Yes, Aleppo was Liberated

by | Jul 6, 2017

Yes, Aleppo was Liberated

by | Jul 6, 2017

As the Syrian government and its Russian allies conducted a campaign to re-capture the northern Syrian city of Aleppo from U.S.-backed rebel groups in December of 2016, Western media outlets gave the impression that the Russian air force was mercilessly bombing defenseless civilians in the city, and lamented supposed Western inaction in the face of alleged Russian and Syrian crimes. The idea that the West needed to come to the aid of Aleppo’s civilians in the face of the Syrian and Russian onslaught was ubiquitous in the Western press. One commentator writing at CNN claimed that, “time and time again, the free world has looked away,” from Aleppo, while another, writing in the Washington Post, asks “how can the world stand idly by” and suggests that what was happening in Aleppo constitutes the “genocide of our time,” thus invoking past tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Holocaust.

As a result, when Syrian and Russian forces re-captured the eastern section of the city from rebel groups, this was described as the “fall” of Aleppo in the Western press. If one assumes the Western narrative is correct, that Aleppo fell when Syrian and Russian forces drove opposition rebel groups from the city, one must assume that Aleppo’s residents supported the rebel presence and their efforts to fight the Syrian government.

This does not appear to be the case, however. Rather, the rebels’ presence in Aleppo appears to resemble more of an occupation of the city by armed religious extremists, which most (though not all) of Aleppo’s civilian inhabitants were happy to be free of. In Aleppo, there was never an uprising against the Syrian government which was overwhelmingly supported by the local population. Instead, rebels from the Syrian countryside and from outside Syria itself infiltrated Aleppo and imposed the war on Aleppo’s civilians. Without the real popular support necessary to sustain any guerrilla campaign, these rebels were only able to maintain their hold on parts of Aleppo for four years due to massive external financial and military aid from U.S. and Gulf intelligence agencies.

Because Aleppo’s residents did not support the rebel groups, one must conclude the city was in fact “liberated” by Syrian government and Russian forces. Sadly, the longer the U.S. and Gulf-backed rebel occupation of Aleppo continued, the more death and destruction resulted.

Who Were the Rebels in Aleppo?

To begin, it is important to ask, “Who were the armed rebels who controlled East Aleppo, and whom Syrian and Russian forces were trying to defeat?” It appears the rebels in Aleppo consisted largely of religious extremists, rather than of “moderate” or “secular” rebels as was often assumed in Western media coverage.

The conservative-leaning Institute for the Study of War issued a report in March 2016, indicating that the Syrian revolution continued to be dominated by jihadist rebel groups, and that two of these groups, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, were among the primary “power brokers” in the Aleppo region.

The Nusra Front was created as the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State, or ISIS), led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi established the Nusra Front by sending a cell of fighters from Iraq to Syria in August 2011, roughly 6 months after protests against the Syrian government broke out as part of the Arab Spring. The cell was led by Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, a Syrian that fought for al-Qaeda in Iraq previously. The Nusra Front carried out its first known attack a few months later in Damascus in December 2011. Al-Joulani later decided to break from al-Baghdadi, refusing to merge Nusra with ISIS at al-Baghdadis instruction in April 2013. Al-Joulani instead swore allegiance to al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri directly and became al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

Ahrar Al-Sham calls for jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and has worked closely with the Nusra Front and has publicly praised Mullah Omar of the Taliban. Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014 in Aleppo. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri named al-Suri as his “representative” in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS at the time the two groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.

In September 2014, much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham was killed in a large explosion. As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. Abu Jaber had previously been a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), helping Jihadists to travel from Syria to Iraq to fight, and then was arrested by the Syrian government and imprisoned from 2005 to 2011. After Ahrar al-Sham was formed, he became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area.

Another Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Hani al-Masri, fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, and was the al-Qaeda commander responsible for defending Kandahar airport for the Taliban in 2001 when U.S. and allied forces sought to topple the Taliban government.

The Nuri al-Din al-Zinki Brigade also had a strong presence in Aleppo. Al-Zinki is an allegedly moderate rebel group which received CIA support in the past, including TOW missiles, and which became notorious in 2016 when a video of one if it’s commanders beheading a young Palestinian boy was shared widely online.

Another rebel group active in Aleppo was the Tawhid Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Tawhid Brigade was formed in July 2012, allegedly at the behest of Turkish intelligence to facilitate the first rebel offensive to take Aleppo. The Tawhid Brigade later joined various rebel umbrella groups, and has worked closely with the Nusra Front in joint operations, both in Aleppo and Damascus. In October 2012, Tawhid and Nusra fighters jointly assaulted the Hanano military barracks in Aleppo. In late 2013, Tawhid leader Abdul-Aziz Salameh advocated “eradicating the  Nusayris,” using a pejorative slur for Alawites, the Shiite Muslim offshoot that makes up 12% of Syria’s population, and from which President Bashar al-Assad hails.

All four of these groups (Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zinki and the Tawhid Brigade) have worked closely together and have carried out joint military operations. In July 2012, al-Zinki and Tawhid jointly assaulted the Salhuddin neighborhood of Aleppo. In October 2012, Tawhid and Nusra fighters jointly assaulted the Hanano military barracks in Aleppo. Nusra and Tawhid launched two joint suicide attacks in April 2013 in the country side of Damascus. Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham cooperated in a 2015 joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria, which then prompted Russian intervention into the Syria conflict.

