Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.
On a bright spring day in 2010, I sat on the summit of the Citadel in Aleppo, watching the crowds. It was a national holiday, and the ruined fortress that dominates the City was thronged with families. At the time, my biggest worry was health and safety. Someone could get hurt, I thought, as I watched the kids climbing on each other’s shoulders, the young men dangling their legs over the edge of the walls.
In recent weeks, I’ve been looking back at the photos I took that day. Trying to imagine how many of the people I saw have now been exiled, or murdered, or tortured, or starved. Trying not to imagine how many of them have been doing the exiling, murdering and torturing themselves.
There have been all kinds of arguments made over the past few years about what should have been done in Syria, even what might still be done.
But there is no argument at all about the basic narrative of what took place. This is not a tragedy that has taken place in secrecy and silence. It is one that has been documented on Twitter and Facebook, on mobile phones and in blog posts.
As Julia Rampen points out, even in the final days of the siege of Aleppo – now reaching its bloody and horrifying end – civilians and activists were still trying to get the truth out about what was happening.
And the truth of Syria is – as it always has been – that in the butcher’s bill rests with Bashar al-Assad, and those who supported him.
It is not just that Assad’s dictatorship precipitated the revolt. It is not just that his forces have done the lion’s share of the killing (and the torturing and the exiling). It is not just that they used chemical weapons on their own citizens, and barrel bombs. It is not just that they mounted a sustained and inhuman campaign to drive doctors from the battlefield – as described in this wrenchingly moving article by the New Yorker’s Ben Taub.
The truth is that ever since the uprising began, Assad attempted to turn the conflict into a battle between himself and the extremists. His strategy, as David Blair wrote in The Daily Telegraph, was to play arsonist, then fireman.
Then, in the months and years that followed, he did everything in his power to nurture the most malignant of the extremist groups while targeting his military efforts at the ever dwindling number of moderates. The choice, he told the West again and again, is between me and the monsters.
Russia’s entry into the conflict saw the culmination of this strategy. Despite the rhetoric about crushing ISIS, it was crystal clear to those on the ground that the real strategy was to wipe the other players from the chessboard. This was done with a level of brutality that saw many more civilian deaths than with Western airstrikes – indeed, many accused Putin and Assad of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure deliberately.
As horror descends upon Aleppo, many people are revisiting the arguments of 2013 – arguing that Syria’s fate would not, could not, have been worse if the West had indeed intervened after irrefutable evidence came to light of Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons against his own people.
Although I supported intervention then, I accept that there was justice and reason on both sides of the argument.
Likewise, I accept that there are now even fewer options left for the West. One British military figure with expert knowledge of the situation told me ruefully that our allies in Syria now are nastier people than our enemies were in Iraq.
But what none of us can or should accept is the way in which so many in the West have blinded themselves, wilfully and deliberately, to the evil of Assad’s crimes – and, by extension, of Vladimir Putin’s support for him.
This morning, for example, the Morning Star newspaper hailed the “final liberation” of Aleppo. This is the newspaper for which Jeremy Corbyn was a longstanding columnist, with which he shares every fragment of his ideological DNA.
Then there was the “Stop the War” movement, which Corbyn long chaired, which has repeatedly refused to condemn Russia’s actions. Stop the War, it turned out, meant only Stop the Imperialist Wars.
There are issues in politics which are matters of policy and opinion – whether to build a high-speed railway, or at what level to set the minimum wage.
And then there are those which are matters of basic morality. A matter of accepting and condemning evil in its most glaring and obvious forms, rather than desperately contorting your reasoning in an effort to make sin plus sin equal innocence.
Nick Cohen of the Observer has written, majestically, about the decadence of the Left – the way that opposition to America has become a pretext for condoning, even embracing, some of the very worst people on the planet, from Iraqi dictators to Iranian mullahs to Syrian autocrats.
The same could be said for those elements of the Right which lauded General Pinochet, or cosy up to Vladimir Putin in admiration of his bloodthirsty virility.
It is this constituency which has, successfully, provided cover for Assad and Putin as they go about their grisly work – has helped to undermine every Western attempt to rein in the bloodshed and violence and killing, or at the very least to find alternatives to the slaughterers in Damascus and Raqqa.
Yet now, as it always has been, the choice for Jeremy Corbyn, and Donald Trump, and all the rest of them, is not about strategy or politics – it is about ethics.
If we swallow our fury as Bashar al-Assad retakes his bloodstained throne, and Vladimir Putin sidles his way back into the community of nations, if we do not declare that some crimes can and should never be forgiven, if we do not do all we can to support their victims, then we too are guilty.
As for those useful idiots in the West who attempt to blur the truth of what has happened, to shut their eyes and ears to the mountainous evidence of Assad’s atrocities, that is not just post-truth politics. It is post-morality.