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After Aleppo: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

As the battle for Aleppo ramps up, the international community must not ignore what comes next. The destruction we see there will likely be visited on nearby Idlib and the adjacent countryside, writes the Syrian American Medical Society’s Adham Sahloul.

Written by Adham Sahloul Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Civil defense workers and Syrian citizens inspecting damaged buildings after airstrikes hit Darat Izza town, in rural western Aleppo province, Syria, on November 5. Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP

GAZIANTEP, Turkey – When Syrians in the opposition-held western countryside of Aleppo find an unexploded cluster munition (used by Syrian government and Russian forces), they darkly joke “praise to God, our livelihood is here.” They sell the unexploded bomblets to armed opposition groups. It’s a dangerous job, but, forced to move from location to location seeking shelter from airstrikes and without options for sustenance or faith in the international community, the internally displaced people (IDPs) are desperate.

This grim reality in the northern countryside is a portrait of the life that awaits the people of Aleppo if Syria’s largest city falls. If the status quo remains unchanged, east Aleppo will be a graveyard. As U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura himself said, Syrian and Russian airstrikes will destroy Aleppo in roughly two months. To make matters worse, facing the coming winter under siege, without food and fuel, will eventually force Aleppo to surrender. Of the roughly 250,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo, those who survive will be forcibly displaced to Idlib and Aleppo’s hinterlands.

The hell that has rained down on Aleppo city since July captured international attention for a hot minute. But Aleppo is being heavily attacked once again. Since the government and its allies resumed their bombardment last week, hundreds of civilians have been killed, and airstrikes have put every hospital in the area out of service. The psychological terror induced by attacking healthcare facilities will make life in Aleppo more and more unbearable, forcing those left to surrender or flee.

The story of what happens after Aleppo demands immediate attention. A colleague of mine from a partner NGO asked me for signs that may forecast the next siege, the next massacre or the next surrender of a besieged area in Syria. The situation in the countryside surrounding Aleppo and Idlib should sound every alarm.

At the start of this month, pro-government forces ramped up their attacks on the western Aleppo countryside, and Syrian and Russian warplanes now pound the area almost daily. All four hospitals in the area are out of operation and at least two are beyond repair. The nearest functional hospital is an hour’s drive away in Bab el-Hawa, near the Turkish border.

IDPs in Idlib, including those from formerly besieged Darayya, Homs and Mouadamiya who were recently forcibly evacuated, will be the Syrian government’s next target in its effort to consolidate the north. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself said in a recent interview that he looks to “clean” the city of Idlib and that Aleppo “is going to be a very important springboard to do this move.” From this, we are to expect countless more killed, displaced and attempting to flee Syria.

One can also forecast that no matter the outrage we feel for Aleppo city today, the same will likely happen in Idlib tomorrow without any resistance from the international community. We must learn from the lessons of the very recent yesterday when looking to the future. It takes the corpses of children washing up on Europe’s shores for us to click “retweet” or donate. But even then, we failed to address the root of the issue: Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

Humanitarian workers are running into countless walls and exhausting every tool in the advocacy toolbox. Those of us working hard to turn awareness into action are pathetically looking for another viral photo, like that of Omar Daqneesh, the “Ambulance Boy” whose heartbreaking picture flooded the front pages of international media, or another hashtag that might work to awaken or, at least, shame the international community into outrage.

But as the destruction continues in Aleppo, we are no longer holding our collective breath. Syria has just been a job creator, paying salaries for foreign correspondents and NGO workers like myself.

This is because, as Samantha Power put it in her 2002 book about genocide and global inaction, “A Problem From Hell,” the United States lacked political will. She is still, ironically, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Advocacy for Syria has always been about the U.S., and its failure has always been due to U.S. inaction. No other actor on the global stage had the military and coalition-building power to overpower Russia, Assad’s de facto representative at the U.N. Security Council, and enact a no-fly zone that would, at minimum, protect civilians from airstrikes.

We spent more than five years pushing for this. We diversified our attempts, using media, international prosecution, sanctions and, more recently, appealing to the European audience that was activated during the refugee crisis. We’ve reached out to every high office in the relevant American national security agencies. But we failed to stir the public opinion of the American people, who are exhausted from military engagement in the Middle East under the premise of humanitarian action. That window is all but closed now as President Barack Obama’s administration comes to an end. Most of us in the Syrian advocacy community anticipated a more savvy administration under Hillary Clinton that would have the political will to act. Instead we got Donald Trump, who recently indicated a reversal of the U.S.’s current stance on Syria.

If President-elect Donald Trump enables Russian president Vladimir Putin in Syria even more than Barack Obama did – and make no mistake, unchecked Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine is a failure on Obama’s part – the situation will only become more grim. For the next four years at least, even after the battle for Aleppo has ended, Syrians will continue to weep, moan and gnash their teeth.

Most articles like this one end with a call to action or a policy suggestion of some sort. But after five years of shouting at a global wall, I cannot offer that here. All we can do is produce more reports, articles and photos that justify our role as humanitarians, orphaned from an international community, to heed the call of the Syrian people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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