These groups cooperate politically as well. In September 2013, all four signed a statement opposing the Syrian National Council (the western-backed political front of the Syrian opposition) and calling for the imposition of sharia law in Syria.

This is not surprising given that the Nusra Front has pursued a deliberate policy to cooperate with fellow rebels groups in order to embed itself within the broader Syrian anti-government armed insurgency, in an effort to then incorporate these fellow groups into the Nusra Front after fighting together side by side for a time. Joulani explained in an interview how, “Preserving good relations with the other groups and treating them well and turning a blind eye to their mistakes is the foundation in dealing with the other groups…as long as they don’t change.”

This willingness was largely mutual. In March 2013, Riyad al Assad, the founder of the FSA and one of its top commanders, described the willingness of the FSA to cooperate with Nusra. He described the Nusra Front as “our brothers in Islam,” saying that “We have offered martyrs and other things and, accordingly, nobody should blame us for this matter. . . . The Nusra Front has proved it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely.”

In short, while these rebel groups are indeed distinct, and under separate leadership, it is wrong to suggest that the rebel groups active in Aleppo which are considered as “moderate” in the Western press are somehow not connected to the Nusra Front, or in other words to al-Qaeda. This is an important point to consider when we attempt to understand who it is that the Syrian government and its Russian allies were fighting in Aleppo, whose rule the civilians in Aleppo were forced to live under, and who the Western powers, including the United States, were supporting.

Did Aleppo’s Residents Support the Rebels?

It is well known that in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Aleppo was considered a “regime stronghold,” indicating loyalty among its residents to the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al-Assad. At the start of the Syrian uprising, lack of support from the residents of Aleppo was a source of frustration for those protesting in other parts of the country. A common refrain among protesters at that time was, “Aleppo, where are you?”[1] When protests against the government finally did appear in Aleppo for the first time, in August 2011, this was almost six months after the beginning of protests in other Syrian cities. The Guardian reported that the biggest protest that day, in the Sakhour neighborhood, consisted of just 1,000 people (in a city of 2 million), and described Aleppo as “more invested” in the Syrian government than other cities.

An important event in the early period of the uprising was the double car bombing of the military security headquarters in Aleppo in February, 2012. Reporting on the massive explosion, the New York Times writes: “In Aleppo, a bastion of government support, the dual explosions wounded about 235 people, state television said, 14 of them critically. State television repeatedly broadcast images of disemboweled victims lying amid jumbled concrete wreckage. One of the buildings appeared flattened and the other was a rose-colored, five-story expanse of shattered windows and cracked masonry.” This bombing was claimed by the Nusra Front. It is hard to imagine that Aleppo’s residents, already inclined to support the government, would be enthusiastic of the coming of the jihadist rebel groups in light of such a terror attack.

Several months after the bombing, in July 2012, the rebels finally managed to make in-roads into Aleppo. This set the stage for them to capture the Eastern section of the city. Al-Safir, a leading Lebanese newspaper with a generally pro-Syrian government slant, provides an account of the rebel assault on Aleppo based on sources within the Tawhid Brigade, and notes that Tawhid members joined with Nusra Front members to initiate the attack. At the time of the assault in Aleppo, the Tawhid Brigade was part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is typically known as the “moderate” Syrian opposition in the Western press. In practice, in Aleppo, cooperation between the FSA and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nustra Front was very close, as mentioned above, and as the experiences of kidnapped journalist Theo Padnos illustrate.

It does not appear that the rebels attempting to take control of Aleppo were from the city itself, but rather from the rural areas surrounding Aleppo. The Guardian reported that in July 2012 “Opposition sources said fighters from rural areas around Aleppo had been converging on the city of 3 million people” and that “dozens of FSA rebels had penetrated deep inside the city.” The Guardian notes as well that in just the two days prior to their report, some 30,000 Syrians had fled Aleppo to Lebanon. It would be odd to see such massive civilian flight from the city if the residents were welcoming the rebels and looking forward to the city being liberated from Syrian government control.

This further calls into question whether the urban residents of a cosmopolitan, multi-religious city would approve of the coming of rebels with extremist religious views that advocate killing the city’s Alawi and Christian minorities, in particular given Aleppo’s large Christian population. Rebel persecution of Christians throughout Syria had been widespread since the start of the uprising in the spring of 2011. A common slogan chanted in anti-government protests throughout Syria was “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut,” suggesting that some of those supporting the revolution hope for the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Christians to neighboring Lebanon. While reporting from Syria in August 2012, journalist Robert Fisk quotes a Syrian friend as noting that “The Christians are protesting. . . The Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo has just made an appeal to the Western powers not to send weapons to the fundamentalists. The Syrian Catholic church in Aleppo has now been bombed.”[2]

Rebel control of Aleppo city and its surrounding countryside resulted in a number of kidnappings of Christians. In April 2013, two Orthodox Christian bishops, Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, were kidnapped while themselves traveling from Aleppo to the Turkish border to help the negotiate the release of two priests, Michael Kayyal and Maher Mahfouz, who had been kidnapped.

