The last two weeks of April 2016 will have sealed the connection between Aleppo and war for many decades to come. Just as the words Beirut and car bomb are inextricably linked, so will be Aleppo and barrel bomb. Certain places become tied to the pitiless nature of war: Hiroshima, Dresden, Biafra, Sarajevo, Stalingrad, Hue. And now Aleppo.
Aleppo’s war will be remembered for the immediacy with which the world has seen its horrors. No longer does it take time for us to know about the bombing of the Al Quds Hospital as it is live tweeted. Just hours later it was possible to see chilling images of Dr. Mohammad Massim Maaz, the last pediatrician at work in eastern Aleppo, walking between wards just before the government killed him in an airstrike.
Our greater awareness of the horrifying reality of war has come at a time when we are seeing in Aleppo a retreat from the body of humanitarian law built up since World War II. Barrel bombs are too inaccurate for military use and they cannot be dropped near the frontlines as they would hit regime forces as well as their opponents. Bashar Al-Assad’s bombs are about destroying housing, hospitals, power and water supplies and schools. His bombs are about driving out people who have risen up against his rule. They are dropped to expel Aleppians from their city.
Assad has defied every norm that has been built up in the past few decades. He has violated the laws of war, used chemical weapons and grotesquely ignored the ban on torture and the principles enshrined in the idea of the Responsibility to Protect. Since 9/11, all of these have been violated by many countries, including the United States. Anything, it seems, can be justified if a leader cries “terrorism.”
But there can be no justification for bombing a children’s hospital. Dr Maaz, his colleagues, and their young patients were most definitely hors de combat. There can be no excuses of the fog of war as the hospital is well known.
Jabhet an-Nusra is a force in the city but however it is described, that can be no justification for the recent attacks. The shelling of western Aleppo by rebels is also a war crime but cannot be a justification for more attacks on civilians in the eastern half.
The world needs a new movement to uphold the restraints on violence that were built up in the 20th century. Syria has seen those restraints shredded. It should start with a symbolic resolution at the UN Security Council calling for an end to violence in Aleppo. Russia would probably veto it. Let them bear the public shame.
It will be terribly sad that Aleppo, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth and a place of great beauty and culture that belongs to all humanity, will become a place associated with such awful violence. Instead we need to ensure that Aleppo marks the start of a new movement towards respect for International Humanitarian Law and a revival of the efforts to protect the innocent from the ravages of war.