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Stop saying “we can do nothing” about Aleppo

We can’t bring back the dead, or repair the lives that have been destroyed. But in convincing others of the value of individual life, we can honour those who have been sacrificed.

lead lead More than 30,000 people have fled Aleppo since the latest government offensive began last month, joining the more than 10 million Syrians — nearly half the population — who have fled their homes since the conflict began. (c) Hassan Ammar AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.I came back to Kyiv, the city of my birth, on a snowy evening this week. The trip was reassuring in its ordinariness. I had taken the red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, following by a layover that had me wandering the duty free shops in an exhausted stupor as the attendants, spotting an easy mark, scrambled to try to get me to spend a hundred euros on moisturising my tired face. 

The plane to Kyiv sat at the gate for a long time, with the cheerful Lufthansa pilot occasionally piping up about how there have been knock-on delays due to fog. I passed out from exhaustion in my window seat and woke up just as the pilot announced that we had entered Ukrainian airspace.

My native country glittered below us, all snow and the scattered, shivering lights of towns. The moon reflected on the Airbus’s shiny wing as if it were a puddle. I watched it as the plane began its smooth descent. Something caught in my throat. Something always catches in my throat when my plane is on approach to Kyiv. 

At my grandmother’s place, all I wanted to do was collapse into sleep on my husband’s shoulder. At around five am local time, our weeping child materialised outside the bedroom door, as he is wont to do at his age. On the bed, we made room for him and his well-worn teddy bear. 

Merely taking back Aleppo would never be enough — that much was obvious to anyone who had followed the devastating war in Syria with even a cursory interest

His crying lit up my jetlagged brain and I got out of bed and tried to do some work. Periodically, I checked Twitter.

On my feed, people were discussing Aleppo. The discussion was not a positive one. The only thing that was appropriate to focus on was the fact that a great deal of people, many of them women and children, were now dying, or were close to it. The New Yorker was referring to the besieged city as “Syria’s Stalingrad”.

Troops loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is backed unquestioningly by Russian President Vladimir Putin, were poised to take back the city from rebels who had taken it over back in 2012.

But merely taking back Aleppo would never be enough — that much was obvious to anyone who had followed the devastating war in Syria with even a cursory interest.

No, Aleppo would have to be broken and made an example of. According to UN Human Rights Council, 82 civilians were named as summarily executed by pro-Assad forces by Monday - and this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. 

Those who have so far been spared may have worse than a shooting death to look forward to - as the Syrian government is famous for its use of torture, with Amnesty International estimating that up to 300 people have died in detention per month in Syria since the war broke out in 2011.

Militias backed by Iran - which is also involved in the conflict - have meanwhile been accused of blocking evacuation efforts. Things are so bad that Buzzfeed has been documenting chilling social media goodbyes from the devastated city

Through it all, Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has continued to back him up, its propaganda insisting that what is happening to Aleppo is a glorious liberation (and the fact that Palmyra just fell to ISIS again has nothing to do with Russia). 

It dawned on me then, on that dark winter morning, that if Putin’s bombs were to rain down on our modest domestic paradise next – on me, on my child, on my husband, my parents, my ancient grandma, my disdainful grey cat – the world would do exactly what it did with regard to Aleppo. 

The world, in other words, would not do much. 

For all of our bluster, we’re not really doing anything about Russian actions in Syria, or Syria in general, are we? 

Entertaining the idea of Kyiv being attacked by Putin is no longer a hysterical fantasy, but a future possibility that needs to be discussed in all seriousness. 

Donald J Trump is the president-elect of the United States. The man is a narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish (which may or may not be an insult to goldfish. I mean, you’ve never heard a goldfish brag about sexual assault).

Russia may have helped to get Trump into office – and while Russian hacks were obviously not the decisive factor, it is clear that the Kremlin intends to have a very special relationship with the new US president, with all of the creepiness the word “special” implies.

Trump has undermined US commitment to NATO, causing (reasonable) worry in the Baltics. Ukraine isn’t even in NATO. Ukraine, embroiled in a shadow war with Russia since 2014, with the last UN report putting the death toll in spring of 2016 at over 9,000, is now a sitting duck. 

Years ago, when Russia was not yet militarily involved in Syria in an uncompromising effort to back Assad, I wrote a column for the Moscow Times about how the western world can learn from Russia’s cautiousness on regime change. Regime change has unpredictable results. The fact that the US invasion of Iraq basically gave birth to the likes of ISIS is just one glaring example. 

But Russia has learned from us instead – from the worst of us, that is. Russia looked at the fantasy of American exceptionalism and decided to adapt it. “It was wrong for the US to get involved in Iraq, and we’ll prove that by getting involved in Syria!” the twisted logic goes.

What Russia lacks in firepower it makes up for with tactics. It has a very particular, and historically well-documented, disregard for the lives and rights of individuals. The Kremlin seems to believe that killing civilians is the only way to make people learn – it’s what was done to Grozny.

And for all of our bluster, we’re not really doing anything about Russian actions in Syria, or Syria in general, are we? 

Whether through counselling, through picketing, through writing, through calling every politician you can think of and making a real nuisance of yourself, through quiet or loud conversations around the dinner table, you can begin to reach out

My grandmother’s apartment in Kyiv is in an old building, which was bombed during WWII and repaired afterwards. I like hiding out in this place, with its high ceilings and echoing stairwells. I also realise that the relative stability that characterised the post-war decades now seems to be over. There may very well be no hiding anymore, and no pleading for the world to learn from its mistakes.

“The world is, it just is,” the protagonist’s mother says in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, another throwback to those violent years that were never an abstraction to people like my grandmother, who still remembers the terror of the Nazi occupation. 

Nobody’s special. That’s the thought I keep coming back to as I look at the fragile Kyiv outside my window, with its old trees haunted by snow. If you grow up in the western world, you’re used to conjuring up mass suffering as something that’s the fate of others. Certainly not people you know. Certainly not you.

But that’s not how it actually works. In the current climate, what’s happening to Aleppo may very well be just the beginning of a new cycle of mass violence. As entrepreneur Tobias Stone put it this summer, when Trump’s game-changing victory seemed impossible to many, historical record shows that violent instability has a way of spreading quickly and unpredictably

Yet neither do I believe the “we can do nothing” mantra on Aleppo. It’s self-defeating and, in its own way, a cop-out. 

Convincing people that individual lives must be valued is the way to honour the lives that have already been lost. It may not work on Putin, but it may work on that one Trump voter you know. It may not convince Assad, but it can convince some of his loyalists.

Unless you’re dealing with a psychopath, the hands of those who take lives always tremble at first. The trembling goes away when violence becomes routine. Saying “but violence is the way of the world” means becoming an enabler, even if you’re not exactly wrong. Saying “we are all complicit in evil” is not wrong either, but Dostoevsky, who was fond of the concept, also believed that complicity does not remove responsibility. 

Believing you can make a difference is the first step toward any genuine solidarity with those the monster has swallowed

In light of that, we should not only be rescuing the victims, we should be rescuing people for whom violence has not yet become routine, people who are not yet lost. 

Whether through counselling, through picketing, through writing, through calling every politician you can think of and making a real nuisance of yourself, through quiet or loud conversations around the dinner table, you can begin to reach out. Reach out to those who are not in your social media bubble of mutual validation especially – even if that part is awkward or downright unpleasant at times. 

It’s true that sometimes the monster of violence wins, but there is always the next round. Believing you can make a difference is the first step toward any genuine solidarity with those the monster has swallowed. 

This is why I write to you now – about my sleeping son, the hiss of Kievan traffic outside, the cat that's perched on the window and having a staring contest with the dark. 

I write to you about the ordinary, the breakable, the precious. You too have ordinary, breakable, precious moments in your life. Allowing for the idea that it can all be taken from you is not mere emotional masochism — especially if you realise, please realise, that we can and must make the taking harder, for everyone.

 


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