Before the uprising, Aleppo’s Christians numbered some 250,000. However, by November 2014, some two years after the rebels capture the eastern section of the city, the number had dwindled to roughly just 100,000, predominantly in the government held west.

Aleppo’s Muslims did not appear to welcome the takeover of their city by religious extremists either. Several Western journalists provided early descriptions about the newly rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo, including Martin Chulov (August 2012), James Foley (October 2012), and Steven Sotloff (February 2013). All describe disillusionment among civilians with life under rebel rule there.

Writing for the Guardian, Chulov quotes a rebel commander as acknowledging that, “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want.”

Chulov acknowledged that even while in the city, it was difficult for him to get a feel for whether residents supported the rebels as, “None wanted to talk.” Chulov also discusses the fact that foreign jihadists were beginning to enter the city. One rebel he interviewed welcomed the foreign presence, because “they are brave and very good fighters,” while another rebel was less enthusiastic, “They’re a very big problem. . . . They don’t understand Islam and they will make things more difficult for all of us.”

Writing for the Independent, journalist Kim Sengupta observed in June 2013 that “Jabhat al-Nusra was a small unimpressive group, big on jihadist talk, short on action, when I first met them in Aleppo last summer [2012]. Now they are the largest and most effective of the rebel battalions.”[3] This suggests that although the Syrian rebels who initially took the city were not particularly welcomed, residents of Aleppo would tolerate the rebel presence even less over time, as the rebel ranks grew with more and more foreigners, who espoused even more extreme religious ideas than their Syrian rebel counterparts.

Nor was kidnapping limited to the Christians, as the phenomenon soon became a defining feature of life in Aleppo under rebel rule. Peter N. Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch discussed the rise of kidnapping for ransom in Syria, explaining in June 2013 that “The kidnappings have been going on for about a year, it’s really intensified. It started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo. . . . In cities like Aleppo, the kidnappings for ransom that are taking place have very significantly undermined support for the opposition. Because in general, civilians are very fearful of these kinds of kidnappings, especially people with wealth. [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime was known for brutality, but this kind of insecurity didn’t exist for wealthy business people. They knew if they stayed out of politics, they could live secure lives.”

Further, the presence of the rebels led to the wide-spread destruction and depopulation of many areas under their control. Sengupta described how by August 2012, the Salheddine district of Aleppo was largely empty, as rebel factions fought Syrian government forces there: “There are very few civilians to be seen in Salheddine, whose deserted streets are filled with fallen masonry, shattered glass and twisted metal. The dead are much more in evidence, bodies lying in the open, the rising stench from the ones buried in debris.”[4] According to one Syrian rebel with whom Sengupta was embedded, Syrian forces in Salheddine “have been firing from the tanks, but all they are hitting are empty buildings.”[5] Sengupta writes as well that “The only human voices, however, were hurried conversations in doorways between fighters; the people who lived here have gone.”[6] Sengupta notes that the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood in Aleppo had had a population of 300,000 before rebels took control of the area, but that it had fallen to “around 40,000 as the exodus rises,” while quoting a resident who said “The Migs and helicopters [of the Syrian government] are the reason we’re leaving.”[7]

Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, who spent a significant amount of time reporting from Syria, described the result of the rebel take-over of any given Syrian city this way: “The military tactics of both sides ignore the well-being of civilians in the cities. Armed rebel units move into the suburbs, whether they are welcome or not. In some places, like the large township of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong and the FSA is popular. In others, particularly in Aleppo, the arrival of the FSA is regarded with dread. Local people know what will happen next. Government artillery opens fire and bombs are dropped from the air. The population flees and the contested district becomes a ghost town. The rebels loot government offices, schools, factories, and shops. “[8]

Certainly the Syrian government bears significant blame for such destruction, but Aleppo’s residents must not have been grateful that rebel fighters took control of parts of the city against their wishes to begin with. In October 2012, Foley quotes one Aleppo resident with such feelings, Faez Shoaip, 63, who used to be a taxi driver in Brooklyn before returning home to Aleppo eight years before: “We don’t like Bashar, we don’t the like regime. We want them to go out. But there is an easier way. Kill everybody? Destroy the country just to change the regime? It’s too much,” while Sotloff quotes an Aleppo resident named “Sharqi” who initially welcomed the rebels into the city, but who was soon not happy about their presence: “We organized food deliveries for them at the front. We were so happy to finally be doing something for the revolution. But after a few months, we saw who these people really were.” Sotloff also notes the shortage of bread, gas and cooking oil that characterized life after the rebels’ arrival. Many residents reported waiting in line four hours or more to buy bread. When Sotloff asked a local grocer, Anwar Khuli, about his thoughts on allegations that rebels had recruited children as fighters, the grocer responded, “These guys will do anything to win, even if it means destroying our youth. . . They have already destroyed our country.” Sotloff concludes that, “What’s clear is that as the grisly battle for Aleppo enters its six month its residents are slowly losing faith in the FSA,” while it seems Sotloff may have been mistaken to assume resident’s had much faith in the FSA to begin with.

