Aleppo is a Tragedy but it’s not ‘like’ Srebrenica

December 14, 2016
Politicians and journalists love to draw comparisons between one event and another – but these historic comparisons serve little purpose.
Free Syrian Army fighters run away after attacking a Syrian Army tank during fighting in the Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Beta/AP Photo/Manu Brabo.

“Aleppo must not become another Srebrenica!” says Lord Paddy Ashdown, a senior British Liberal Party statesman and former international overseer in Bosnia. “Two decades before Aleppo, there was Srebrenica,” says the Washington Post. “Aleppo’s people are being slaughtered. Did we learn nothing from Srebrenica?” Nedzad Avdic – himself a Srebrenica survivor – writes in the UK’s Guardian.

Avdic’s words carry weight, having “looked down the barrel of a gun,” as he wrote in his Guardian article. Still, the tendency – especially strong among politicians and journalists – to draw loose comparisons between one historic event and another is neither helpful nor illuminating and it should be resisted.

My own resistance to “just like…” comparisons was honed covering the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when each side manufactured bogus comparisons in order to place their own fight on the side of the angels in history.

The Serbs loved saying that the Croats were “just like” the Nazis and that their leader, Franjo Tudjman, was “just like” Hitler, even though Nazi Germany wanted the rule the world while Croatia just wanted independence – and while Nazi Germany was the most formidable industrial military complex the world had ever seen, while Croatia was no more a great power than Scotland.

The Croats insisted the siege of Vukovar in eastern Croatia was “just like” the siege of Stalingrad, although Vukovar was little more than a big village and Stalingrad was one of the biggest cities in the Soviet Union.

The Bosnians – and their foreign admirers – relentlessly likened the war in their country to the Spanish Civil War – even though the war in Spain was overwhelmingly about political ideology while the war in Bosnia was, in the end, an ugly battle for territory between three ethnic/religious communities.

I have never been to Aleppo but I was in Srebrenica during the terrible siege of that town and struggle to see what these two places have in common beyond being besieged.

Srebrenica was a small, remote town, almost entirely Muslim [Bosniak] before the 1992-5 war. By the time the siege started there, almost all the remaining Serbs had gone and a great many Muslim refugees from other areas had moved in, so there was no division in the town. Inside Srebrenica were besieged Muslims being bombarded and starved out and outside were besieging Bosnian Serbs. It was very simple – a straight, binary conflict, in which one side held all the cards as the town was surrounded.

Aleppo is no remote hilltop town composed of one nationality or faith group. One of the oldest and (once) one of richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East, it is, or at least was, home to a multiplicity of communities and, from the start of the war in Syria, has been split into at least two parts, one loyal to the Assad government and the other run by the opposition – with an extra enclave run by the Kurds.

The Western media never reported much from the western half of Aleppo so we have no way of knowing whether people there really support the Assad government or are just keeping their heads down. As for the now conquered eastern part, we have way of knowing whether people there were just caught up in the conflict or actively supported the anti-Assad opposition forces that controlled it.

The only thing Srebrenica and Aleppo have in common is that the world “stood by” while terrible things took place but even then, the comparison is stretched.

Srebrenica occupied a few square miles in the middle of Europe and NATO could easily have defended it from the tin-pot army of the Bosnian Serbs who did not enjoy limitless military supplies from the likes of Russia and Iran.

That is why Srebrenica is such a scandal and a disgrace. It is not because the number of fatalities there was huge in terms of global disasters but because the whole business of the massacre in 1995 was entirely preventable.

There was never the slightest risk of a world war breaking out over Srebrenica. Had NATO, or even the just British, or the French, or Americans, intervened on their own, little Ratko Mladic would have banged his meaty fist and that would have been it. It is sad to say, but about 6,000 people died in Srebrenica because the Western powers, with all their huge resources and gigantic military firepower, just couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to save them.

Western intervention in Aleppo would have involved the commitment of resources on a completely different scale. It would have been a thousand times more risky and the outcome would have been very unpredictable, given Russia’s and Iran’s dedication to the Syrian government’s campaign to recapture the city. We may chastise the West for cowardice in not taking on Russia, but no one can deny that the risk of a truly global confrontation was real. What has happened in Aleppo is a tragedy and a disaster – but let’s leave Srebrenica out of it.