Weeping For Aleppo
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
The Syrian Civil War has been raging for five years now. It is, to say the least, a multifaceted conflict. Aleppo is the capitol city of Syria, with roughly the same population as Houston, Texas. One of the primary reasons it’s in the news a lot is because the rebel-held, eastern part is one of the hardest-hit areas of the war. We’re talking airstrikes and food, water and supply shortages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. There are a thousand reasons why you may not care about Aleppo. The question is, what’s the one reason why you would? Things that happen far away, to people we have never known from areas of the world we have no connection to, don’t hit us as hard as whatever is happening at home. So if you don’t particularly care about the Syrian civil war, or the crisis it’s created in places like the city of Aleppo, I think it’s high time you did. Even as you read this, the world is watching the exploding humanitarian catastrophe known as the Syrian civil war unfold in real time. But this disaster should surprise no one: It is the natural result of a series of policy decisions that led to the current diplomatic standoff. Step by step, the very nature of humanitarian access and relief has almost been redefined in Syria.
The Syrian civil war has laid bare a great deal, including the world’s unwillingness to intervene to stop civilians from being killed in their beds and on their streets, in a conflict that has pinned them down in their homes. Every time those close to the war think things have sunk as barbarically low as imaginable – from bombing convoys to starving towns – things get even worse. For many of those in the US government who have worked on Syria policy for years, the overwhelming sense of frustration has made the bloodshed nearly impossible to watch, in part because of its predictability. Grief-stricken families embracing in the rubble of what used to be their home – a home like any other, and probably similar to yours. Mothers and fathers crouching over their dead children as they sob uncontrollably together. A father and son, crushed in place under the wreckage of another airstrike. And these aren’t even among the most iconic images. This is every hour, every day. That’s five elementary school classrooms gone in a matter of days. That’s more children than you likely know by name. That’s only one week of fighting. When we say trapped, we mean Aleppo’s citizens literally cannot leave. Roads out of parts of the city are under constant attack. That doesn’t only mean people can’t leave, it means things can’t get in; things like food, water, medicine and fuel.
Take Houston off the map. Yes, the whole darn city. Or Atlanta, or Miami and then some. Do you live in Lansing, Michigan? Destroy it – four times over. That’s the number of people who have been killed in five years of fighting in Syria. It’s easy to think that, if things were really that bad, someone would surely be doing something about it. That’s the whole point. The world is trying and failing. The US can’t decide whether to authorize military action against the Syrian regime. Ceasefires designed to help bring aid to people trapped in war-torn areas only last a matter of days. The biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II drags on. The ghosts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still looms large in Washington, but the question is, what lessons has it offered? Without question the conflict has prevented the Obama administration from committing sustained resources to stopping the carnage. Officials in Washington who for years argued for greater intervention could never prove that further American action would make things on the ground in Syria better, not worse. And so the status quo prevailed. And that status quo was to do little to address the conflict’s root causes, but a great deal to fund help for refugees who were suffering the war’s effects. Meanwhile, the carnage has continued.
The United Nations once spoke of a responsibility to protect and defend. In 2009 it said that in the face of war crimes, when a state was miserably failing to protect its population, then the international community was prepared to take collective action in a “timely and decisive manner.” Yet there is nothing either timely or decisive about the world’s approach to Syria, which has become the theater in which global and regional actors pursue their own goals, with Syrian mothers and fathers trapped in cities under attack paying the price. But this piece is not about dueling political aims; it is about the shared misery of those on the ground and an international community that has failed them. What is life in Aleppo like now? Bombing in plain sight. Hospitals crushed under the weight of the injured and the dying. Food and water supplies dwindling. Medical supplies limited to almost nothing, leaving anesthesia near nonexistent and babies dying without functioning ventilators on the dirty floors of the few overwhelmed facilities that remain standing. And all of it is happening in real time as the city’s life and death is captured on social media and shared with the world. And yet the world seems to have stopped watching. And the international community is now shown to be impotent in the face of what the British ambassador to the United Nations termed “war crimes.”
That has been the pattern for years, only now the death toll is growing even higher and the “barbarism,” to quote Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has grown more bold. For those on the ground in Aleppo and other areas under siege, it is clear that no one is prepared to stop the carnage everyone can see and many had predicted. The pictures may be on phones and screens within easy reach, but a solution to ending the bloodshed remains much further away. We don’t want to lose hope, but in the end if you look at the situation it seems hopeless, that we can’t do anything, so the world is just watching. People keep on dying and the situation continues to get worse and worse, with no end in sight, and no plan to help those children in Aleppo from facing death the next time they go outside to play on their streets. From the very beginning of this on-line ministry, this blog, and this website, I have vigorously opposed and vehemently stood against warfare in all its forms. There is no ideology that can justify mass murder, no economic or governmental policy that justifies terrorizing an entire populace, and at the end of the day that’s what warfare is! What’s all this killing for, for what purpose? If we pause to step back and examine the reasons for warfare, I see two little words coming to my mind – pillage and plunder. Or, if anyone prefers, criminal activity are two other words that could be substituted. Jesus summed this point up perfectly when He said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Of course, I can practically hear all these ‘conservative Christians’ say these wars are necessary to address the perceived threat of militant Islam. They are likely excoriating me even as they read this (if any of them are actually reading this at all), stating that I’m not patriotic enough, or that if I don’t help kill more Muslims they will be at my doorstep to kill me. Problem is, this is the kind of thinking that gets wars started in the first place! Still others would – and do – say that if America doesn’t take a more aggressive stance in the Middle East in order to protect and defend “our” oil, that we will be cut off from “our” petroleum reserves and suffer a military and economic defeat of unimaginable proportions. The problem I have with that is the internal combustion engine is at the end of its useful life span. At the very least, America should have converted over to much cleaner-burning natural gas decades ago after the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s. At best, the US should have engaged in a crash-program of developing battery and solar-powered cars and trucks, again starting decades ago, but no! There’s still too much oil in the ground for the ‘big oil’ companies to simply walk away from, there’s too much profit to be made! Never mind that all those car, bus and truck engines and slowly asphyxiating our planet – the only one we’ve got! Never mind that more people die from respiratory illnesses caused by pollution globally than from cigarette smoking! We Americans, I conclude, are indirectly responsible for the catastrophe of Aleppo. Those who support ‘blood for oil’ – mainly the US political, military and corporate systems and their respective organizations and entities, are accessories to the murder of hundreds of thousands just in Aleppo alone, not counting the remainder of Syria. Moreover, the fact that these are primarily Muslims who are dying is, to me at least, completely beside the point! And what is the point? Murder, no matter what the context or circumstances, is wrong. Period, end of story. And so, I sit here at home today and I silently weep. I, too, weep for Aleppo.