Another account from inside Aleppo then comes from the Syrian journalist Edward Dark (a pseudonym), who was active in the early months of the uprising, helping organize peaceful protests. In May 2013, he described how “Aleppo was raided by the rebels” in 2012 (as opposed to liberated), and gives a lengthy description of what the coming of the rebels meant for the city’s residents:

Rebels would systematically loot the neighborhoods they entered. They had very little regard for the lives and property of the people, and would even kidnap for ransom and execute anyone they pleased with little recourse to any form of judicial process. They would deliberately vandalize and destroy ancient and historical landmarks and icons of the city. They would strip factories and industrial zones bare, even down to the electrical wiring, hauling their loot of expensive industrial machinery and infrastructure off across the border to Turkey to be sold at a fraction of its price. Shopping malls were emptied, warehouses, too. They stole the grain in storage silos, creating a crisis and a sharp rise in staple food costs. They would incessantly shell residential civilian neighborhoods under regime control with mortars, rocket fire and car bombs, causing death and injury to countless innocent people, their snipers routinely killing in cold blood unsuspecting passersby. As a consequence, tens of thousands became destitute and homeless in this once bustling, thriving and rich commercial metropolis.

Dark summarizes his feelings, concluding that the coming of the rebels “was a shock, especially to those of us who had supported and believed in the uprising all along. It was the ultimate betrayal.”

At roughly this time, two incidents further eroded Syrian support for the rebels, presumably in Aleppo as well as in other parts of the country. In May of 2013, a rebel commander from the Farouq Brigade of the FSA cut out the heart of a dead Syrian Army soldier and took a bite from it in front of a crowd of his fighters. Video of this went viral and was viewed widely throughout Syria. Soon thereafter, in July of 2013, rebels in the poor Shaar district of Aleppo publicly shot and killed a 14 year old boy three times in the face for making what they considered to be an insulting comment about the prophet Muhammad. The boy had been selling coffee in the street. The video of his face, with a hole where is nose and mouth should have been, went viral on Facebook and Twitter

Where Does Information About Aleppo in the Western Press Come From?

This is also roughly the time when the presence of independent journalists in rebel-held northern Syria came to end, as a result of a string of kidnappings of Western journalists that made reporting from cities such as Aleppo simply too dangerous, and as jihadist rebel groups began to threaten local Syrian journalists if they reported any information critical of the rebels.

Journalist James Foley was kidnapped by jihadist militants near the northern city of Idlib in November 2012 and was beheaded by the Islamic State two years later in August 2014. In Aug. 14, 2012, Austin Tice was kidnapped by unknown assailants. His fate remains unknown. In August 2013, Steve Sotloff was kidnapped by FSA fighters as he tried to return to Aleppo by road from Turkey. He was sold to Islamic State militants, who finally beheaded him a year later in August 2014, shortly after James Foley. Journalist Theo Padnos (mentioned above) was kidnapped in October 2012 by the Nusra Front, and held captive for some 2 years, including for a time in Aleppo’s children’s hospital, before being released when the Qatari government intervened.

In the summer of 2013, freelance journalist James Harkin described phoning a Syrian fixer in Aleppo, just after the fixer had been released after two weeks in a “jihadi prison.” The fixer, who seemed “scared out of his wits,” had only this advice for any journalists contacting him about coming to the city: “Don’t come to Aleppo” was all he kept saying. “Do not come,” providing a further clue that Western journalists were no longer safe in East Aleppo, and that jihadist rebel groups held significant sway in the city.

In contrast to Western journalists, Syrian journalists are able to live and work in rebel-held territory; however, they faced considerable constraints which prevented them from accurately describing the situation on the ground. Syrian journalists are likely to be detained or killed for reporting news deemed unacceptable to the rebel factions controlling the areas in which they work.

In May 2016, UPI reported on a number of such cases, and describes how, “The fighters of al-Nusra Front, considered the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, have also spread out across the country and have a presence in most areas controlled by opposition factions. The group’s power over the media increases the farther north one goes. Its power is greatest in Aleppo and Idlib, due to the presence of other factions in the north that share many of its ideological principles.” UPI also quotes an activist from Idlib in northern Syria who notes that “A journalist must maintain good relationships with the ruling factions. . . They simply cannot work as journalists if they do not.”

With the lack of independent reporting in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria, the Western press uncritically reported information from pro-rebel sources regarding events on the ground, while at the same time refusing to view statements from Syrian government spokespersons or Syrian state media as credible.

One pro-rebel source that is almost universally cited by Western media outlets was the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), founded by a Syrian exile living in England named Rami Abd al-Rahman. The New York Times describes SOHR as “virtually a one-man band,” led by Rami and operating “out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street” in Coventry, England. Rami is a member of the pro-Western Syrian opposition which seeks to overthrow the Syrian government. Rami is clear about his desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deposed, noting to Reuters that, “I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes.” In November 2011, the Times of London reported on a meeting between “leaders of Syria’s opposition,” including Rami, and UK foreign secretary William Hague who has spearheaded the UK’s efforts at undermining the Syrian government. The SOHR also receives funding from both the European Union, and from another “one European country that he declines to identify,” according to the New York Times. It seems likely the unnamed country is the UK, given Rami’s ties to Secretary Hague. Rami operates a network of a few hundred activists inside Syria that provide him information. Presumably they would be under the same restraints for Syrian journalists noted above, namely that they are unable to report information critical of jihadist rebel groups.

