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No, Aleppo is not being “liberated” – despite what the Morning Star says

Eastern Aleppo being recaptured by the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad is not “liberation”. The left must not pretend it is.

Did you hear? Aleppo is being “liberated”. Al Jazeera reports that the Syrian army and allied militias are taking more and more neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo, held by rebels for the past four years, back into government control. There are reports that government forces executed dozens of civilians “over alleged connections to opposition fighters”, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stating that at least 60 people had been killed on Monday.

These efforts at “liberation” have now extended to pro-government forces “entering homes in eastern Aleppo and killing those inside, including women and children”, according to the UN. Its human rights office says it has evidence at least 82 civilians have been shot on the spot, with a spokesman calling it “a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo”.

Freedom at last, eh?

If none of the above sounds like “liberation” to you, it apparently does to the Morning Star, whose front page proclaims that “[f]inal liberation of Aleppo is in sight”:

Meanwhile, the White Helmets, the Syria Civil Defence organisation recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has co-signed a statement calling for the international community to provide safe passage for civilians currently trapped in Aleppo. The statement reads:

“For years, our humanitarian volunteers have worked to save the lives of our people in Aleppo: operating in underground hospitals, rescuing entire families buried under the rubble and risking our lives to document what the daily war crimes committed by Assad regime [sic] and its ally Russia. We can do no more.”

Now, the city of Aleppo stands to be handed back to that regime. What the Morning Star calls “liberation” actually means returning the people of that city to the charge of a man who has committed war crimes.

Bashar al-Assad's actions have been condemned over and over again by prominent and expert voices, both outside Syria and from within. In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the Security Council “to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court”. In the same month, France opened an inquiry into the Assad regime to probe alleged crimes against humanity.

The so-called Caeser images (capturing detainees being tortured) showed what Desmond de Silva QC, a former chief prosecutor of the special court in Sierra Leone, called killing on an “industrial scale”. Smuggled out of Syria by a man employed to photograph the tortured bodies of Assad’s victims, the photographs suggested to Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch that, “we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria’s notorious dungeons”.

It remains popular among parts of the left to view global justice as a battle for and against US imperialism – a principle some are willing to doggedly adhere to even as images of tortured Syrian bodies reach our newspapers. But it is not only Western countries that are guilty of propping up dictatorships. If we are to commit ourselves to standing for oppressed peoples, we would do well to heed the voices coming from Aleppo today.

I'm a mole, innit.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear