Aleppo must be a wake up call

Amid the humanitarian catastrophe that has been the siege and fall of Aleppo, both supporters and opponents of earlier calls for military action by the West against Assad have been claiming vindication by events. Perhaps some are relieved that the TV pictures of bloodied children in rubble can be attributed to Russian bombs rather than Western ones.

And perhaps we are guilty – as the EU is supposedly guilty of welcoming closer ties with Ukraine – of seeing a potential for good in the Arab Spring. Torment nobody with the promise of freedom and democracy unless you can deliver it, at gunpoint if necessary? Don’t start a civil war you can’t win, however bad your government?

We will doubtless debate again whether the West should intervene in one civil war or another; whether things would have gone better or worse if we had or had not. None of us really knows either way. This is not my topic for today.

What I think is clear in Syria is that the West’s unwillingness to intervene has created a safe space for Russia to do so. Russia is not the superpower it once was, though the Cold War rules of avoiding direct confrontation between nuclear powers still apply. So if the West is absent, Russia will be present. To make Russia great again.

Now Russia regards all opponents of the Assad regime as being in broadly the same column as Daesh. The West sees moderate rebel forces that are preferable to Assad – less likely to commit massacres – and suspects collusion between Assad and Daesh. Trump, it seems, wants to bomb Daesh and doesn’t care about the rest of the civil war. That is comprehensible: in a warzone the dominant ideology is to be for us and against the people trying to kill us, and whether you are Islamist or Baathist or at all progressive is less immediately significant. And outside powers can barely see through the fog of war to perceive concrete events much less driving ideologies. To put it another way, ethical foreign policy is hard, and “realism” and self-interest are easy.

But I’ll tell you what is easy: standing by your allies who have escaped the Russian sphere of influence, who have embraced democratic values, who have joined the EU and NATO. Trump is not interested, and, frankly, the USA was going to become more focussed on Asia anyway. But Europe alone is still strong enough – not to confront Russia, we must avoid that, Cold War rules – but to ensure there is no vacuum of conventional defensive military forces in Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states.

And we must become alert to the threat of Russian cyberwarfare, already felt in Estonia and Ukraine, following a possibly decisive intervention in the US presidential election. And when Russia Today propaganda gets recycled into the foreign policy analysis of our Corbyns and Farages, the 90% of responsible politicians and journalists should not let it stand. “He said, she said” without fact checking either gives us post-truth politics.

This is not the Cold War. Russia is weak, militarily, morally and economically. It does not even proffer a compelling but vile ideology like communism that is a threat to our values. It rattles its sabres because that is what “strongman” tyrants must do, and its only threat to us is what we let it become.

We can’t save Aleppo, and maybe we never could have. But we can prevent a great many Aleppos.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • Is there any substance to be found anywhere in this article ?

  • “And we must become alert to the threat of Russian cyberwarfare, …, following a possibly decisive intervention in the US presidential election.”
    That is both fake news and post truth.

    Do you have any evidence to support that assertion?

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Dec '16 - 1:37pm

    ‘Perhaps some are relieved that the TV pictures show bloodied children in rubble can be Russian bombs and not western ones’.


    I have one child on a military pension having been invalided out of the military after receiving injuries, and a grandchild who intends to join the RAF so that he can defend his country.

    So Joe, what did you do during the war on terror?

  • Joe,.. you must have been asleep, because the election of Trump was the final wake up call. The Washington war machine now under Trump, is hopefully, going to be vastly curtailed from involvement in the financing and promotion of endless undercover regime changes,.. and civil wars between 30 arguamentative flavours of Islam in the middle east.?

    Whilst some are trigger happy, in their desire to send in planes with bombs, I prefer it if either Putin or Trump could just pick up the phone and jaw-jaw the solutions to problems away. Worth a try, since the bombs don’t work out too well.?

  • Joe Otten 20th Dec ’16 – 2:26pm…..J Dunn, why do the Putin apologists go on about only wanting peace while they’re doing the bombing and we’re not?

