“The Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy,” President Obama said at the height of eastern Aleppo’s bombardment a few weeks ago, during his last press conference of 2016.
But that’s precisely what the Syrian president and his allied forces did in the battle for Aleppo and throughout much of the nearly six-year Syrian civil war, with incessant and indiscriminate bombings and “medieval” siege tactics. The brutal approach required a consistent and blatant disregard for human rights and international law, and the countless warnings from the international community, the U.N., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and over 200 other human rights groups and NGOs.
Assad and ally Russia dismissed dire diplomatic warnings and independent reports as “unfair and dishonest,” “hoaxes” and “propaganda,” and regularly pointed to crimes committed by opposition rebel groups during the battle. But the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that Assad’s allied forces were “responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties” in Aleppo.
“The Assad playbook now is that you can crush your people; you can destroy cities; you can attack with chemical weapons; you can enable extremists — and the international community will stand by and not do anything,” resident fellow Hassan Hassan, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told the New York Times earlier this month.
Bashar Assad is now starting to wear his newfound inevitability, recently taking some time away from his various battlefronts to pose for some cynical, well-crafted holiday photos. And as he reintroduces himself to the world as Syria’s immovable object — with help from allies Russia and Iran, who with Turkey have organized a cease-fire while they undertake broader peace negotiations — it’s worth taking a look back at the many dire international warnings during the final months of the battle for Aleppo that were either rejected or ignored on the way to this once unthinkable outcome.
“The world is turning a blind eye to the carnage in Aleppo. Hospitals, markets, and residential areas are still under fire, and no one is doing anything to put out the flames.”
— Muskilda Zancada, Head of Mission for Syria at Médecins Sans Frontières, condemned the continued fighting in Aleppo and warned of an “upsurge in attacks targeting civilian infrastructure, including affecting hospitals.”
Later the same month, The New Yorker’s Ben Taub chronicled Assad’s calculated and bloody war on Syria’s doctors, and the volunteers attempting to provide emergency medical aid.
“The international community simply cannot let eastern Aleppo city become yet another — and by far the largest — besieged area. This is medieval and shameful. We must not allow this to happen.”
— U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien warned that critical aid and supplies were running dangerously low and required immediate action in eastern Aleppo. “This is no hollow warning,” O’Brien added. “This is highly likely to occur again unless you enforce access.” O’Brien would make many similar warnings before the Security Council in the months to come.
“Syrian government forces are repeating the terrible siege tactics in densely populated eastern Aleppo that devastated civilian populations in other towns in Syria.”
— HRW’s Nadim Houry warned the international community as Assad’s forces tightened their siege in late July.
“The boy in the ambulance.”
— Omran, the 5-year-old boy pictured caked in blood and dust while awaiting medical attention briefly returned the world’s attention to the civilian suffering taking place inside eastern Aleppo. When confronted with Omran’s image months later, Assad deflected and called it “a forged picture.”
“The Syrian government and Russia should immediately stop attacking civilian areas with incendiary weapons.”
— HRW’s arms director Steve Goose urged international action on the issue after the monitoring group documented at least 18 instances, over a stretch of nine weeks, where the Syrian government, in violation of international laws, used incendiary weapons in airstrikes on civilian areas of rebel-held eastern Aleppo and Idlib.
“There is a lot of evidence that it [a chlorine attack] actually did take place. If it did take place, it is a war crime and as such it would require everyone… to address it immediately.”
— U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura responding to reporters after the U.N. announced it would launch an investigation into the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Aleppo. The investigation came soon after reports from doctors and independent monitoring groups cited evidence of a “chlorine attack” on rebel-held territory.
“It is imperative that chemical attacks and other war crimes end now.”
—Amnesty International’s Magdalena Mughrabi warned of war crimes. A doctor who spoke to the human rights group described the smell of chlorine on victims’ clothing, and reported children struggling to breath.
The chemical attacks came nearly three years after Assad’s government agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention and vowed to rid the country of its robust supply of chemical weapons. Assad’s forces have regularly been accused of using chlorine as a weapon since the 2013 agreement.
