This post originally appeared in Syria Deeply.
The crisis in Syria has taken on a new dimension as eastern Aleppo City – the largest redoubt of opposition forces – has all but fallen to forces under the command of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In many ways, Aleppo has become a shorthand for the conflict, a microcosm of the violence and desperation that reverberate across the battered country.
The Syrian conflict’s atrocities have played out in real time before our eyes, broadcast on Facebook, Twitter and cable news and thoroughly documented. The facts and evidence are clear. Syrian hospitals and medical facilities have been attacked – either intentionally or wholly indiscriminately – at least 400 times since the start of the conflict. Well over 90 percent of these attacks have been carried out by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. Still, health professionals, with bull’s-eyes on their backs, have worked tirelessly to treat the ill and wounded, performing surgery with the most basic of instruments, guided by the light of their smartphones and flashlights.
The targeting of medical facilities and personnel – a war crime and, when carried out in a widespread or systematic manner, a crime against humanity – underlines just how blatantly deceptive the Syrian and Russian governments have been. They insist they are fighting to end the scourge of so-called radical Islamic terror. Instead, while they are decimating the country’s health infrastructure and carpet-bombing the historic city of Aleppo beyond recognition, the so-called Islamic State group has made significant advances and retaken Palmyra. The facts speak for themselves. This is not an antiterror operation. It is a scorched-earth campaign against anyone who threatens the authoritarian rule of President Assad or Russia’s stronghold in the Middle East.
As both Syrian and Russian government spokespeople have made plain, anyone who remains in opposition-held areas such as eastern Aleppo or who merely provides assistance, including medical aid, to the opposition will be treated as a terrorist and destroyed. If that tough talk sounds familiar, it’s because it tracks closely with former U.S. president George W. Bush’s assertion just nine days after 9/11, at the beginning of the war on terror: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Such rhetoric gives license to Assad and other despots who are hellbent on obliterating any opposition to their power. They use the blanket assertion of terrorism as an excuse to ignore the protections afforded civilians in conflict, for breaching the laws that shield medical facilities and personnel from attack, and for violating the respect for human life and dignity that we in the human rights community have labored for decades to enshrine in law and in custom.
The result of such war without limits is the utter devastation of Aleppo. Its people are scattered and their lives destroyed. They have been cut down in the streets fleeing gunfire. Men and boys have been rounded up and detained, their fates unknown and their families fearful of the torture or executions that may await them. The health professionals who have put their own lives on the line to save others, without regard for politics or affiliation, may now face retribution for following their professional and ethical obligation to help all those in need.
Meanwhile, we have all become eyewitnesses to the annihilation of the laws of war. We’ve all seen images of the bloodied faces of children emerging, stunned, from the rubble, pictures of the mangled limbs of a patient crushed to death after an airstrike on a makeshift clinic, and surveillance footage that in one moment shows a busy hospital corridor, in the next a scene of absolute destruction. If there’s one saving grace, it’s that these photos and videos may one day be used as evidence against those who have violated international law with such impunity to such cruel ends. Combined with eyewitness testimony, documentary evidence, forensic information and other records, they can help form the core of evidence to prosecute those who have spilled so much blood.
This week, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and said in his remarks, “It is foolish to believe that the end of any conflict must be the elimination of the enemy. A final victory through force, when nonviolent alternatives exist, is none other than the defeat of the human spirit.”
In seizing Aleppo by any means, Assad has dehumanized anyone opposed to his tyranny, claiming that they are not adversaries but terrorists undeserving of life itself. And in allowing the fall of Aleppo, the world has tacitly accepted this method of warfare. We have, as Santos would say, witnessed the defeat of the human spirit in Aleppo. Let us demand protection for civilians, hospitals and doctors – a return to the laws of war – before the human spirit is extinguished across the whole of Syria.