Not only journalists, but Western analysts located in Washington, DC also turn to rebel spokespersons for information. These analysts are employed by think tanks funded by the U.S. defense industry who have a financial interest in promoting regime change and war in Syria and by Gulf nations who fund jihadist militants in the Syria and whose stated foreign policy goal is the overthrow of the Syrian government. The New York Times quoted one former Brookings Doha Center scholar (the center is funded by the Qatari government) as saying, “There was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” providing an idea of the latitude these analysts have to criticize the pro-rebel (in other words pro-Qatari) perspective on the conflict.

One prominent example of a Syria expert to whom Western media outlets often turn is Charles Lister, who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and an analyst with the IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, a think tank established by IHS Markit, which is a private firm that has an Aerospace, Defense & Security division. Lister has a seemingly direct line to speak with rebel commanders from various jihadists factions, including access to “face-to-face engagement with the leadership of over 100 opposition groups from across the entire Syrian spectrum,” according to his Brookings bio.

A further pro-rebel source for the Western media was the “White Helmets,” a group dedicated to rescuing civilians that seems to be both a propaganda outlet and humanitarian organization at the same time. Created and funded by the U.S. Government, White Helmets leaders became go-to sources for Western journalists, despite evidence they have staged both fake rescue videos and fake Russian airstrikes. Many photos have also emerged on Facebook and Twitter showing the connections of White Helmets members with Nusra Front militants. Western support for the White Helmets seems to be part of well-coordinated public-relations campaign to push for a no-fly zone in Syria, which would cause a considerable escalation of the conflict.

Western coverage of the conflict in Aleppo based on these sources helped to obscure the basic fact that Aleppo’s residents were opposed to rebel control of their city, and were in fact living under what amounts to an unwelcome occupation by jihadist rebel groups, whose fighters originated from outside of Aleppo, whether from the Syrian countryside or from outside Syria entirely.

Bias in reporting on the situation in Aleppo reached its apex when Syrian and Russian forces prepared to recapture Aleppo in the fall of 2016. The Western press published article after article of pro-rebel propaganda, making suspect claims about alleged Russian and Syrian government crimes.

For example, as mentioned to begin this article, the Washington Post published an op-ed contending that Syrian and Russian forces were carrying out the “genocide of our time” in Aleppo. On November 17, 2016, the Washington Post published an op-ed which was co-written by Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, which made the alarmist claim that “More than 250,000 in Eastern Aleppo could die after the next 20 days” due to “mass starvation and restricted access to lifesaving medical care.” On December 12, 2016, the Daily Beast published an article in which the headline included claims that women in East Aleppo were choosing “suicide over rape,” that the Syrian Army was carrying out “mass executions,” and most fantastically, that children were being “burned alive” by the Syrian Army, based on information solely from a rebel spokesperson.

Rebel Crimes Against Aleppo’s Civilians

While fantastic claims about Syrian government and Russian atrocities were highlighted in the Western press, rebel attacks on residents in government-controlled west Aleppo were ignored. In November 2016, as Syrian and Russian forces continued their attempts to defeat the rebels, journalist Rhania Khalek visited government-held west Aleppo and described how:

I’m still haunted by what I saw at Al-Razi Hospital in what was then government-held West Aleppo. I watched as one ambulance after another dropped off civilians wounded by rebel mortars fired into residential neighborhoods around the clock. Medical staff quickly went to work on a man whose chest was pierced by a piece of twisted metal. A frantic woman lingered close by, shouting, “He’s the only son I have left!” The man was soon pronounced dead and the woman collapsed in agony. Down a crowded hall, 10-year-old Fateh stood on a blood-smeared floor, crying beside a gurney where his 15-year-old brother, Mohammad, was lying. Blood had soaked through the bandage on his leg, but the medical staff was too busy with more life-threatening injuries to take notice. The boys were lucky to be alive. They had been moving furniture out of the house with their younger cousins earlier in the day when they were struck by rebel mortars. Their 6-year-old cousin, a girl, was in the ICU. Their 4-year-old cousin, a boy, had been killed. Across the street, grieving families waited outside the morgue to identify the bodies of their recently deceased loved ones. A group of sobbing children explained to me how they had watched their father die that morning from the balcony of their apartment. A rebel mortar struck him as he was parking his car. Meanwhile, a shell-shocked father told me his 10-year-old son was shot and killed by a sniper while fetching water on the roof.

Also largely ignored in the Western press was the fact that many residents in Aleppo sought to flee rebel held areas for the safety of the government controlled west of the city, but the rebels prevented them from doing so. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that, “Certain elements of the opposition have threatened people who are going to leave and have in some cases prevented humanitarian assistance from being delivered. That is a very serious offense also,” while Robert Coleville of the UN office of Human Rights also claimed on December 9th 2016 that the Nusra Front and the Abu Amara Brigades kidnapped and killed an unknown number of civilians over the past two weeks who had asked the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods. The Independent reported the story of Khaled Kaddoura and his wife Samira, who upon escaping East Aleppo and reaching government-controlled West Aleppo, told “how hundreds of east Aleppo militiamen prevented at rifle-point thousands of civilians from fleeing their enclave over the past two weeks, how they shot dead six people, including a pregnant woman, and of how, after Samira and Khaled had reached the west of the city with their son, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham arrested Khaled’s 27-year old brother Hamzi and sentenced him to execution.” Khaled is quoted as saying that, “The militias came to our house after we crossed, they stole from our shop and smashed our home to warn other people not to do the same thing we did. They had told me that if we left east Aleppo, the government would execute us, but when we came here they didn’t.”

While many civilians attempted to flee from rebel controlled areas, others actually chose to fight against the rebels when it became clear that Syrian and Russian forces were finally coming to their aid. Syria analyst Ben Heller interviewed pro-rebel Aleppo-based activist Mohannad “Abu al-Majd” Makhzoom regarding the reasons that rebel efforts to hold East Aleppo failed. Makhzoom indicated that “In some instances civilians started fighting the revolutionaries. . . Some were working directly with the regime, whereas others just felt wronged and didn’t identify with the revolution, so they decided to return to the regime.”

Support among Aleppo’s civilians for the Syrian government was confirmed when the majority of those fleeing Aleppo as part of a negotiated evacuation in December 2016 chose to flee to areas under Syrian government control. It is this evacuation, which included both rebels and civilians, which ended the fighting and allowed the Syrian government to retake full control of East Aleppo. Patrick Cockburn notes that “There was an implicit assumption that all the inhabitants of East Aleppo were firmly opposed to Assad and supported the insurgents, yet it’s striking that when offered a choice in mid-December only a third of evacuees– 36,000 – asked to be taken to rebel-held Idlib. The majority – 80,000 – elected to go to government-held territory in West Aleppo. This isn’t necessarily because they expected to be treated well by the government authorities – it’s just that they believed life under the rebels would be even more dangerous. In the Syrian civil war, the choice is often between bad and worse.”[9]

Interestingly, the percentage of civilians choosing to flee to government controlled areas (80,000 out of 116,000) mirrors the estimates of civilian support among Aleppo’s civilians for the Syrian government provided by the rebel commander in 2012, when the rebels first captured the city. As noted above, the commander admitted that “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them.”

While Syrian and Russian bombing of rebel held areas certainly killed civilians, it is difficult to argue that Syrian and Russian forces were committing genocide when a majority of civilians in the area affected by their bombing chose to flee to areas under their control.

Another common feature of Western reporting was the idea that East Aleppo was full of civilians, and that therefore every bomb dropped by the Russian air force on the city must necessarily be killing scores of innocent people, rather than rebel fighters. Western media commonly claimed that 250,000 civilians remained in the areas besieged by Syrian and Russian forces. This cannot be true given the numbers of civilians actually evacuated from the city when a ceasefire was negotiated to end the fighting (116,000), and given the fact that civilians had fled from large parts of the rebel-held section of the city already in August 2012 as a result of the fighting, leaving many areas of East Aleppo largely depopulated. As mentioned earlier, Sengupta reported that in the rebel controlled parts of East Aleppo she visited, “There are very few civilians to be seen in Salheddine,”[10] “They have been firing from the tanks, but all they are hitting are empty buildings,”[11] “the people who lived here have gone.”[12]

Indeed it should not be surprising that almost half of the civilians would have already left the city. Anyone with the money and means to do so would naturally leave any war zone, political preferences aside, leaving only the poor behind.

Much of the Western narrative in Syria revolves around the idea that the rebels are somehow protecting civilians, when it fact it is the rebel presence that causes danger for Syrian civilians, as it invites attacks from the government (in addition to the danger to civilians from the rebels themselves). Ending the violence in Aleppo required only that the rebels evacuate the city, which they were reluctant to do, for their own reasons, which had nothing to do with saving civilians.

As mentioned above, the fighting in Aleppo finally ended when an evacuation deal was struck between Russia and the rebels. Negotiations were led on the rebel side by Al-Farouq Abu Bakr, Aleppo commander for Ahrar al-Sham. According to Abu Bakr, the Russians insisted on an evacuation of both the rebels and the civilians under their control, rather than an evacuation of the civilians only. This is so that the rebels would not be able to remain and continue to fight. Abu Bakr noted that the rebels “only agreed to leave the city when it became clear that they had no alternative.” The rebel reluctance to evacuate the city, despite the opportunity to end the fighting and save the lives of any civilians that would inevitably be killed if fighting continued, was expressed by Nur al Din al Zinki commander Omar Salkhou. He lamented that evacuating Aleppo meant surrender, and the end of his dreams of revolution: “So I guess we’re supposed to give up the revolution, then, that we should surrender . . . But if we went out to the countryside, they’d follow us to the countryside. If we went to the borders, they’d follow us to the borders . . . Where am I supposed to go and leave the revolution?”

