsaw and Berlin are good examples. Even our own Easter Rising’s Battle of Mount Street Bridge showed the heavy losses a small group holding a building can inflict on a much more numerous attacking enemy.
President Assad’s soldiers are presumably in no hurry to get killed, so the miserable Aleppo story goes on while the international media try to make our hearts bleed at the thought of the unfortunate civilians, especially children, in the besieged city.
The Assad Government and its Russian allies are judged heartless for not permitting enough truces to allow in food and medicines. But who decides the allocation of aid once it gets behind rebel lines? Presumably the rebel leadership, who are unlikely to allow themselves starve while they dole out food to the women and children.
Last year I saw a TV film of food aid being distributed in another besieged Syrian town. Some children grasping for the food tins being handed down from the back of a lorry looked as well-nourished as their Irish counterparts. Other children beside them were clearly starving. One could count the ribs of their thin bodies. The scene pointed to a pecking order among aid recipients, with unseen people in the background, presumably the rebel leadership or administration, giving aid supplies to those they favoured and denying supplies to others, when there were no TV cameras around to film them.
This is likely to be the reality on the ground as regards aid being delivered along ‘humanitarian corridors’. While Assad is the West’s current “bad guy” in Syria and we are urged to wax indignant at the thought of his bombs falling in Aleppo, we hear little of the bombs which Saudi Arabia, that staunch ally of “the West”, is dropping simultaneously on a different group of rebels/terrorists in Yemen. One of these recently killed a hundred mourners at a funeral.
This selective indignation is encouraged by the aid agencies which echo the political rhetoric of the Western Governments that supply most of their funding. It is startling to learn that the income of Ireland’s aid agency, GOAL, increased three-fold from €60m in 2012 to €210m in 2015, according to the Irish Times, mostly for its Syrian operation. This money came from the US and British Governments which have their own political agenda in Syria. Syria has turned GOAL into Ireland’s biggest charity.
Political allegiance follows donor money. GOAL spokesmen have strongly criticised the Syrian Government’s attempts to suppress the rebellion against it, although such suppression is the right of any lawful internationally recognised government, which, whether one likes it or not, the Assad regime happens to be.
Likewise spokesmen for Médecins Sans Frontières Ireland echo French Government policy on Syria as it assumes a continuing right of intervention in France’s one-time mandatory territory. These aid agencies serve the internationally orchestrated campaign to delegitimise the Assad Government and give moral sanction to those attempting its overthrow. Yet if the Assad Government were to be overthrown thousands of Shias, Alawites and Christians could expect to have their throats cut by the fundamentalist ‘freedom-fighters’ who would then take over in Syria.
Concern at the fate of civilians in Benghazi, Libya, in face of Colonel Gaddafi’s threatening rhetoric was what ostensibly motivated Britain, France and America to intervene in Libya in 2011. This led to Gaddafi’s overthrow and gave us the current failed State there. Hilary Clinton, then Obama’s Secretary of State, pressed hard for that intervention and got a UN Security Council resolution to authorise it.
Mrs Clinton has called for a no-fly zone in Syria to stop President Assad’s forces dropping bombs on East Aleppo, ostensibly because they hit civilians. If the President tries to push through such a policy while the Russians are still supporting Assad, it could have the potential to start World War 3!
The Syrian conflict shows alarming evidence of tension between the military hardliners of the Pentagon and the diplomats around US Secretary of State John Kerry. On 17 September last US and Australian air attacks on Syrian army troops killed 62 and wounded 100. The Americans said it was an accident. Others thought it a deliberate attempt by hardliners in Washington to scuttle the partial ceasefire which Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had agreed with the support of Presidents Obama and Putin, and which had taken effect just five days before.
In public remarks bordering on the insubordinate, senior Pentagon officials showed unusually open scepticism regarding key aspects of that Kerry-Lavrov deal. One can assume that what Lavrov told his boss in private was close to his blunt words on Russian TV on 26 September: “My good friend John Kerry is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, they made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia, apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief”.
Lavrov also criticised General Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, for telling the US Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia “after the agreements concluded on direct orders of Russian President Putin and US President Barack Obama stipulated that they would share intelligence…It is difficult to work with such partners”.
It is scarcely surprising in the light of this that the Russians and the Assad regime are desperate to get the siege of East Aleppo over and the authority of the Syrian Government re-established in the country’s second largest city before a new US President takes office in January, when a more confrontational American policy towards Russia could ensue.
Meanwhile the ‘merchants of death’ of the international arms trade have been rubbing their collective hands at the rise of international tension over Syria and Ukraine. A new Cold War with Russia, stoked by tension over both those areas, guarantees that government orders for high quality weaponry keep flowing in and their company profits keep going up in tandem.
Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin.