The collective hysteria about the impending fall of eastern Aleppo to government forces strikes me as understandable and laudable only up to a point. If the advance of Assad’s forces on the rebel-held part of Aleppo means, as the French government suggested, the biggest massacre of civilians since the Second World War, then obviously it would be a very bad thing. But the spectacle of MPs and the BBC presenting the conflict as Assad and Putin’s lot trying to kill or starve little girls (there’s an eight-year-old whose tweets from Aleppo are widely circulated) and their mums without mentioning the overall nature of the conflict, strikes me as partial at best, stupid at least.
This is a civil war in which the options are, in the modern euphemism, sub-optimal, a choice of two evils, of whom the Assad forces backed by the Russians seem quite plainly to be the least worst. That is, there is a choice between a victory for the Assad regime and its Russian allies, which has plainly used appalling methods against its opponents, and their opponents, which are far, very far, from the Arab equivalent of LibDems.
I don’t just mean Isis; the crucial component of the rebels in eastern Aleppo are 8,000 al-Nusra fighters, whose arms and funding came in the past from Qatar, Saudi and Turkey. They are, if not identical with al Qaeda, as near to them as dammit; they have been successful partly by dint of the intelligent use of suicide bombers but also by dint of their fanaticism. They are popular in eastern Aleppo. Their probable defeat strikes me as a good thing, and if it brings about the speedier end to the war through victory for the regime, that’s the best we can probably hope for.
That – and using our best influence with the regime to ensure that it exercises restraint in Aleppo, and that when it does win the war, it will allow the millions of Syrian refugees to return and, crucially, grant the Syrian Kurds legitimate autonomy (the PKK were for some time the best fighters against IS). Except because of consistent British hostility to the Assad government side, we now have zero influence over it.
There have been two Christian clerics visiting London recently from Syria and it is remarkable the extent to which their point of view has made absolutely no impact on the broadcast coverage of the conflict or on parliamentarians’ bizarre, pro-rebel take on it. The Greek Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart observed in his talks to Aid to the Church in Need that ‘no Christian or moderate Muslim can live in the east [of Aleppo]’, partly because the jihadists use civilians as human shields. Do we hear anything about that in the reports?…nope. Or of rebel attacks on western Aleppo which also kill civilians? Next to nothing.
He also struck at perhaps the central plank in our fatuous approach to the humanitarian crisis by criticising as strongly as he could the Refugees Welcome guff. The offers of asylum, he said, were well-intentioned but ‘not the charity we need’ and ‘terrible, and very harmful for the Church’. He thought international efforts should, rather than depleting the population, instead focus on stopping nations such as Turkey from intervening militarily. They should also focus on bringing about a peace that would enable refugees to return and, crucially, stem the international supply of weapons and mercenaries that fuel the conflict. He in fact thinks that we are ‘glimpsing signs of an approaching peace’ thanks to military advances against the rebels. How does that square with the anguished rhetoric from MPs during the Commons debate on Aleppo this week, which focused on using British planes to conduct air drops of supplies on the east? Not at all.
The other cleric in London this week was the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II who spoke at a meeting in the Lords yesterday hosted by David Alton. He was concerned, he said, about the nature of the media coverage of the conflict and crucially, its lack of coverage of suffering communities across the board; he also said that Syrians, both Muslim and Christian, are worried about the long-term effects of British foreign policy – ie its blatant partisanship.
I’m not saying that the Christian perspective on the conflict is the only one – though it’s a view that’s shared by many moderate Muslims. They’re not cheerleaders for Assad; they plainly think though that the alternative is worse. And that view is terrifyingly unrepresented in most of what passes for debate on Syria over here.