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7 May 2016

As Syrian forces lay waste to Aleppo, how much longer can we tolerate the slaughter?

The West has flirted with the dangerous idea that we should somehow accomodate or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad. Yet nothing will change while he's in power.

By Shiraz Maher

The fragile ceasefire that has delivered a period of relative calm in some parts of Syria is being severely tested. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have ­subjected Aleppo to a ferocious assault over the past few weeks, killing scores of civilians in the process. Although the city was not included in the original truce agreement, events there are too important and symbolic for rebels elsewhere to ignore. (Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has said that Assad may extend the truce to Aleppo but this has yet to materialise.)

More than 250 people have been killed after ten days of heavy bombardment. The International Rescue Committee estimates that at its peak, over a 48-hour period, one Syrian was killed every 25 minutes. Health centres were targeted, including the most important medical facility in the rebel-held parts of Aleppo: al-Quds Hospital. It housed eight doctors and 28 nurses before a military jet hit it with a direct strike. Among the dead was Muhammad Waseem Maaz, one of the city’s last paediatricians.

Five members of the Syrian Civil Defence (popularly known as the White Helmets), a volunteer group in opposition areas that rescues people from buildings destroyed by the regime’s bombardment, were also killed in the latest wave of air strikes. The group suffers losses frequently but the recent attacks were the biggest it has endured so far. There is now a billboard campaign in rebel areas pleading with the few remaining doctors not to leave. “Oh, doctor!” it reads. “Don’t migrate, my child is in need of you.”

The targeting of medical personnel and facilities is so extreme that a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, in association with the University of St Andrews, estimates that half of all Syrian hospitals have been badly damaged as a result of the conflict. The vast majority of these are in rebel-held areas.

It’s not only hospitals that have come under attack. Activists in Aleppo report that, for the first time since the uprising began in 2011, congregational Friday prayers were suspended in Aleppo on 29 April. The risk of any gathering – however small and for whatever purpose – coming under attack was just too great.

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This is born of a deliberate policy that aims to obliterate every facet of civil infrastructure in rebel areas, so that life becomes too harsh for civilians. To understand how deeply that strategy has unravelled the ­fabric of Syrian life, consider that roughly 11 million people (half of the population) are now displaced. There are more than two million child refugees.

The Syrian conflict has been cruelly unsentimental, bulldozing a nation and eroding life in one of the earliest cradles of civilisation. Syrians do not understand how the outside world can passively observe these crimes and still remain inactive.

What they fail to realise is the indelible trauma of our 2003 misadventure in Iraq and the shadow it continues to cast over our political life. One of the consequences has been the extent to which it recalibrated – for the worse – the West’s appetite for staging humanitarian interventions. That skewing of the debate stems from the outcomes, rather than the intentions, of our past engagements.

We owe the Arab world and its people no special dues. We are within our rights to sit this one out and let the fire burn. After all, Iraq remains wildly unstable and incapable of governing itself in any meaningful way. Libya is imploding, albeit in slow motion. Few would now argue for the post-9/11 ideals of exporting democracy and actively spreading liberal values in the region.

Yet a string of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe over the past 18 months has shown just how hard it is to protect ourselves against the toxic fallout from the Levant. That is perhaps one of the ways in which the crisis challenges us – mostly directly, but there are subtle pressures, too, such as those related to mass migration and the current wave of refugees.

Terrorism and the refugee crisis are already having a profound impact on Europe’s institutions and social unity. They polarise the debate whenever our intelligence agencies speak with fatalistic resignation of “when”, rather than “if”, another terrorist attack will occur.

Whether we like it or not, the depressing conclusion is that the Syrian crisis is our crisis. The idea that we can somehow insulate ourselves from its repercussions is a fantasy.

Think of how the past few weeks of chaos in Aleppo will create even more refugees, pushing ever greater numbers towards Europe. Set aside humanitarian and moral arguments and look instead at the situation through the prism of our national security interests. The conclusion is obvious: instability in the Middle East and North Africa leads to instability here. This is how we must now think about the war in Syria.

Our security and interests are best served if Syria is a country in which its people can live. For the most part, Syrians have shown a remarkable willingness to endure the privations of war and have been forced into exile only by the relentless campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombing.

The West has flirted with the dangerous idea that we should somehow accommodate Assad or rehabilitate him in the expectation that this will end Syria’s civil war. Yet the president has proved that he is not a partner who can be trusted to act in good faith. Indeed, his actions drive international terrorism and destabilise Europe. All of this points to nothing changing while he remains in power. To secure ourselves, we will at some point have to hit Assad – and hit him hard.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London

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This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred