On October 28, 2016, four months after the Assad regime captured the last rebel-held supply route into eastern Aleppo and launched its siege of the liberated area, the fight for Syria’s Stalingrad began anew as the revolutionary forces embarked on a massive offensive to break the siege—a siege propped up by Russian airstrikes, Hezbollah, the Iranian “Revolutionary” Guard, and thousands of Iran-backed Shiite mercenaries/cannon fodder recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Setting aside the factionalism that has marred past military campaigns, the rebels united in a broad coalition including nationalist Free Syrian Army brigades, Islamists of various stripes, and a small jihadist component, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former Jabhat al-Nusra Front. The stakes could not be higher. Despite early successes in the suburbs of western Aleppo, the rebels are on the defensive as I write this, and regime forces have re-gained territory lost in recent weeks. Eastern Aleppo is still home to approximately 250,000 people, trapped in what Doctors Without Borders has dubbed a “kill box,” an open-air prison cut off from the outside world.
Russian and regime bombing has killed or wounded thousands of civilians in and around Aleppo since the siege began, including hundreds of children, but those shocking numbers cannot fully symbolize the individual stories of suffering and loss—what it is like to see your neighbors and loved ones ripped apart, crushed, or burned alive in front of your eyes; to watch your home or shop flattened into rubble. Civilians in western Aleppo have been killed and wounded by rebel rockets and mortars, but the level of violence is incomparable to what’s being done to the east. Medical infrastructure is all but nonexistent, as Russia and Assad have repeatedly bombed every hospital and medical center in the area. The handful of doctors and medical personnel who haven’t been murdered or forced to leave perform their work underground, treating the aftermath of Moscow and Damascus’s arsenal of nightmare weapons—from the now infamous barrel bombs to napalm, white phosphorous, chlorine gas, thermobaric bombs, and bunker busters.
Electricity is intermittent at best, and food and fuel supplies have been nearly exhausted. If not for the few humanitarian organizations that still operate inside eastern Aleppo and the ingenuity and steadfastness of its residents, the conditions would be even more hellish.
As if matters could not get worse for Aleppoites and Syrians as a whole, the grotesque chimera known as Donald Trump is now President-Elect of the United States of America. Obama has long been a tacit partner in the Assadist-Russian-Iranian genocide, issuing empty condemnations of their atrocities while his administration aids and abets the counterrevolution behind the scenes. Trump, however, may drop that mask entirely, as indicated by his declarations to work with Moscow and the regime to get rid of ISIS or anyone deemed to be ISIS.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said he will likely drop all U.S. support for the Syrian rebels, which is miserly to begin with. Trump’s vocal animosity towards Iran and the hawkish resumes of his numerous neocon advisors—not to mention his tendency to change his mind like he changes his hideous power ties—may lead to contradictions within the incoming administration’s Syria policy. However, one thing remains clear: Syrians and their revolutionary struggle will continue to have few friends in Washington.
But what of Syria’s own Deplorable-in-Chief? How is he dealing with the stress of butchering, torturing, and starving his countrywomen and men, while people call him unseemly names like “war criminal” and “dictator”? Fresh out of a Damascus PR conference organized by Assad’s father-in-law, the New York Times’ Anne Bernard found him to be “confident, friendly,” and with “no regrets.” When Bernard does bring up the regime’s many atrocities to Assad, he dismisses them offhand, giggling and not even offering crocodile tears for the dead. This is no raving Hitler in his bunker calling for phantom armies, or a bedraggled Saddam hiding in a hole. In the safety of his palace, this tyrant jokes and smiles, secure in his hope that his powerful patrons, his mercenaries, and the world’s apathy will keep him on his bloody throne.
It is difficult to be hopeful about Syria these days. In the nearly six years since Syrians first rose up peacefully against their dictatorship, over 500,000 people have been killed and half of the pre-war population has been displaced by Assad and his allies. Communities like Daraya, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, and so many others have been reduced to bombed-out, besieged shells of their former selves. As writers like Leila al-Shami and Samar Yazbek have detailed, sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism have infected the hearts and minds of many Syrians, driven in large part by the weaponization of identity promoted first by the regime and later by the extremist elements of the opposition.
The beating hearts of the revolution—the Local Coordinating Committees, the democratically elected local councils, the White Helmets and other nonviolent activists—are under constant attack, not just from armed actors within Syria, but from those who demonize them abroad as cat’s paws of Western imperialism. With a handful of exceptions, the so-called international community has abandoned Syrians, content to wring its hands when it isn’t sabotaging the revolutionary struggle or actively aiding the counterrevolutionary forces. Foreign powers and foreign fighters treat Syria as the proxy site for their geopolitical maneuvers, a laboratory for their arsenals of death, or a stage for their personal redemption plays. The United Nations, that ever-so-tireless champion of human rights, has violated its charter for the umpteenth time by prioritizing cooperation with the mass-murdering regime above the preservation of Syrian lives.
Much of the global Left—which is so quick to hurry to the side of justice when the U.S. and Western Imperialism are the primary villains—has either kept silent or openly sided with Damascus, Russia, and Iran, thereby trading in critical analysis for RT and PressTV propaganda and internationalist principles for knee-jerk geopolitical contrarianism. Yes, the list of Syria’s enemies is lengthy indeed, and soaked with blood. Their cowardice and their crimes will not be forgotten.
But all is not lost. I do not harbor any illusions about my own influence in regards to Syria, for far more authoritative figures than I have called for the world to support Syrians in their time of greatest need, only to find that the slaughter keeps on keeping on. This article will not defeat fascism in Syria, whether that is the little fascism of ISIS or the greater fascism of Assad. It will not stop imperialist machinations and interventions in Syria. That said, I implore everyone who reads this, everyone who cares about the lives of Syrians and still hopes for a just and free Syria, to act. Arm yourself with the truth: not merely about the daily atrocities inflicted upon the Syrian people but about their heroism in the face of it all, and the nature of their revolution.
Do not lose sight of the fact that this conflict began as a popular, democratic uprising against a clique of thieves and butchers, and that this essential core still remains. Listen to the countless Syrians who know what it means to struggle against tyranny, injustice, and death, even when victory only means living to see another morning. Learn from them. Promote their voices and actions whenever possible, and organize solidarity actions centered on their democratic and human interests. Issue demands that reflect those interests, such as an immediate end to all aerial bombing in Syria, whether it is carried out by the Assad regime, Russia, the U.S., or any other party.
While those of us in the belly of the imperial beast may be tempted to focus on the war crimes of the U.S.—and the U.S. has killed hundreds of civilians since it began its campaign against ISIS/Nusra/any non-compliant rebel—the truth is that the Assad regime and Russia are responsible for over 90 percent of civilian casualties in Syria, according to independent monitors like the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Please do not play political favorites or claim a toxic neutrality when it comes to Syrian lives.
Finally, do not give up on the Syrian people. Do not write them out of your thoughts, or consign them to oblivion. Heed the call of those like Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Marxist dissident, survivor of Assad’s dungeons, and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals. When asked by an interviewer whether he had hope for the future of Syria, Saleh replied:
We are resilient people. We still believe in human dignity and in a better future for ourselves and others. We have a cause, and it is a just cause. I think that the Syrian revolution liberated us from an inferiority complex we had toward the other people of the world. We don’t wait for others to solve our problems now, or to define for us what is just and what is fair. We are struggling for our emancipation, without illusions. We are hopeful that more people will join us in this struggle. It is not just about Syria any longer. It is about the world.
We would all be wise to take those words to heart. Long live the Syrian people, victory to their revolution, and victory to the revolutionary fighters and civilians of Aleppo.