Wednesday, December 28, 2016
December 28, 2016: 2016 in Review: Aleppo
[As usual, I’ll end the year—even this most frustrating of years—by AmericanStudying a handful of major stories. This time featuring a special Friday Guest Post from one of the wonderful student papers in my Senior Seminar on 21st Century America! Please add your year in review responses, thoughts, and airing of grievances in comments.]
On what’s all too familiar about an unfolding 2016 genocide, and what might be different.
Syria has dominated the news in America for more than a year, as evidenced by my inclusion of a post on Syrian refugees on this exact date in last year’s series. But while the nation’s civil war and its international effects (and the question of whether and how the US should intervene) have thus been a multi-part story for a long while, the last few months, and in particular the last couple weeks, have seen a horrific new focus (at least in news reporting here in the United States) for that story: the multiple battles and humanitarian crises, and now the overt unfolding genocide, taking place in the city of Aleppo. While I’m far from an expert, it seems clear to me that President Bashir al-Assad’s forces, aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have turned what might once have been a military campaign into a direct and brutal assault on the city and its civilians; while international diplomats and lawyers might quibble over the legal definition of a genocide (and I know those aren’t just quibbles, as they influence when international organizations can intervene), as a historian I’m more than willing to apply the term to a situation where it seems all too clearly and horrifically to fit.
Starting at least with the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, the story of US international relations across much of the 20th and into the 21st century could be rightfully described as a series of failures to help prevent or even minimize such genocides. From turning away Jewish refugees in the early years of the Holocaust (and of course not entering the war at all until we were bombed by Japan in late 1941) right on through to Rwanda and Darfur in the 1990s and early 2000s, the US time and again has at best turned a blind eye to (and at worst actively ignored or even countenanced) these and other historic humanitarian crises. Even in the case of the Bosnian genocide, which might seem to offer a counterexample, the US and its NATO allies only intervened with airstrikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in 1995, nearly three years after the ethnic cleansings had begun; by that time the city of Srebrenica, for example, had been the site of a particularly horrific massacre, one with clear echoes in the situation in Aleppo today. It’s all too possible that, as was the case for so many of these historic horrors, we here in the United States won’t fully grapple with Aleppo and Syrian genocide until the histories are written, the memorials are built, the apologies are offered years down the road.
But it’s also possible that things will be different this time, and if they are, I will have to credit social media as a key new factor. I’m thinking in particular about Bana al-Abed, the 7 year-old Syrian girl and Aleppo resident whose Twitter account (maintained by her mother but featuring Bana’s own voice in the Tweets, apparently) became an international sensation and drew attention not only to her personal situation, but to the city and genocide more broadly as well. My very talented cousin John Scott-Railton has written and worked extensively on the possibilities of the internet and social media in international crises such as the internet shutdowns during the Arab Spring and, indeed, in Syria. While Bana’s case might seem singular or at least rare, similar to that of Malala Yousafzai in offering a unique and compelling story and identity that can capture international attention, I believe John’s work tells a different story, one in which social media and digital voices have become a vital tool for threatened and besieged communities around the world. It’s far from certain what will happen next for Aleppo, Syrian, the United States, and the world—but perhaps social media and digital voices and stories like Bana’s can help us respond to this unfolding genocide more promptly and productively than we’ve been able to in these historic instances.
Next 2016 review tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2016 stories you’d highlight?