How can you tell when war crimes are being committed? How do you know if civilian casualties of war are victims of a murderous campaign or simply “collateral damage”? How do you determine whether the human rights of civilians are being violated by a ruthless dictator, or if civilians are simply unfortunate for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Judging by the approach of the U.S. government and corporate media, the answer to these questions depends entirely on which side the United States is on.
If the U.S. or one of its clients/partners is doing the invading, occupying, bombing and killing, there are no human rights violations; the victims are collateral damage and the U.S. is “doing everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties.” Since the U.S. resumed its bombing campaign in Iraq in August 2014, it has dropped tens of thousands of bombs—by some estimates, the number of bombs reached 50,000 this past summer. There have been hundreds, probably thousands of civilian casualties.
How was Ramadi taken back from ISIS in May? Did Washington peacefully persuade ISIS fighters to lay down their arms? Did Baghdad reason with the Islamic State to submit to the authority of the government? No. The U.S. launched an intense bombing campaign as Iraqi forces, along with various militia groups, fought on the ground. Were there any civilian casualties? Yes. Were any buildings and other infrastructure destroyed? Of course. Journalists commonly used the expression “reduced to rubble” describing Ramadi. Some civilians had left but thousands had stayed, many of whom were killed or injured as a result of the fighting. The same could be said of the U.S.-led military attack on Fallujah or Tikrit.
But the bloody consequences of those campaign are treated as the expected outcome of war, where people, both warriors and civilians, lose their lives. There have been no calls for Iraqi President Haidar al-Abadi to be “held accountable” for civilian casualties. Corporate media outlets certainly did not call for President Obama to be held responsible for war crimes. Nor did liberal groups rally for an end to the catastrophe of Ramadi, nor Tikrit, nor Fallujah, ….
This week, Iraqi forces have moved in on Mosul to try to take it back from ISIS. Is the U.S. supporting those forces? Yes, there is heavy U.S. bombardment. On Oct. 17 alone, the corporate media boasted of the reported success of a massive bombing that destroyed what was claimed to be an ISIS car bomb factory in Mosul.
Since we are not hearing anything about the civilian victims of the bombing and the fighting in Mosul, there are no civilians left in Mosul, right? Wrong! Most of the population is still there. Why? For the same reason that they are still in Aleppo, Syria. Because most people have no place to go to. To just leave your home in the hopes of finding a camp and hope to be sheltered and fed is not a very attractive prospect. So, many people stay and take their chances hoping to survive the war.
In fact, as mainstream media have reported: “Iraqi leaflets dropped from planes onto the city have urged Mosul’s residents to shelter in their homes and to disconnect gas lines.” To be clear, the United States is bombing Mosul and fighters on the ground are using artillery to fight, while there are civilians in the city. How is this different from Aleppo?
Are there negotiations under way to stop the fighting? No, the advances towards Mosul are widely celebrated. Is UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calling on all sides to exercise restraint? No, not at all. Are pro-Western journalists and activists lamenting that nothing is being done to stop the fighting and save the civilians? No. They are all welcoming the fighting, civilians be damned.
Tale of two cities
When it comes to Syria and the city of Aleppo, entirely different standards are applied. Similar to Iraq, much of Syria’s territory is occupied by terror groups. Aleppo was Syria’s most populated city prior to the civil war. Since 2012, different areas of Aleppo have been under the control of the state and different rebel factions. In July, the forces of President Bashar Assad and their allies managed to encircle the rebel-controlled areas, cutting off the rebels’ supply lines. In early August, in a major reversal, the rebels broke the siege and, for a few days, even threatened the government-controlled areas of the city—mainly western Aleppo.
How that happened was through the formation of an alliance between the FSA (Free Syrian Army, the U.S.-backed “moderate” rebels) and the Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The Nusra Front recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and severed its formal ties with Al Qaeda. Of course, the group remains the same in its leadership and ideology. Reflecting the increasing weakness of the U.S.-supported rebels, eastern Aleppo is now controlled by Nusra, welcomed by the FSA.
Today, even if we were to accept the assumption that the FSA is not a terrorist organization, a false assumption, it is no longer the FSA but predominantly the Nusra Front that is controlling eastern Aleppo. Even the U.S. acknowledges that Nusra is a terrorist organization.
Why is the U.S. alarmed?
The government of President Assad is approaching what it calls the “final victory” in Aleppo. The Syrian Arab Army, with the help of Lebanon’s resistance force Hezbollah, militia forces, Iran and a Russian bombing campaign, are likely weeks away from retaking Aleppo. They have already encircled the terrorist forces and cut off their supply lines. If Assad takes back Aleppo, there will remain no large metropolitan areas under rebel control. ISIS still has most of sparsely populated eastern Syria but no big cities.
Yes, there are civilians in Aleppo, much like there are in Mosul and there were in Ramadi. Are civilians being victimized by the fighting? Yes. That is the unfortunate truth. But contrary to the image portrayed by the corporate media, civilians in Aleppo are not sealed in. Since early in the campaign, there has been a corridor for civilians to leave.
This is similar to what the Syrian military has done to other cities that they have taken back from ISIS, Nusra and other terror groups. In fact, the widely acknowledged approach of the Syrian army has been to allow even fighters to leave without surrendering, allowing them to hold on to their light weapons. The image of Assad boxing civilians in Aleppo and having Russia bomb away is U.S.-generated propaganda. The primary responsibility for the unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people does not rest with Assad but the U.S. government. What could have remained protests and civil unrest in 2011 escalated to a bloody war thanks to U.S. intervention, and that of its reactionary regional allies.
What is the real difference?
How is Aleppo different from Mosul or Ramadi? In both instances, the government is fighting terror groups with the help of foreign forces and an air campaign. Why is Aleppo characterized as an ever worsening catastrophe, not an impending victory for a secular state over reactionary terrorist forces? Why is Mosul cause for celebration and Aleppo cause for mourning? Why is Secretary of State John Kerry pushing for new sanctions against the Syrian state? Why are there calls for Assad to be tried for crimes against humanity, while there is scarcely a mention of Iraqi President Abadi? Why is Russia responsible for murder in Syria while the U.S. is portrayed as honorably helping the Iraqi state? Why are pseudo-progressive activists initiating campaigns such as “Aleppo is Burning” and organizing panels to discuss “Holding Syria’s Assad and Other Human Rights Criminals Accountable“?
The difference is that Syria has a nationalist, independent state that the Unites States has for decades tried to overthrow. What is alarming for the U.S. government and its compliant media is not the plight of the civilians in Aleppo. It’s that the Syrian state taking back Aleppo will sound the death knell for the pro-West, “democratic” opposition. Even though the FSA no longer even controls eastern Aleppo, now having to share it with Nusra, there is little else that the FSA controls elsewhere.
Weak and insignificant as it is, the FSA is what the U.S. has pinned its hopes on. If the U.S. bombs, invades or occupies Syria, and that is a real possibility, the FSA is the force it intends to install into power, along with the flavor of the day “democratic coalition” grouping abroad—Syrian National Council, Syrian National Coalition, …
In response to U.S. threats of direct action against Damascus, Russia has shown no willingness to back away, expressing a commitment to defend Syria against aggression. This further narrows U.S. options for seeking its desired regime-change in Syria. But it also sets up a dangerous situation internationally; one that raises the possibility of a direct confrontation between U.S. and Russia, with dangers of an eventual nuclear confrontation.
The notion that the U.S. is concerned about civilian casualties in Aleppo would be comical if not for the trail of tragic consequences of decades of U.S. intervention in the region. It’s not just that the U.S. is currently engaged in a similar campaign in Iraq.
The U.S. destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure in 1991, only to follow that up with 12 years of genocidal sanctions, killing an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis. The U.S. occupation of Iraq took another million or more Iraqi civilian lives. On a daily basis, the U.S. uses drones to bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, slaughtering civilians at will.
U.S. client Saudi Arabia, one of the most reactionary states in the world, has been mercilessly bombing Yemen for months now. On Oct. 8, a Saudi bombing in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, massacred 140 civilians, injured 525 and created a “lake of blood.” “In the aftermath of the strike, hundreds of body parts were found strewn in and outside the hall. Rescuers collected them in sacks.” (LA Daily News)
Is the U.S. sanctioning Saudi Arabia? Of course not. The U.S. continues arming that country. Are self-declared grassroots human rights activists starting campaigns to hold the archreactionary Saudi princes accountable for the “lake of blood?” Of course not. They are too busy “exposing” Assad, who is fighting for survival against a sea of fundamentalist forces that owe their existence to U.S. intervention in the region. And, of course, the bombing of Yemen, a country whose sovereignty is being blatantly violated by Saudi Arabia, continues unabated.
Human rights activists and those proclaiming to be peace activists would do better to focus on death and destruction instigated, carried out and funded by Washington rather than to orient their activities towards the goals of the Pentagon and the State Department. The vast majority of human rights violations over the last century and beyond have been perpetrated by the imperialists, not those resisting imperialism. When it comes to Syria, Iraq and the rest of the region, for real anti-war activists in the U.S. and elsewhere, there is but one demand to organize and mobilize around: U.S. Out of the Middle East!