And what happened when Syrian government forces finally took control of Aleppo? There was no massacre of civilians or genocide as predicted in the Western press.  Western journalists visiting Aleppo after the Syrian government took control largely described how civilians were doing their best to rebuild their lives and return the city to a state of normality. On December 21st 2016, as the last rebels were being evacuated from Aleppo, the Los Angeles Times described a “carnival like atmosphere” as “large crowds had filled the Basel stadium in Aleppo” to attend a celebration of the Syrian government’s victory. Voice of America reported on December 23rd that “Hundreds of Syrians returned to Aleppo on Friday to check on their homes after the last rebels left the city Thursday. Residents wrapped in heavy coats crossed into neighborhoods that had recently been dangerous front lines during the battle for Aleppo, sorting through the wreckage for personal belongings. Some of them had not been able to reach their homes for five years.” Time magazine reported how Aleppo’s Christians were busy celebrating Christmas in the St Elias Cathedral for the first time in five years, and that “Hundreds of people danced and celebrated in the Azizya neighborhood, where the public Christmas tree had gone unlit since rebels took the eastern half of the city in 2012.”Reuters reported a month later how “Some semblance of normality returned to battle-scarred Aleppo for a few hours on Saturday as local soccer clubs Al Ittihad and Horiyah met in the first derby in the city for five years.”

One Turkish journalist visiting Aleppo after the government recaptured the Eastern part of the city suggested that Assad was largely still popular, despite the destruction resulting from the war against the rebels. He quoted a professor from Aleppo University as saying:

I oppose the regime, but I have to admit Assad managed the crisis well. At the moment, we have no alternative to him. If there were an election today, he would get more than 70% of the vote. Of course, my criticism of the regime hasn’t changed. People put their criticisms on the back burner temporarily because they realized the country was about to disintegrate. It wasn’t the right time to settle scores with the regime. But when the war is finally finished, people will want drastic changes. The government is aware of this mood and is trying to change some things. Be assured, nothing will be the same as before.

Did Syrian and Russian Forces Kill Civilians in Aleppo?

Does this mean that all accounts of Syrian and Russian forces killing civilians in Aleppo are simply Western propaganda? This is of course is doubtful. The Syrian government and their Russian allies may have used excessive force to re-take Aleppo in December 2016, as the Syrian government did in Hama in 1982 in an effort to suppress an Islamist-led uprising and assassination campaign at that time. This is very different from claiming the Syrian government committed genocide or was deliberately trying to kill as many civilians as possible, as alleged in the Western press.

Excessive use of force in such situations is regrettably typical of most governments. Looking back at similar historical situations suggests that any state attempting to defeat an insurgency that is deeply embedded in a populated city will kill many civilians, many unnecessarily.

One relevant comparison is the U.S. attempt to subjugate (or liberate, pick your word) Fallujah in Iraq in the spring and fall of 2004. It is clear that the U.S. committed war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons and taking over the city’s general hospital. As one U.S. tank commander commented, “You sometimes wonder what the appropriate use of force is, but Fallujah was just a joke as far as the amount of force we could use,” while one American official was “struck by the stench of corpses” lying in the streets when visiting the city after the U.S. assault. [13]

Fallujah provides another, more recent example worth noting. In June 2016, Iraqi Security forces, affiliated Shiite militias (the Popular Mobilization Units), and the U.S. air force liberated Fallujah from ISIS militants. Reports surfaced of the disappearance of military aged males after the Iraqi forces took control of the city. The Independent reports that a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) claimed that “up to 900 men and boys who fled their homes near Isis’ former stronghold of Fallujah remain missing in Iraq after being abducted by a militia accused of torturing, shooting and beheading civilians.”

The disappearance of some military aged men from Aleppo was reported as well after Syrian fores took control of that city. Robert Coleville of the UN office of Human Rights (mentioned above) stated on December 9th, as evacuations of civilians from Aleppo got under way, that his office had received disturbing reports of the disappearance of hundreds of men after crossing to areas under control of the government.

A review of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIS is also useful. On December 7th 2016, the Guardian reports that U.S. warplanes bombed a hospital in Mosul, claiming the Islamic State militants were using it to fire at Iraqi forces. The monitoring group Airwars notes that the number of U.S. airstrikes in Mosul was “escalating steeply in the final months of the Obama administration” and that from October 17th through January 20th, U.S. forces killed 294 civilians in Mosul, and that by February 2017, “airstrikes  by the  U.S.-led Coalition are now claiming the lives of more civilians than Russia’s brutal aerial campaign” in Syria now that the Russian effort to recapture Aleppo is winding down, while U.S. campaign to recapture Mosul is at the same time intensifying. The U.S. killing of civilians in Mosul intensified yet further in the months after President Trump’s election.

Reports of civilian disappearances and deaths due to airstrikes in Aleppo, Fallujah, and Mosul are deeply disturbing . The tactics of the Syrian, Russian and U.S. governments deserve harsh criticism. However, despite these serious allegations, none in the Western press would assume that Fallujah or Mosul has “fallen” after being re-captured from ISIS by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.

For this reason of course it is helpful if the Western press reports on actual Russian and Syrian government crimes (rather than relaying unsubstantiated claims told to them by rebel spokespersons). However, even such honest reporting would provide a one sided accounting, as the Western press at the same time largely fails to report on the civilians in government controlled areas killed by rebel rockets and snipers. Imagine if the Western press only reported crimes committed by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Fallujah and Mosul, while remaining silent about the the civilians killed by ISIS in those cities.

