Earlier this month in Syria, a siege was broken. Rebels in Aleppo, aided by more religiously extreme elements and passively supported by humanitarians the world over, succeeded in meeting – ceremoniously shaking hands, like the Allies during the Second World War at the river Elbe in 1945 – by breaking the lines of those troops loyal to the Assad regime and its foreign backers.
The ultimate message of this meeting is less definitive, however. Unlike the liberators of Europe all those years ago, things are not guaranteed to end well in this case – or to end at any time soon.
Thousands of Syrians remain under siege across the country, some deliberately starved into scarcely imaginable situations replete with degradation. In many ways, and though this is not an entirely dignified posture, it seems the only way to comprehend the nature of Syria’s many sieges is to seek to do so with, and from, a historical perspective.
‘Medieval’ as an adjective – and a particularly disapproving one – has experienced something of a renaissance, if one pardons the expression, in the course of the current conflict in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State group is routinely declared to have engaged in medieval acts of wanton violence; in this sense, ‘medieval’ is synonymous not only with savagery, but also with calculated, cultivated evil.
Compared with medieval sieges, however, what IS perpetrated in Iraq’s Sinjar region, which took in the mass enslavement of Yazidi women and the mass murder of Yazidi men, looks to be of another magnitude entirely.
Similarly, the fact that when IS sought to capture Kobane on the Turkish border its attacks were repelled by a massive application of aerial firepower means that it cannot be compared to all that much in the history of warfare. And, of course, it cannot be avoided that the textual evidence with which IS justifies its atrocities is decidedly pre-medieval in origin.
Instead, perhaps it is sensible to look at the sieges in a different light – and not only are they largely not carried out by IS; they are also more comparable with the more brutal episodes most commonly associated with the excesses of the 20th century than the taking of towns in the Middle Ages – which was a very long way from the sort of house to house brutality and overwhelming capacity for destruction which characterise more modern sieges.
Most of the sieges in Syria – including the now-broken example seen in Aleppo – are conducted (prosecuted, if you prefer) by the Assad regime, sometimes enlisting its Iranian allies and Iran’s proxies of Hezbollah and the largely externally controlled National Defence Forces (NDF).
One such siege involves the coastal resort of Madaya. This town had food supplies cut off for months; and even that has not been the end of its suffering. Unlike medieval citizens of besieged towns, whose horizons were rather necessarily limited to their immediate surroundings, those who inhabit places which, like Madaya, are destined to be under siege can take note of the entire world.
In this instance, the world seems almost indifferent – though this label cannot be applied to Hezbollah supporters in particular, who took to sharing images of their dinners on social media to taunt those who were forced to go without food.
The social media aspect is a fairly vital one; how else could Syria’s diverse patchwork of rebel groups communicate in order to organise offensives along a wide front or advertise strategic and territorial gains to the wider world?
The fact that people such as myself could know within minutes that rebels from each side of the regime’s lines had met, and that the siege had been ended, is a clearly revolutionary development. Those resisting the Nazi encirclement in Leningrad, cut off from the wider Soviet Union in so many ways, had no such luxuries – and no such potential pitfalls, too.
It seems to me that the 20th century analogy is a useful and not unwarranted one. The sieges of Syria are so brutal as to merit it – witness the almost total destruction of Homs, for example, and try to say with sincerity that its barren landscape and shattered buildings do not bring to mind images of the destruction of Stalingrad.
The ideological aspect is also something which seems closely related to what occurred in the past century. The language of human rights, self-determination and personal freedom which many rebels use is fundamentally modern in origin – and the same language, when employed, as it is quite frequently, to support a sectarian despot, is almost dizzyingly post-modern, too.
Now that the rebels have broken the regime’s siege of their section of Aleppo, they may threaten to besiege the government-controlled districts of the city in turn.
In Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, the author draws parallels between extreme movements of the 20th century – of both the far-left and the radical right – and compares them with present day Islamist extremism. In one way, this analysis is merited and correct; the totalitarian impulses of those ostensibly secular ideologies intersect quite effectively with various Salafi-jihadi schools of thought.
In another it can be considered more than a little glib, the result more of linguistic cleverness than sustained and worthy thought.
A serious fault in this method of categorisation is that it suggests that the equivalent of fascism and Bolshevism in the world of today has permanently shifted, and that this can be found in the person of the Islamic radical. What this could forget, in the hands of someone other than Berman, who acknowledges this very problem, is the continuation of those traits associated with fascism and Bolshevism – a systemic disregard for human life, a willingness to prosecute both genocidal and suicidal military campaigns, and so on – in ‘secular’ political movements, such as Iraqi and Syrian Ba’athism.
Medieval comparisons aside, and even forgetting recent movements in a positive direction by Syria’s rebels, the real cruelty and violence of this conflict can be found on the side of the regime – and the extent of its brutality is of an almost historic nature.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.