    Who should we be bombing?
    The 2013 vote (in which to our shame only 13 of our MPs opposed) was to bomb Assad…
    The 2015 vote was to bomb ISIS…

    I’m with ‘Caracatus’…A muddled article without substance

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Dec '16 - 3:33pm

    It is cheap Joe.

    I got my views on war reading Testament of Youth by Vera Britain. I am not a pacifist but I don’t much care for armchair generals deciding to sacrifice the lives of our military for an un-winnable end. How many innocent civilians, women and children are acceptable as ongoing collateral damage so that our government can bring about regime change in countries they don’t understand?

    I would ask you to read articles by Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn on the Independent online to get some balance Joe. Do you really think that militias in East Aleppo were angels, that they did not commit atrocities, prevent civilians leaving etc ? Are you really sure that a chaotic Syria ruled by competing vicious warlords would pan out better for civilians than it did under a under a brutal dictator like Assad?

    There were people, not unlike yourself, who tried to argue for us to send low flying aircraft over Aleppo even though everything I read and heard including by retired Air Chief Marshals, said it was too dangerous even for our brave men and women to attempt.

    Don’t you really think that if President Obama thought it was wise to do so, he would have accelerated the war in Syria and increase tensions with Russia, particularly when his red-line was crossed? Instead the West provided arms to a mythical 70,000 moderates which surprise surprise found their way into the hands of Islamist militias thus prolonging the bloodshed and agony of the people.

    Syria was the coalitions vanity project. Blair managed to get rid of Saddam Hussein with ease, the coalition managed to get rid of Gaddaffi with similar ease, what could possibly go wrong when we attempted regime change in Syria? Apparently nothing if we had intervened in ‘Jonny foreigner’s land’ earlier.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '16 - 3:33pm

    This is true: ” in a warzone the dominant ideology is to be for us and against the people trying to kill us”. Most foreign policy analysts seem to have lost sight of this and have been much more interested in bombing Assad than ISIS, even though ISIS is the one specifically targeting us. People can claim the moral high ground of their position, but what good is it if they can’t win over a majority of the public or MPs and actually implement it?

    i argued strongly against bombing Assad in 2013 and if I knew what would happen subsequently I wouldn’t have done, but if I received the same information today that I received at the time I would make the same decision.

    At the time, it seemed we were being asked to possibly start WW3 because there was a chemical weapons attack in which civilian children were killed, but people weren’t presenting evidence this was done deliberately. I can see now that a better case for intervention existed, but it wasn’t the case put forward by our leaders at the time.

  • Let’s here it for our team. After all Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Arab Spring and the war on terror have worked out so well. So more of the same in Syria was bound to work out even more betterer. Long live the Cold War II and pass out the tin foil hats to save us from Putin’s mind beams. He caused this mess even though it’s gone on for two decades and Russia only got involved last year. Plus everything from Brexit to American elections is controlled by the Kremlin.

  • The 2013 vote (in which to our shame only 13 of our MPs opposed) was to bomb Assad…

    I seem to remember in various articles here (on LDV) that Joe was one of those at the time who spoke against intervention…

  • The West’s unwillingness to intervene [in Syria]

    Umm, Syria has long been one of the US’s “axis of evil” countries whose governments Washington is determined to overthrow. Did you somehow miss that the US (and to a lesser extent allies like Britain) are up to their necks in the Syrian conflict? Billions of dollars have been dedicated to the cause including providing arms, military training and media training to improve jihadist propaganda.

    Russia’s involvement is not what “’strongman’ tyrants must do” but because it feels directly threatened by US expansionism. From a Russian POV it’s much better to draw a line in the sand in a distant theatre than right on your own border – and American blundering in the Middle East has provided an opportunity to do just that.

    There are some moderate rebels but the notion that they are an effective force capable of working independently of the jihadists is a fantasy. The Russians have constantly asked the US to identify where such moderate unicorns are so they could avoid hitting them. The US has consistently refused to say because, clearly, they can’t identify them and they’re certainly not a government in waiting.

    Russia does indeed have problems with its oligarchs – but then so too does the West. On balance the West’s are more dangerous because they control far greater media and military power than their Russian counterparts and because of that power we hear only a slanted view of events in Syria.

