LONDON – The stop-and-go evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo had begun again as I write this, but the reason for the last interruption was instructive. It was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaida) that burned the buses coming to evacuate the wounded from Foah and Kefraya.
The same organization dominates the rebel forces in Aleppo, and its propaganda has worked very well. According to Western media, the city of Aleppo has not just been “destroyed”; it has been “annihilated.” There has not only been a “massacre”; there has been a “genocide.”
Official sources have not been much better. Last week at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power compared what was happening in Aleppo to other scenes of slaughter “that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later … Rwanda, Srebrenica and, now, Aleppo.”
In Rwanda, an estimated 800,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi minority, were murdered by the militia of the Hutu regime in 1994 over a period of 3½ months. About 20 percent of the country’s population, and up to 70 percent of its Tutsis, were killed.
In Srebrenica in 1995, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, civilians who had been living under U.N. “protection,” were systematically shot and buried by Serbian troops in a single day. That was a genocide too, although the numbers were far smaller than in Rwanda. The victims were killed because they were Muslims.
So does Aleppo really belong on this grim list? We don’t know the exact number of civilians who died there, but a reasonable guess would be that between a thousand and several thousand civilians were killed by bombs and shellfire during the final four months of the siege.
That would be a dreadful toll even if eastern Aleppo had really held 250,000 civilians, as the rebels claimed. The real number of civilians was far lower than that, maybe as little as a quarter as many, which would mean that the civilian death rate was even worse.
But that is what happens in sieges, even when they are conducted by people much nicer than Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Does anybody really believe that the civilian death toll will be lower if and when the Iraqi Army retakes the besieged city of Mosul?
Nothing that has happened so far in either city is a patch on what happened to civilians in Leningrad in 1941-1942, or in Manila and Berlin in 1945. And by the way, Aleppo has not been “annihilated,” although there has been massive destruction in the eastern suburbs and considerable damage in the center.
In the western half of Aleppo, where the regime never lost control, around a million people have gone about their daily lives almost as normal, losing only a dozen or so dead a month to the shells and rockets that the rebels fired into their zone.
I’m not writing this as a defense of the Assad regime, but because we need to understand why the Western media peddled such a distorted picture of what was going on.
The problem was that the 10,000 fighters who controlled eastern Aleppo (but were never mentioned or seen in any of the reports that came out of there) also controlled the people who were doing the blogs and uploading the images. The civilians were the rebels’ most valuable resource. Indeed, they frequently killed civilians who tried to leave.
Some of the bloggers and videographers probably supported the extreme Islamist groups who dominated the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. Others may have been less keen on their local rulers, although they all backed the revolt against Assad. But they all knew that the penalty for saying or showing things that displeased their jihadi rulers would be arrest and torture, perhaps death.
The rebels wanted the siege to be portrayed as a senseless and brutal assault on civilians (and only on civilians) because their only hope was to shock and shame foreign powers, especially the United States, into intervening militarily and stopping the siege. It was never likely to happen, but they obviously thought it was worth a try.
And the Western media ran this propaganda because nothing else was available. Foreign journalists did not dare to enter eastern Aleppo because they knew they would be killed. If they were allowed to report freely, it would spoil the rebels’ game.
A lot of news editors understood just what the game was, but they used the material anyway — and they did not warn the audience that it was, in effect, propaganda. So it’s not surprising that even normally sensible grown-ups are resorting to the apocalyptic rhetoric we have been hearing recently.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.