Aleppo and The Impossibility of Scorched Earth


Aleppo. Image from al-Jazeera

The latest assault on reason and humanity is almost designed to ensure that there can never be any actual reconciliation.

The Cessation of Hostilities in Syria lasted barely a week, as government and Russian planes commenced what looks to be a final, all-out assault on the wrecked city of Aleppo, one of the world’s most ancient, a once lively and lovely place, now dust. With the cruel use of bunker-busting bombs, the Asad government and its Russian allies are inflicting impossible pain and terror on the civilian population and the last of the desperate rebels.

This is reminiscent of, if nothing else, the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, to say nothing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s inflicting maximum damage on a largely-defeated enemy in order to make them cower in defeat. There was a logic to it in WWII: while the post-war order (from the Western side) was remarkably reconciliatory, this was an “alien” population whose leaders wouldn’t back down. One doesn’t need to say how horrible it was.

That’s not the case in Syria, where Asad is, in theory, trying to keep “his” country together, save it from rebel and terrorists, and all that. Russia is trying to make itself the major outside player in the Middle East, supplanting the US. But the way he is doing it ensures that the war, even if it ostensibly stops with a shattered rebel alliance, will keep going on for generations.

(And even this using “rebel” as a shorthand for many different groups, not all of which are in Aleppo, of course. Winning the battle for Aleppo just allows Asad to turn to the next front.)

It reminds me of nothing so much as Operation Scorched Earth, in which Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his top general Ali Moshen al-Ahmar decided to end the Huthi rebellion once and for all with a plan whose name left nothing to the imagination. It was a hideous war-crime, a rolling series of humanitarian disasters. As I wrote at the time:

Scorched Earth was a military success, but it is hard to entice people whose villages you destroyed back into the warm bosom of the state.  Trust is a long, long way off.

That was accurate, but it was also easy. In a Great Power war, it is possible, with the right post-war incentives, to work with the people you just destroyed, because while you may have annihiliated them, you are both agreeing to move past it. A new government is built out of the ashes, and there is a sort of reboot. That’s what happened after WWII.

Not so here. The losers are meant to accept that the suffering they went through is just to revert to the status quo, only much worse. They have to stare at the cadaverous vampirish face of the man who wrecked their lives and shattered their families and destroyed their homes. It rarely works. The Huthis continued to fight, and now control much of the country (that Saleh is now on their side is weird, of course, but explicable in the shifting landscape of Yemeni politics).

And that’s the case here. The wild, nearly inhuman cruelty of the Asad regime ensures that while part of the war may end, it never really will. The citizens of Aleppo and elsewhere won’t, and can’t, accept Asad. He’s simply gone too far. Even a numbed and battered resignation just keeps the fire alive for the next round. The insane slaughter of the war in Syria has left the country a wreck, impossible to put back together. Any policy has to flow from that idea.



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