    Independent sources like Robert Risk or Patrick Cockburn or Arabic-speaking reporter Eva Bartlett tell a different story. Here, for instance, is Eva Bartlett speaking at a UN peace conference. This clip is 18 minute long, if you don’t have time for all that listen just to her answers to questions starting at 13 minutes in.


    Her version is supported by a Reuters report of civilians in the east finding abandoned food stockpiles after the rebels were defeated.

  • re: Podesta emails.

    I would be interested in the rationale for this linkage, particularly given both the content of the Podesta emails (Hilary, as head of the State Department, acted in way that was favourable to Russian interests) and the timing of the release, directly after Access Hollywood tape was released (The tape showed Donald Trump making lewd comments about women during a 2005 interview).

  • Joe – You also got me searching the archives to confirm the impression I retained.

    Whilst this search didn’t uncover comments from circa 2013 that support the implied u-turn in your viewpoint, it did bring up more recent articles where your comments were at odds with those contained in the above article. So firstly an apology for my memory lapse and the implied criticism that you were trying to use the benefit of hindsight to get away with a change of viewpoint. It was my mistake for not to have done the research before commenting.

    Taking your comments of a year back:

    It is clear you were critical of proposals for Western intervention in Syria, basically saying that what was needed was “the most effective overall strategy”. I think it is perhaps too soon to assess the Russian-based efforts against your key test, namely whether the strategy has resulted in more good being done than harm.

    Having reviewed your previous comments, I think you let yourself down in the above article by taking such a partisan viewpoint. Yes, those nations in the US sphere of influence do need to reflect as it has been their action and inaction that has resulted in the events we saw in Ukraine and Syria. I suggest looking forward the real question is how do we engage with Russia and nations within the Russian sphere of influence – is simply resurrecting the fears from the cold war era useful in the new world? Because it would seem with hindsight that part of the problem in Syria was our inability to form a coherent international response with the US and Russia standing shoulder to shoulder.
    [Aside: I think this is one of the reasons why Russia welcomes Trump, he represents an opportunity for change in US-Russia relations.]

  • If it is true that Russian hacking could defeat the favoured candidate of the entire US power establishment, that can only mean that the United States’ political structure is so fragile that a few disclosed emails can cause its collapse.

    Obama promises retaliation against Russia for treating the US in the ways the US treats Honduras (and even Russia itself, until blocked by Putin). Putin retorted that, so far as he knew, the US was not a banana republic, but a great power able to protect its elections.

    By their conspiracy comments, the US President, “Washington” and the Main Stream Media are loudly denying the greatness!

    Why, and how, are we in a situation in which the leaders of the most powerful nation in the World proclaim their country to be so weak and/or inept that it cannot organise its own elections properly and its actual and/or alleged adversary proclaims the USA to be a great power?


  • @ Joe,
    I took exception to the sentence that you wrote. No one, except a psychopath would feel any sort of relief that children have been blown apart, buried alive, gassed and traumatised by anyone and to suggest that it might be a relief that .

    It matters not to the children whether the horror that is inflicted on them is from ‘our side’ or the Russians, or the rebels, Just as it doesn’t matter to those children torn apart or buried alive in West Aleppo, Mosul, Yemen or wherever.

    You just can’t help having a dig at Corbyn can you? Well in the vote for war in Iraq, the intervention in Libya and the decision not to intervene in Syria, he called it right as far as I am concerned.

    Its the 90% of what you refer to as ‘responsible’ politicians that concern me. Perhaps you should be more critical of the propaganda that they have been regurgitating. The hypocrisy and double standards is nauseating.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Dec '16 - 10:55pm

    I am surprised at the desire of some above for anything different in view or detail from this article , which . whatever the point some seek , is one of the best written pieces I have read on here .

    Joe , this is polemic I rarely read , acerbic , biting , it has style and substance .

    Neither are in it’s detail , they are in it’s feeling. And it is feeling that is both passionate and cold .

    Every view must be aired . We should welcome the quality and subtlety .

    Even if it can be chilling.