What Really Drove the Conflict in Aleppo?

Finally, it is important to remember what was really driving the conflict in Aleppo. It is commonly acknowledged that for any successful insurgency or guerrilla movement to succeed, the rebels must have support from the local population. With little popular support, how did the rebels in East Aleppo manage to hold on to a significant portion of the city for over four years?

It is clear this is due to U.S. and Gulf support for the rebels. Sam Heller conducted interviews with rebel commanders and Western diplomats in January 2017 in which they told him how the “rebels’ backers had stocked their rebel allies with money and weapons and been prepared to give more—to funnel money into the siege so rebels could purchase weapons and supplies from Kurdish neighborhoods or corrupt elements in the regime’s Syrian Arab Army.”

The Financial Times reported that a regional diplomat described how “People have this perception the Americans weren’t very involved [in Syria]. But that’s not true – they were, and to a miniscule level of detail for a while in places like Aleppo when [the CIA program] started.”

Further, in what he certainly thought was a closed door session, U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner made a shocking admission, namely that U.S. and Gulf support for rebels in Aleppo, and Syria more broadly, was likely the prime driver of the conflict, and therefore of the suffering of Syria’s population.

Ratner, in responding to claims the U.S. had not done enough to support Syria’s rebels, explained to members of the Syrian opposition that, “when you pump more weapons into a situation like Syria, it doesn’t end well for Syrians, because there is always someone else who is going to pump more weapons in for the other side. The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners. . . . But pumping weapons in causes someone else to pump weapons in and you end up with Aleppo.” During Ratner’s comments, Secretary Kerry interjected that, “Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a huge amount of weapons coming in. A huge amount of money.”

This is what allowed the rebels to hold East Aleppo for over four years, despite little popular support from Aleppo’s civilians. In other words, U.S. and Gulf support allowed these rebels to maintain their occupation of the city against the wishes of the majority of its residents. Aleppo’s civilians paid the price of this, whether as a result of atrocities suffered directly at the hands of the rebels or as a result of the violence used by Syrian and Russian forces to retake the city.

In my view, U.S. efforts to destabilize and overthrow the Syrian government, which started with covert financial support to Syrian opposition groups in 2005, and ended with “pumping” in huge amounts of money and weapons to jihadist rebel groups after 2011, deserve a large share of the blame for the calamity that has befallen Aleppo, and Syria as a whole. Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters have certainly killed many innocent civilians, but it is important to ask whether it was legitimate for foreign powers to create an armed insurgency led by religious extremists in Aleppo, and to help them take and maintain control of the city for over four years against the wishes of its residents. In my view there is no legitimacy to such a project. It is a positive thing that rebels have been evacuated from Aleppo, and that the city is now fully under Syrian government control. Now that the fighting has stopped, Aleppo’s residents (whether Sunni or Alawi or Christian) can go forward with rebuilding their lives.

Had the rebels succeeded in defeating the Syrian government and controlling Aleppo completely, the various rebel armed groups themselves would have likely then fought for control of the city among themselves, destroying it further. If one armed faction were to win out, no doubt the most brutal and extreme of them all, Aleppo would then be lucky to resemble Kandahar under the Taliban, or worse. Supporting such an outcome is nonsensical from a Western perspective, and yet that is what the Western media was almost universally advocating by lamenting the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian government.

Sadly, Syrians don’t have the choice between living in a Western style democracy that respects human rights on the one hand, and a brutal police state on the other. Their choice, thanks to U.S. and Gulf support for al-Qaeda affiliated religious extremists, is between a police state and a Taliban-like regime governed by competing warlords. For that reason, civilians in Aleppo are lucky to be rid of the rebels, and would have been rid of them years ago, if not for intervention from the U.S. and its Gulf partners. Had the rebels been defeated years before, many lives and considerable destruction would have been spared. For these reasons, it is indeed fair to say that Aleppo was “liberated.”

[1]Syria, Descent into the Abyss, An Unforgettable Anthology of Contemporary Reporting,” by Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Kim Sengupta, Independant Print Limited, Kindle Edition, 2014, page 166.

[2] Ibid, page 219.

[3] Ibid, page 432.

[4] Ibid, page 199.

[5] Ibid, page 180.

[6] Ibid, page 178.

[7] Ibid, page 209.

[8] Ibid, page 347-348.

[9] Syria Analyst Ben Heller provides similar numbers, and provides references: “The evacuation concluded on December 22. According to international humanitarian estimates, more than 36,000 people were evacuated from the remaining rebel pocket to the opposition-held western countryside. More than 121,000 residents sheltered in east Aleppo or fled the fighting into regime-held west Aleppo.”

[10]  Syria: Descent into the Abyss, page 199

[11] Ibid, page 180.

[12] Ibid, page 178.

[13]The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama,” by General Bernard E. Trainor and Michael R. Gordon. New York: Random House, 2008, page 118.

William Van Wagenen

William Van Wagenen

William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read his other writings on Syria for the Libertarian Institute here. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.

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