“The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare. There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing.”
— UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth slammed government forces and reported that 96 children had died and 223 more were injured in eastern Aleppo a few short days after a U.S.-Russia cease-fire faltered.
“Imagine a slaughterhouse. This is worse. Even a slaughterhouse is more humane.”
— U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an unusually frank response to continued reports of indiscriminate bombings and allegations of war crimes in the besieged Syrian city. Secretary Ban urged the Security Council to take immediate steps to insure the protection of civilians, hospitals medical professionals, and humanitarians.
“After five years of conflict, you might think that the regime has had its fill of barbarity, that its sick bloodlust against its own people has finally run its course, but the regime and Russia have instead plunged to new depths and unleashed a new hell on Aleppo.”
— U.K. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said before walking out of a September U.N. Security Council meeting with fellow U.S. and French ambassadors in protest. The three accused Russia and Assad’s forces of committing war crimes.
“We will not let Aleppo become the Guernica of the 21st century.”
— Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign affairs minister, warned as he attempted to orchestrate a cease-fire resolution in late September, as U.S.-Russia-brokered peace talks stalled.
“The situation is unbearable.”
— Carlos Francisco, MSF’s head of mission in Syria, warned, “The few remaining doctors with capability to save lives are also confronting death.” The group reported that 23 hospitals had been attacked in eastern Aleppo since July. MSF would go on to report continued attacks on its facilities, including a children’s hospital, during the siege.
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions… This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians.”
— Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia and Assad’s forces of regularly bombing hospitals and medical facilities, and called for a war crimes investigation shortly after U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire negotiations fell apart in early October.
“If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save — that will be this council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.”
—U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien in one of his many dire warnings to a paralyzed Security Council regarding the deteriorating situation in Aleppo.
“This latest atrocity may be the deadliest attack on a school since the war began more than five years ago.”
— UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake decried the bombing of children at a school in Idlib province near Aleppo. “This is a tragedy. It is an outrage. And if deliberate, it is a war crime,” Lake said.
“The violations and abuses suffered by people across the country, including the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo, are simply not tragedies; they also constitute crimes of historic proportions.”
— U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein strongly condemned Assad and Russia’s constant and indiscriminate bombing of eastern Aleppo, describing their actions as “crimes of historic proportions,” that had transformed the city into a “slaughterhouse.”
“Month after month I have reported to this Council that the level of depravity inflicted upon the Syrian people cannot sink lower, only to return the following month with hideous and, with shocking disbelief, new reports of ever-worsening human suffering.”
— Stephen O’Brien once again found himself pleading for action from the international community after Russia and China blocked yet another U.N. Security Council resolution designed to alleviate Aleppo’s woes.
“Syrian government forces have repeatedly launched unlawful attacks on Aleppo city, displaying a callous disregard for the safety of civilians living in parts of the city controlled by armed opposition groups.”
—Amnesty International’s Samah Hadid decried the continued actions of Syrian government forces in eastern Aleppo. The rights group warned of greater potential violations from Assad’s forces as they began to win back large swathes of territory. “Given the Syrian government’s long and dark history of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances on a mass scale, it is even more crucial that civilians are protected in newly captured areas of Aleppo city.”
“A complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo.”
— The U.N.’s humanitarian spokesperson Jens Laerke described reports that his organization had received of civilians being shot on the streets and in their homes as Assad’s forces closed in on the last shreds of rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict.”
— The U.N.’s High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein responded to the numerous “credible” reports his organization had received in the final days of the battle for Aleppo.
“Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?”
— U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power asked of her Russian, Syrian, and Iranian counterparts during an emergency Security Council session at the U.N. in December.
“Aleppo is now a synonym for hell.”
— Outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the international community “had failed the people of Syria. Peace will only prevail when it is accompanied by compassion, justice, and accountability for the abominable crimes we have seen. ”
“We have postponed any meaningful action on accountability too often and for too long.”
— U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser said before her General Assembly colleagues voted through a resolution on December 21 that establishes a team to document and collect evidence of war crimes and rights abuses perpetrated throughout Syria’s civil war.