Photograph: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
The same applies to Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome. To be fair, in Brussels, on Tuesday, some people did demonstrate, holding “Save Aleppo” placards: there were a hundred or so demonstrators on Schuman Square. But street protests denouncing Aleppo’s plight are confined to small groups – often exiled Syrians and human rights activists. There is none of the grassroots mobilisation that other wars – Iraq in 2003, or the Gaza conflict – have triggered. Nor have artists, trade union leaders, intellectuals or politicians, who have in the past been prompt to organise anti-war movements, shown any determination to get the crowds out to call for an end to the slaughter in Syria.
It may be that we have become numb to the constant stream of horrifying news, including the more than 100 children killed last week in Aleppo by airstrikes. It may be that Syria seems too complex an issue. But what is complex about saying civilians should be protected? What is complex about denouncing those who are currently dropping untold amounts of ordnance on neighbourhoods and hospitals? Yes, it’s true western governments criticise Russia and Bashar al-Assad. It’s also true that at the UN, diplomats have compared Aleppo to Guernica and Srebrenica. But do official statements make any show of public anger redundant? Aren’t basic human values worth standing up for in the face of atrocities – if only to show solidarity?
Or could it be that we are wallowing in an ocean of “post-truth” politics, where Russian and Syrian government propaganda has made us doubt they are breaking international law? Have we started to believe carpet-bombing can be understood as anti-terrorism? Have we started thinking it would be best for Aleppo to be captured swiftly? There’s a useful quote from Tacitus when that kind of logic sets in: “And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”
To understand what’s happening in Aleppo, it’s worth reading about Grozny in the winter of 1999-2000. This is the operation Russian forces are drawing on as they carry out their air offensive on eastern Aleppo. Like other journalists who covered that war in the Caucasus, I see clear parallels. Moscow’s strategy to flush out up to 7,000 Chechen rebels from Grozny, once a city of 250,000 inhabitants, was to pound the whole place into oblivion. Videos and pictures of Grozny in 2000 are available online – take a look. This is a war of total eradication that bears no resemblance to any western intervention.
Grozny was encircled, then almost entirely razed to the ground, with an estimated 50,000 people trapped inside, hunkering cold and hungry in basements and tunnels. After that, Russian ground troops moved in and carried out mass atrocities, shooting survivors in the head and raping women – sinister “mopping up” operations that left a trail of human devastation, especially in the Novye Aldi area, where I saw the traces of those war crimes. Torture centres run by the Russian military filled up. Mass graves were dug so bodies wouldn’t be found. Incredibly brave local human rights activists such as Natalia Estemirova, assassinated in 2009, documented much of this, as did the Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya, killed three years earlier.
Russia and Assad want to capture Aleppo using methods that resemble those used on Grozny. It’s often been said, in the west, that there is no military solution in Syria. But a military “solution” is very much what Moscow and the regime in Damascus are aiming for now – massacring civilians, creating a void that they will then call “pacification”.
I am not saying that demonstrations in London or Paris would stop the tyrants. But if protests were organised, perhaps we’d feel less shame when we look back on these events in the future? Back in 2000, groups did demonstrate in London to denounce “the carnage that the Russians are inflicting on the Chechens”. Jeremy Corbyn was among them. He and many others could now be doing the same for Syrian civilians. Why aren’t they?