How Much Can We Trust Reports of—And Outrage Over—War Crimes in Aleppo?

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How Much Can We Trust Reports of—And Outrage Over—War Crimes in Aleppo?

At what is surely a terrible cost, the Syrian Army has finally liberated eastern Aleppo from al-Qaeda and adjacent terrorist outfits. President Bashar al-Assad was not lying, then, when he said his government would recapture the whole city before the year let out.

Predictably, reports of atrocities—including summary executions—are now dominating the news headlines. And while such reports are yet unverified, and most certainly hyperbolized for political purposes, there is no reason to doubt that wanton acts of violence are in fact being carried out. Consider the following statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, published Dec. 12, while the liberation of the city was in its final stages:

The Secretary-General is alarmed over reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children, in recent hours in Aleppo. While stressing that the United Nations is not able to independently verify these reports, the Secretary-General is conveying his grave concern to the relevant parties. He has instructed his Special Envoy for Syria to follow up urgently with the parties concerned.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was more explicit in a statement issued the following day, when the operation was essentially complete:

Multiple sources have reported that pro-Government forces killed at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, in the Bustan al-Qasr, al-Ferdous, al-Kallaseh, and al-Saleheen neighbourhoods yesterday. Thousands of people who remain in areas under the control of armed groups are at risk of grave violations, including detentions, torture and killings.

Arrests, torture, executions: these are the fruits of war, which has never failed to bring out the worst in our collective nature. Of course, despicable as they are, such things are sanitized, rationalized or suppressed altogether when their exposure is politically inconvenient (see our media’s reporting on Israeli atrocities in the Occupied Territories, or on U.S. atrocities in Fallujah). In the opposite case, when there is something to be gained from exposing war crimes, they are amplified, exaggerated or simply fabricated. The Western media’s coverage of the Syrian conflict has been a consistently reliable expression of this double standard. The government’s crimes, both real and imagined, are invariably seized upon by ideologues masquerading as journalists, who use them to justify a policy of regime change—regardless of long-term outcomes. For five years we’ve been fed a steady diet of pro- “rebel” propaganda, which holds that Assad, and Assad alone, is responsible for Syria’s destruction.

A ceasefire broke down? Assad violated it. Civilians were attacked with poison gas? Assad ordered it (or, as this headline suggests, personally delivered it). Residents aren’t leaving eastern Aleppo through the humanitarian corridors? Assad is blocking them, or else he never opened the corridors to begin with.

Oftentimes, if one digs around enough, one can locate kernels of truth that fail to make it through the mainstream media’s filters. For instance, a Dec. 9 memo from the UN’s Rupert Colville appears to confirm what many have long maintained—namely, that civilians in eastern Aleppo were being held hostage by insurgents who threatened to kill them if they attempted to leave for government-controlled areas. Colville’s words are worth quoting at length:

Some of the civilians who have been trying to flee are reportedly being blocked by armed opposition groups. During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra Front) [i.e. al-Qaeda] and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods, to spare the lives of civilians. The groups have reportedly demanded that activists inform them of civilians attempting to leave, along with the names of those who participated in protests against the presence of Fatah al-Sham Front and groups affiliated with them in al-Ferdous and Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhoods a few weeks earlier. We have also received reports that between 30 November and 1 December, armed opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave in the Bustan al-Qasr area towards Government-controlled Msharqa.

Did you read about this in the Washington Post? Me neither. (Also ignored, predictably, was evidence of mass celebrations among the residents of western Aleppo once it became apparent that the government had regained control of the eastern part of the city. This would seem to contradict our refrain that Assad is despised by his own people.)

Few would attempt to argue that Assad’s hands are clean. His security forces have committed grave crimes, including torture and indiscriminate bombing; to deny that is to betray an ideological agenda. By the same token, one is obliged—if one wishes to be taken seriously—to acknowledge the sort of “opposition” he and his supporters are up against. It’s not only that his country has been invaded by an assortment of jihadists (who, lest you forget, we’re supposedly fighting a globalized war against); it’s that said jihadists are funded, trained and armed to the teeth by foreign governments, including our own, that have been plotting his ouster for the better part of a decade.

One wonders how, say, Israel would behave under comparable circumstances, and furthermore how the West—and particularly the US—would respond to that behavior. Given that the IDF launches an all-out assault on the people of Gaza every few years (operating under the flimsiest of pretexts), we can be fairly certain they would exhibit at least as much brutality as Assad has, and probably much more. And given the United States’ shameless apologetics for Israel’s regular rampages against the Palestinians, we can be equally certain that their brutality would be, as I mentioned above, sanitized, rationalized or suppressed altogether. We’ve conferred upon Israel “the right to defend itself,” after all, which roughly translates to: “the right to kill scores of people with impunity.”

The Syrian government, being a non-ally of the West, has no such right; indeed, Assad was expected to politely step aside and make way for his terrorist successors. That he chose to stand and fight them is his real crime, because in so doing he defied the will of the American Empire and, as Fidel Castro would have told you, there’s hell to pay for that sort of defiance.

Now that Aleppo has officially “fallen,” the press wants to lament the fact that the U.S., as the world’s great moral force, did nothing to mitigate the bloodshed. In other words, they’re going to invert reality for us. According to this counterfactual, the US is guilty of malign neglect: if only we’d stepped in and done something, the humanitarian catastrophe may have been averted. The sheer mendacity at work here truly boggles the mind. Far from standing by while Syria went to hell, the US actively fanned the flames—after having helped set the fire to begin with. Without support from the US and its Sunni allies, the terrorists who were just bombed out of eastern Aleppo would never have occupied the city in the first place. Had the Obama administration actually neglected to intervene in Syria, as the media now absurdly charges, thousands of Syrian lives would have been spared.

The liberation of Aleppo marks a watershed in the war; all the major cities (with the exception of Palmyra, which was just recaptured by ISIS) are now under government control. This helps to explain why the media are pulling out all the stops to portray Assad as a butcher on par with Milosevic—except that Milosevic, the Hitler of the nineties, was posthumously exonerated by the International Criminal Court in August. Whoops. As it happens, the man who our media tried and convicted of genocide in both Kosovo and Bosnia explicitly ordered that no such policies were to be carried out.

“Slobodan Milosevic,” the court concluded, “stated that ‘all members of other nations and ethnicities must be protected’ and that ‘the national interest of the Serbs is not discrimination.’” (Again, this inconvenient news went virtually unreported in the US.)

Compare that with William Clinton’s sensationalized indictment of Milosevic in 1999:

“Though his ethnic cleansing is not the same as the ethnic extermination of the Holocaust, the two are related; both vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred.”

How many lies of this nature have to be exposed before it becomes acceptable to challenge what our government, and our media, tell us? More importantly, how many people does the United States have to kill before its condemnation of official enemies, however brutal, rings hollow? As long as criminals like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney are systematically protected from the sword of justice, you’ll have a hard time persuading me that our government’s selective outrage over the events in Aleppo has a shred of meaning. Nor am I likely to be persuaded that said events speak to a unique form of human evil with which the U.S. is fundamentally at odds. Call me a cynic.