Two events piqued my interests in politics and world affairs before I entered the anti-war movement and embarked on a political expedition across the left. They were the razing of Grozny by the Russian Federation and the anti World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle, heralding the beginning of the high tide of the anti/alter globalisation movement.
In 1999 Chechnya was plunged into the second war within a decade as rebels sought to break Moscow’s hold. The rebellion and the restive city of Grozny was put down under a hail of missiles, shells and bombs. The strategy then, as it is with Aleppo now, was to make life impossible, to demoralise and empty the city and to change the demographic composition to make rebellion impossible. It is a strategy Syrians have seen before, when Bashar Al-Assad’s father Hafez and uncle Rifaat embarked on a siege and massacre against the residents of Hama in 1982 after the Muslim Brotherhood rose in revolt.
One story from the campaign against Grozny sticks clearly in my mind. On 21 October 1999 ballistic missiles were pounding the city not targeting rebel positions or arms caches but a maternity hospital and a market leaving over a hundred dead in the blink of an eye. For Vladimir Putin the razing of Grozny was its liberation, as it will be for eastern Aleppo.
Since the ending of the ceasefire on 19 September the Assad regime, Shia militia and Russia have escalated the bombing of besieged areas, taking out hospitals, water mains, civil defence centres and using bunker busting bombs against civilians trying to hide out the bombardment. As in 1999 Russia is purposely targeting civilian infrastructure in order to make life impossible. On 30 September phosphorus munitions were dropped by Russian bombers on a maternity and children’s hospital as part of a campaign that is systematically attacking medical facilities.
Regime forces have been creeping behind the bombardment and over the rubble, deepening the siege and talking up the prospect of decisively beating the rebel forces and recapturing Aleppo. The fall of Aleppo would echo until the end of history; the uprising which began peacefully on the streets inspired by the Arab Spring has been drowned in blood. Foreign interests, Shia and Sunni religious fanaticism, an unrestrained Iran and a resurgent Russia have ensured the survival of the Ba’athist regime. What Assad and his henchmen govern is a country of graves and ruins. No doubt Aleppo will now be vying with Grozny for the most destroyed city in the world.
A bit of something for everyone
The United States has downgraded its cooperation with Russia over the bombing campaign but ultimately is left between a rock and a hard place. John Kerry lauded the last ceasefire as some sort of breakthrough but it was just another pause that allowed the regime and its allies to restock, bring up more troops and get a breather before they intensified their barbaric enterprise. The United States has limited its airpower to supporting the forces led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), currently fighting the Islamic State. This has raised the ire of Turkey, which made diplomatic gestures eastwards in an attempt to play the United States and Russia off against each other, in order to open a space where it could achieve its own goals in the north of Syria. Primarily to stop a multi-ethnic, democratic and Kurdish led contiguous statelet on its border.
The Islamic State is receiving a battering on all fronts but after the Turkish organised invasion of northern Syria an assault on Raqqa by Kurdish forces is being hampered. The YPG rightly consider the demand by the United States for its forces to withdraw from Manbij and territory west of the Euphrates a betrayal after they shed blood for months to drive the Islamic State back.
For Russia, everything is working out for now. Their arms sales have rebounded from crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union after the invasion and annexation of Crimea. The United States is being edged out with its relationship with Turkey and the Gulf States fraying. Russia’s only mediterranean port is now secure and it has built further facilities on the Syrian coast and is free to do what it likes within Syrian territory. Rump Syria is the largest Russian aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk.
In response to the increased Russian presence the United States is building up its sphere of influence in the north east of Syria, with an airbase and special operations units working in the territory controlled by the YPG and SDF. It is a situation ripe for unexpected conflagrations and diplomatic disasters.
With the collapse of the ceasefire some gulf states are looking to up arms deliveries to rebels though there is little chance of receiving what they desperately need – effective air defence weaponry. Without that the war is only going to grind on in favour of the regime. The now Islamist-dominated rebel movement presents an ever increasingly unattractive proposition to the United States or the West. With the Al Qaeda franchise going native in order to cement itself as a leading faction, arms, air support or logistical aid will not be arriving for those groups in Aleppo from the West. Whatever aid these groups get from the Gulf will not be given to win the war to try and maintain the status quo. So each regional and international player is scrambling to keep its sphere of influence with the people people of Syria being used as pawns for others ambitions. Whether that be dreams of an Islamic emirate, an ethnically divided Syria or the attempts to check the power of Iran or Saudi Arabia in the region. Those dreams and opposition to the fall of the regime, a democratic Syria or Kurdish national self-determination is what is driving foreign intervention and involvement.
Aleppo and the left
There exists a culture on the left to view everything the enemies of the British state do abroad as being less criminal, or sometimes progressive, when compared to the actions of Britain and its allies. It is a bastardisation of the internationalist position during the First World War that declared the main enemy is at home. Many on the left have twisted internationalism into an apologia for barbarism. For example some leftists and former Foreign and Commonwealth Office employees seek to excuse away the crimes of Assad and his allies by pointing out secret deals, subterfuge, British war crimes or by edging towards conspiracy theories involving the media . So often I have heard and read leaders of the anti-war movement utilise the worlds of Karl Liebknecht to position themselves not “with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists” but with the governments of other countries who are at present at odds with our own. Communists, democrats and internationalists can have no truck with those that wish to detract, distract and dismiss what Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime are doing. This campist haunting from the time of the long dead Soviet dictatorships has nothing to offer anyone.
This has resulted in leading sections of the labour movement, including Jeremy Corbyn’s office, to abandon critical space to the right. Hand wringing on Syria and Aleppo has allowed the warmongers in the government and on the Labour benches to seize the initiative. It is now commonplace for the traditional right and the Progress factions to instrumentalise Cable Street and the Spanish Revolution to emotionally blackmail the movement over Syria. The Tories are falling in behind the US war drive with Boris Johnson essentially calling for NATO airpower to contest the skies in Syria against Russia. This comes less than a year after calling for the British state to strike a deal with Putin and help him finish the job. We need a Left that pitches its stall in this space in order to build an alternative pole of attraction for democrats in Syria and effectively challenge the crimes being committed against the Syrian masses by Putin, Assad and their allies.
The siege and bombardment of Aleppo is a microcosm of the wider power struggles convulsing the Middle East. No amount of motions tabled at the United Nations or news reports of the slaughter can bring this to a halt. The democratic aspirations of those that rose against the Ba’athist dictatorship or sought to take national rights find themselves in a quagmire surrounded by innumerable enemies and fair weather friends.
Grozny was a cruel warning to my generation of how far ruling classes will go to hold onto power, Fallujah is a barbaric reminder and Aleppo is serving the same purpose for the next. We can and we must do everything to support attempts to halt the fighting so that aid can get to those besieged; we must welcome those fleeing barbarism; and, above all, we need to support genuine democrats against tyrants big and small. If eastern Aleppo is razed, its inhabitants expelled or murdered, we will be given another lesson in how hollow the promises of “never again” that followed Sarajevo, Warsaw and Hiroshima were. Like the destruction of Carthage, the massacre at Ayyadieh and the killings at Katyn, we are bearing witness to Aleppo becoming a wound in time that will echo as long as there are ears to hear.