Thursday 25 April 2019

It's time we heard the truth about how ruthless Aleppo rebels shot civilians who tried to leave

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo’s Fardos neighbourhood yesterday, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters (Photo: AFP/Getty)
Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo’s Fardos neighbourhood yesterday, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Robert Fisk

Western politicians, "experts" and journalists are going to have to reboot their stories over the next few days now that Bashar al-Assad's army has retaken control of eastern Aleppo. We are going to find out if the 250,000 civilians "trapped" in the city were indeed that numerous.

We are going to hear far more about why they were not able to leave when the Syrian government and Russian air force staged their ferocious bombardment of the eastern part of the city.

And we're going to learn a lot more about the 'rebels', whom many in the West - the US, Britain and our head-chopping mates in the Gulf - have been supporting.

They did, after all, include al-Qa'ida (alias Jabhat al-Nusra, alias Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), the "folk" - as George W Bush called them - who committed the crimes against humanity in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Remember the War on Terror? Remember the "pure evil" of al-Qa'ida? Remember all the warnings from the security services in the UK about how al-Qa'ida can still strike terror in London?

Not when the rebels, including al-Qa'ida, were bravely defending east Aleppo, we didn't - because a powerful tale of heroism, democracy and suffering was being woven for us, a narrative of good guys versus bad guys as explosive and dishonest as "weapons of mass destruction".

Back in the days of Saddam Hussein - when a few of us argued that the illegal invasion of Iraq would lead to catastrophe, and that Tony Blair and George Bush were taking us down the path to perdition - it was incumbent upon us, always, to profess our repugnance of Saddam and his regime.

So here goes the usual mantra again, which we must repeat ad nauseam to avoid the usual hate mail and abuse that will today be cast at anyone veering away from the approved and deeply flawed version of the Syrian tragedy.

Yes, Bashar al-Assad has brutally destroyed vast tracts of his cities in his battle against those who wish to overthrow his regime. Yes, that regime has a multitude of sins to its name: torture, executions, secret prisons, the killing of civilians, and - if we include the Syrian militia thugs under nominal control of the regime - a frightening version of ethnic cleansing.

Yes, we should fear for the lives of the courageous doctors of eastern Aleppo and the people for whom they have been caring. And let's remember how the UN grimly reported it had been told of 82 civilians "massacred" in their homes in the last 24 hours.

If Mr Assad takes eastern Aleppo, he thinks he will have won the war

But it's time to tell the other truth: that many of the "rebels" whom we in the West have been supporting are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East. And while we have been tut-tutting at the frightfulness of Isil during the siege of Mosul, we have been wilfully ignoring the behaviour of the rebels of Aleppo.

Only a few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the very first Muslim families to flee eastern Aleppo during a ceasefire. The father had just been told that his brother was to be executed by the rebels because he crossed the frontline with his wife and son. He condemned the rebels for closing the schools and putting weapons close to hospitals. And he was no pro-regime stooge.

Around the same time, Syrian soldiers were privately expressing their belief to me that the Americans would allow Isil to leave Mosul to again attack the regime in Syria. Well, so it came to pass. In three vast columns of suicide trucks and thousands of armed supporters, Isil has just swarmed across the desert from Mosul in Iraq, and from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria to seize the beautiful city of Palmyra all over again.

It is highly instructive to look at our reporting of these two parallel events. Almost every headline today speaks of the "fall" of Aleppo to the Syrian army - when in any other circumstances, we would have surely said that the army had "recaptured" it from the "rebels" - while Isil was reported to have "recaptured" Palmyra when (given their own murderous behaviour) we should surely have announced that the Roman city had "fallen" once more under their grotesque rule.

Words matter. These are the men - our "chaps", I suppose, if we keep to the current jihadi narrative - who after their first occupation of the city last year beheaded the 82-year-old scholar who tried to protect the Roman treasures and then placed his spectacles back on his decapitated head.

By their own admission, Russia flew 64 bombing sorties against the Isil attackers outside Palmyra. Given the huge columns of dust thrown up by the Isil convoys, why didn't the US Air Force join in the bombardment of their greatest enemy? For some reason, the US satellites and drones and intelligence just didn't spot them - any more than they did when Isil drove identical convoys of suicide trucks to seize Palmyra when they first took the city in May 2015.

Syrian officers told me in Palmyra earlier this year that Isil would never be allowed to return. There was a Russian military base in the city. Russian aircraft flew overhead. A Russian orchestra had just played in the Roman ruins to celebrate Palmyra's liberation.

So what happened? Most likely is that the Syrian military simply didn't have the manpower to defend Palmyra while closing in on eastern Aleppo. They will have to take Palmyra back - quickly.

But back to Aleppo. The familiar and now tired political-journalistic narrative is in need of refreshing. The evidence has been clear for some days. After months of condemning the iniquities of the Syrian regime while obscuring the identity and brutality of its opponents in Aleppo, the human rights organisations - sniffing defeat for the rebels - began only a few days ago to spread their criticism to include the defenders of eastern Aleppo.

Take the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After last week running through its usual - and perfectly understandable - fears for the civilians and medical workers of eastern Aleppo, and for civilians subject to government reprisals and for "hundreds of men" who may have gone missing after crossing the frontlines, the UN suddenly expressed other concerns.

"During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front [in other words, al-Qa'ida] and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighbourhoods, to spare the lives of civilians . . ." it stated.

"We also received reports that between November 30 and December 1, opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave."

Furthermore, "indiscriminate attacks" on civilian areas of government-held western as well as 'rebel' eastern Aleppo took place.

I suspect we shall be hearing more of this in the coming days. (© Independent News Service)

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