Last Thursday, as forces loyal to the Syrian government advanced through eastern Aleppo and despondent civilians there wondered whether they would be massacred, Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, stood in a sunlit courtyard in Damascus, dressed in a crisp blue suit, and compared his victory to the births of Jesus Christ and the prophet Muhammad. Just as our calendars count the years before and after those events, he explained, “I believe that we will talk about history—and not just the history of Syria, but of the entire world—as before and after the liberation of Aleppo.” He rocked back and forth on his heels, waving his arms and raising his eyebrows, unable to conceal his excitement.
So, characteristically, an autocrat inflates his place in history. But, in this case, it’s worth acknowledging that Assad has a point: the significance of Aleppo’s collapse is far greater than its physical territory, its ancient history, and its former splendor. For more than four years, Western governments and the United Nations stood by, watching, as Assad and his backers ostentatiously ignored the laws of war, and residents of eastern Aleppo live-streamed their own extermination. Now, along with tens of thousands of civilians, the credibility of the powerful countries and institutions that could have helped them, but didn’t, lies in Aleppo’s rubble and blood.
Consider Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a Syrian teacher and activist, who had taken Western politicians at their word and believed that documenting human-rights abuses mattered to the international community. He stayed in Aleppo under bombardment and siege, and broadcast his thoughts on Twitter, because he thought that if the world witnessed civilians suffering in Aleppo, it would come to their aid. Last Tuesday, Alhamdo filmed what he expected to be his final message, a warning to activists living in other repressive parts of the world. “Don’t believe anymore in the United Nations,” he said. “Don’t believe anymore in the international community. Don’t think they are not satisfied with what’s going on.” He sighed, and checked his surroundings. Pro-Assad militias were closing in. “This world does not like freedom, it seems. Don’t believe that you are free people in your countries, anymore. No.” There was the sound of gunfire in the background. “I hope you can remember us.”
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