  • The UK is a member of Nato and a permanent member of the UN security council. Nato invoked article 5 of the treaty following the 9/11 attack on the USA and the UN security council created the ISAF force for Afghanistan shortly thereafter. The campaigns in Libya and Yemen are conducted under the auspices of the security council as was the first gulf war. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 lacked a 2nd security council resolution and relinquished its moral authority if not its legitimacy as a consequence.

    The tragedy of Syria also lies in the inability of the security council to agree on an appropriate course of action to protect civilians from aerial bombardment at the outset, while recognising the interests of Russia and Iran in the maintenance of the Assad regime.

    For all its flaws and impotence in the face of mass slaughter, the security council remains our best hope for maintaining International peace. As long as the UK remains a permanent member we will have a duty to act in concert with allies where we can. All the permanent members of the UN security council will put national self-interest above wider international concerns. That may result in the UN being unable to fulfil its responsibility to protect, as has been the case with Syria. However, where the security council can agree it can do some good and that is still much preferable to a return to the great game of the 19th and early 20th century.

  • Jayne Mansfield 21st Dec '16 - 8:48am

    @ Gordon,
    One cannot assume from the link you provided that the freelance journalist Eva Bartlett is an impartial witness. She seems to offer little corroborating evidence for her claims. Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn are highly respected journalist.

    There is good evidence that some men are being separated from the groups of those fleeing and I think that it is very dangerous to throw doubt on the White Helmets and others who might have been performing humanitarian efforts, for example, doctors and nurses, on little or no evidence.

    Idlib province is not a place of safety for civilians. They are still at risk of becoming ‘collateral damage’ in the fight between rebels and the government. Increased efforts must be made to re-locate civilians to a place of relative safety.

    As Fisk and Cockburn illustrate, truth is hard to find when a country is in a state of war especially when so many different actors are creating their own propaganda.

    The central issue for me remains that of ensuring the safety of civilians.

  • Gordon 20th Dec ’16 – 5:40pm…Thank you for that…Sense at last!

    The Eva Bartlett press conference (sadly, so poorly attended compared to any that repeat the ‘Assad is bad’ line) was backed up by an recent article in the ‘Independent’ entitled “This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong” (…)

    The first casualty in war is truth…Remember how the people of Iraq/Afghanistan would welcome us as liberators? How we’d give Libya a stable democratic regime? What makes anyone believe that, after how those promises turned out, Syria would be any different…

  • There is only one way to solve conflicts. Sit down and talk until you reach an agreement both sides can live with. War never resolves anything and countless unnecessary deaths, wanton cruelty, torture and other horrors follow inexorably. All sides in Syria are guilty
    Of murder verging on genocide. It serves no purpose to blame Assad, the Russians, ISIS it anyone else. Peace is what is needed and peace talks without conditions the only way to get there

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Dec '16 - 4:26pm


    To not blame Assad , or the Russians , is a view many are expressing , and I disagree , but it is worth listening to at times, but you mention ISIS in the same sentence . Not blame them ?! This is the sort of statement , along with , talking to them , that cannot be serious but must be satire!They are a monstrosity . Do you want to talk to them ? I bet they wouldn’t talk to you but I bet we , some of us can guess what they’d do !

  • expats,

    Your link goes only to ‘Voices’. I think this is the full link for Patrick Cockburn’s article.

    Jayne Mansfield,

    I agree that one cannot/should not assume from a single link that Eva Bartlett is impartial. However, her account does concur with what many other sources say, albeit not UK or US government ones. The Cockburn piece linked above makes it as plain as he can (bearing in mind what he says about the influence of ‘home office’) that double standards are the order of the day.

    As for the ‘White Helmets’ I would rather say it is extremely dangerous NOT to question anything coming out of a war zone. For instance, is it not odd that they have such pristine uniforms in a war zone with all the shortages that implies? Can you tell where blood ends and make-up begins? What is certain is that it’s been fantastically effective propaganda for the jihadist cause but, as Cockburn explains, all unrecorded by observers like himself. So, ultimately we just have to take the jihadists’ word for it and that doesn’t work for me.

