Paul Pillar

Heartstrings and Aleppo

Among large-scale tragedies involving human suffering and the many examples of man’s inhumanity toward man, only a few capture our imaginations and sway our collective emotions.  The question of which specific episodes achieve this special salience does not seem to depend on the scale of the suffering or even on the degree of immorality involved.  The salience instead arises through accidents and vagaries of history.  The villains in particular episodes may have been primed to play such a role because of previous affinities and alignments and how we had already come to see them as villains.  Some episodes get more Western press coverage than many other episodes because of where reporters happen to be, what competition there is for headlines, or other random influences.  All of this makes for much inconsistency in what grabs our heartstrings as well as our attention.

Once a situation achieves the special status of being the focus of elevated indignation and emoting, the phenomenon of concentrated attention and moralizing becomes self-reinforcing.  Repeated references to the situation as inhumane and a moral litmus test stimulate further similar references.  Once this process is under way, it discourages sound discussion of policy options, including options of the past, present, and future.  One reason is the oversimplification involved in treating a complex situation as a litmus test that supposedly has clear right and wrong answers.  Another reason is the precedence that emotion comes to take over dispassionate reasoning.

This process is now being applied to the battle within the Syrian civil war in the city of Aleppo, with government forces having recently concluded the battle by achieving surrender of the remaining portion of the city that rebel forces had held.  This front of the war came to get disproportionate attention partly because Aleppo had been the largest city in Syria and partly because the battle there saw intense combat over an extended period.  The length of the battle was in turn an artifact of how front lines of the war had evolved in that part of Syria.  Both government and rebel forces each came to hold an enclave in the central part of Aleppo that was nearly surrounded by territory held by the other side—a prescription for prolonged siege warfare.  Social media also have played more of a role than in some earlier situations, with much attention to tweets that may or may not have come from a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo.  And as is common in such situations, other political and policy axes are being ground.   

What has come to be a common form of public discussion in the West of this situation is exemplified by the New York Times giving its architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, space for a front-page piece that laments how pictures from elsewhere “of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before” but that with Aleppo, “all we do is watch.”  Kimmelman’s own piece disproves his contention that conscience-pricking is not occurring with Aleppo as it has elsewhere.  So do many other pieces.  The lead editorial and cover story of the current issue of The Economist charges that the West, with “particular blame” aimed at Barack Obama, has failed to carry out a “duty to constrain brute force” that it recognized it had after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  Leon Wieseltier, writing in the Washington Post, begins with a reference to “the extermination [sic] of Aleppo and its people” and teachings of Eli Wiesel.  The rest of the piece is in a comparably black-and-white and overwrought vein, with disparagement of President Obama mixed in with mentions of Auschwitz as well as Rwanda.

If one were to search for dispassionate and objective reasons to have more despair over Aleppo than over countless other instances of wartime suffering or of man’s inhumanity to man, such reasons would be hard to find.  As important as possession of Aleppo is, it has still been only one piece of one front in one war out of the complex of wars that have constituted the violence in Syria over the past six years.  There are many instances of brutality, at the hand of different perpetrators, to be found in the Syrian violence. 

Outside Syria it is easy to find current or recent situations that are also heartstring-worthy.  This is true even if limiting one’s purview to the Middle East and to instances of government forces assaulting populated areas and inflicting many civilian casualties and other civilian suffering. Two instances that come readily to mind are the repeated armed assaults on the Gaza Strip and aerial bombardment in the current war in Yemen.  The situation in Aleppo has in one respect been milder than those cases; rather than being an instance of “extermination,” in Aleppo even fighters, let alone civilians, have been given a chance to evacuate.  There have been no convoys of green buses to take the people of Gaza or Yemen to safer places. 

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