History suggests the ending of any siege is likely to be bloody
Rebel-held eastern Aleppo is collapsing. The residents and insurgents who fought and held out against the Syrian government for five years are being defeated, meter by meter, house by house. When their defenses finally crumble, mass human rights violations and summary executions will follow as the victors administer retribution, analysts are warning.
In recent days, atrocities have already been reported as rebel territory fell. Worse is likely to come as the last few battered square-miles of eastern Aleppo succumb to what is now inevitable. Why? Because this is what happens in a civil war when one exhausted army finally crushes its cornered opponent.
The ‘last stand,’ lauded in Hollywood and in so many military exploits since well before the Alamo, is often anything but glorious. Historians don’t have to look very far back to point to examples of atrocities carried out by combatants who found themselves suddenly powerful and their defeated opponents utterly powerless.
Government forces are reported to be in control of 98% of the city with the area still holding out being reduced in recent weeks to less than 1 square mile. The BBC reported that 50,000 civilians could be trapped in this tiny space, along with 1,500 rebel fighters. A short-lived ceasefire, that was supposed to enable the evacuation of the remaining enclaves collapsed on Wednesday with the resumption of heavy shelling, less than 24 hours after it was announced. A second ceasefire began Thursday morning, and a convoy of wounded men left the city.
Concern for those trapped inside the shrinking front have been expressed by a number of international agencies and Western governments.
In the last week, hundreds of men who crossed from rebel territory into government controlled areas have gone missing, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told The Media Line. The scale and suddenness of the disappearances is ominous. “[This] was a significantly large number of people who suddenly lost contact [with their families] trying to escape.” It is possible that the men have merely lost communications temporarily in the recent chaos. But there is great concern that they have either been executed or imprisoned and tortured due to the brutality demonstrated by the Syrian regime throughout the conflict, Colville explained.
There are also reports of summary executions taking place as areas of the city change hands. The UN has been informed, by name, of 82 people shot dead in recent days, including 11 women and 13 children. Some appeared to have been executed. Alarmingly, among these names were a large number of people from the same extended family, killed in two different locations. This could be an indication that pro-government forces are targeting specific people and families, singled out as agitators, Colville said. “The fact that it’s happening in two different districts, that triggers alarm bells that this is not coincidental or haphazard,” he explained.
Colville expressed hope that any ceasefire could avoid prolonged bloodshed but suggested human rights violation could still occur as the rebel enclave was evacuated, adding, “I think it’s something that has to be watched like a hawk.”
Some of the worst human rights violations in recent history occurred in similar circumstances, at the end of long bitter conflicts. The Bosnian War fought during the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995 was known for its brutality.
However, the name Srebrenica stands out among the many sins of that war. The only officially recognized act of genocide to have taken place among all the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the war, Srebrenica is rightly remembered for the 8,000 Bosniak men and boys who were murdered by Bosnian-Serb forces while they were supposedly under UN protection.
But in the time before Srebrenica became a crime scene it was a hold out under siege, one of several Bosnian territories that became surrounded by the Bosnian-Serb military and its allies. When a military unit collapses and loses its cohesion, it becomes easy for an enemy to round up and kill the combatants, often along with a large number of civilians who match the age and gender to be fighters. The Geneva Conventions are supposed to stop such practices, but at Srebrenica that wasn’t the case.
Neither was it in the north of Sri Lanka when the country’s military finally defeated the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, bringing to an end three decades of civil war over the group’s desire for an ethnic state of its own. In 2009, towards the end of the war the Tigers’ leadership and fighters were pushed onto a tiny peninsula of land, hidden among a crowd of 350,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians. The LTTE was accused by human rights groups of using non-combatants as human shields, something that did little to deter the Sri Lankan army’s artillery bombardments over a number of months.
When the end finally came and the LTTE collapsed the victor’s justice was bloody and quickly meted out. The documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields shows film – shot by Sri Lankan soldiers as trophy-footage – of large numbers of executed LTTE fighters and commanders. Exact casualty figures for civilian and combatant deaths remain disputed.
This, the atrocities carried out in Sri Lanka and in Bosnia – and now reports suggest in Syria’s Aleppo – are all too common occurrences during civil wars, Alexander Korb, a lecturer in modern European history at the University of Leicester, told The Media Line. Traditionally, civil conflicts have always been more vicious, more personal, as people choose which side to kill and die for, or alternatively, split themselves down sectarian lines from their once neighbors.
“It’s a very emotional conflict. Boundaries between combatants and civilians are extremely grey and this is why there is a lot more atrocities in civil wars than in conventional wars,” Korb said. There is a dark logic to the violence of the winning side also, he noted. “From the perpetrators perspective, this is their rationale. You can’t send enemy fighters home because they will continue to agitate against the regime.” Mass executions solve this problem.
Russian and pro-Assad news sources have been quick to deride such concerns. RT, the Russian mouthpiece news channel claimed that allegations of human rights violations taking place in Aleppo boiled down to Western media saying, ‘someone told us,’ as neither they nor the UN have observers on the ground in Aleppo.
Denial and fake news are an “integral part” of ongoing war crimes during and after conflicts, Korb, who is also the director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, explained. Holocaust denial is possibly the most notorious form of this practice, but is unfortunately not unique. Similar aspersions were made by the Sri Lankan government and Bosnian-Serb leaders. Aleppo is unlikely to be any different.