    For a very different perspective of what’s going on try Colonel Lang, a very distinguished ex US Military intelligence officer. He is clear the ‘White Helmets’ are a CIA originated propaganda operation funded by US and British taxpayers among others.

    So, we have a choice. Do we again believe the same people who lied their heads off over WMD in Iraq and then in Afghanistan and who are once more using their control of most news to push their warmongering agenda or do we search out independent voices?

  • I wonder if we can all agree on some basic principles? We would like to see the defeat of Daesh and the al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front. We would like to see the orderly transfer of power from Assad to an opposition that would ideally be made up of the Free Syrian Army (remember them?) and the Kurdish YPG, which will lead to democratic elections and national reconciliation.
    Now does anyone know how to get there? I don’t. Even so, I think there is a wide consensus that includes the Tories and Labour which would like to ideally see that. But even where situations like this look insoluble, we still need a policy that is not as badly flawed as the alternatives. Because the policy is going to be flawed it would be easy to criticise and resort to score settling because that is what party politics encourages. It might in some circumstances be fair enough in the case of Donald Trump who clearly admires Putin for being a strong man, and maybe even a role model for himself. Possibly the same applies to Nigel Farage. I do not think it applies to Corbyn, although the Morning Star describing Allepo as being “liberated” is certainly cause for concern. On the other hand I notice that Noam Chomsky – also likely to be an influence on Corbyn – does not see it like that at all.
    If we are going to condemn anyone in this debate, lets quote them in their own words in their intended context. Apart from that lets recognise that developing the least worst policy will require a lot of careful calculations based on a good understanding on what is going on there and what policies have worked and failed in the region in the past. I would like to see LDV invite a Middle East specialist to write an article on this.

  • Joseph Bourke 21st Dec '16 - 6:38pm

    There can be no outright victors in Syria. The continued existence of the Assad regime is dependent on Russian air support and ground forces comprised of Shia militias, Iranian Quods forces and Hezbullah, every bit as radical and blood thirsty as Daesh and the Al Queda affiliates that are inter-mingled with the rebel opposition. The regime will continue to be reliant on these forces once the shooting has stopped.

    The secular Syria and relatively harmonious co-existence of the pre-civil war days is gone for the forseeable future, if not forever. Unless the Sunni majority are prepared to accept the oppressive domination of an Iranian backed regime, the only solution is partition. There is no longer any reasonable prospect of a power sharing regime.

    The UN role (and therefore the UK’s) is to facilitate bringing about a cessation of hostilities that recognises that reality, with the eventual deployment of peacekeepers to keep the warring sides apart.

  • Katerina Porter 21st Dec '16 - 10:20pm

    Military action is sometimes necessary. In Syria early on we could have had a no fly zone
    like that that protected Kurds in Iraq from Saadam Hussein well before and not related to our later invasion. And an MP with a military background recently said that one could repeat a successful manoeuvre where a missile had been fired from a battleship far away aimed at a runway which stopped bombing. The present situation is repeats of Bosnia, Rawanda, and other genocides and there is no prospect of satisfactory negotiated peace.
    As for Putin and Russia there was a leader in the New York Times yesterday which starts
    with “While revelations about Russian involvement in the American presidential election
    rock the United States , there are ominous signs that Russia is spreading propaganda and engaging in cyber attacks in Europe in advance of several national elections next year”.
    It goes on to say that the aim is to back right wing populist candidates such as Marine Le
    Pen (with a loan of over 11million dollars) and Francois Fillon of the Republicains party who is for forgetting Ukraine etc. “There is strong evidence that Russia played a role in the defeat of the Italian referendum, as well as in the Brexit vote in June”. There is the Netherlands, and “Germany’s intelligence agency has concluded that Russia was very likely behind the hacking of their Parliament’s computer network”. “Russia’s goals in Europe appear to be to elect foreign leaders who are sympathetic to Russian expansionism , to weaken NATO and to fan anti European Union forces”. Angela Merkel surely a target. The leader goes on to say “the best way to ensure that Russia doesn’t replicate these successes in elections next year is to expose its tactics before voters head to the polls”

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