Aleppo is not the new Srebrenica - it’s the old Aleppo

When the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell talked about the Syrian city of Aleppo being the “new Srebrenica” last week there was...a reaction. Not much of one, perhaps, but a ripple of one nevertheless.

After all, it’s an arresting - if inaccurate and in the end ill-fitting - comparison. The genocidal slaughter of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serbian army units under Ratko Mladić’s command in 1995 is notorious as both the worst single massacre in Europe since the Second World War, as well as for the total failure of UN peacekeepers in preventing mass murder in a supposed “safe area”.

In truth Aleppo is nothing much like Srebrenica. The UN doesn’t have peacekeepers in Aleppo and fighting has already been raging in and around this large landmark city for longer than the duration of the entire Bosnian war.

The appalling massacre in the small town of Srebrenica over two decades ago still stands out now because of its scale and speed - thousands systematically executed in just a few sordid days during the middle of July 1995. With Aleppo, though there have been fears of an outright “massacre” for years, what we’ve seen instead is a sort of slow-motion massacre. Thousands of Syrian government barrel bombs and other ordnance have rained down on the city for months on end. People have died singly, or in groups of ten, 20 or even 100. And others have died through malnutrition or lack of medical care. But, in the absence of a one-off catastrophic event, the plight of Aleppo has to many people come to seem a deadening, unchanging story. Terrible, no doubt, but with the never-ending bombings, the years-long government blockade of much of the metropolis, and the ebb and flow of fighting within its ruined streets, Aleppo has only fitfully managed to capture the world’s attention.

Which, sad to say, is understandable. The world is full of catastrophes and there’s always the latest bombing or headline-grabbing outrage to report on, read about, and to some extent ... mentally file away/forget about. And in any case the sum total of suffering in Syria is obviously far greater than the tragedy of Aleppo. Siege Watch estimate that no less than a million Syrians are currently trapped by military sieges (some of course maintained by armed opposition groups), while it also reckons a further 1.4m people are eking out a precarious existence in “siege-like conditions”. That’s a huge chunk of the entire Syrian population.

Meanwhile, atrocities like the bombing of a maternity hospital in Idlib province or the longterm stranding in dire conditions (including searing temperatures of up to 50 degrees) of 75,000 people at the Jordanian border are generally only meriting a passing media mention. Such is the severity, scale and overall horrendousness of the Syrian calamity.

But still. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and the suffering there is immense. Andrew Mitchell might have been playing fast and loose with history, but he was right in trying to wrench attention onto what’s unfolding in Aleppo.

Mitchell’s “new Srebrenica” line echoes Jan Egeland, the United Nations official who’s responsible for trying to broker humanitarian access in Syria. The effectiveness - or otherwise - of UN efforts to deliver aid into Syria has been one of the many vexed issues of this crisis. With Srebrenica (as with Rwanda) the UN failed abysmally. Is it going to fail with Syria as well? Let’s fervently hope not.

And let’s hope that Aleppo stays at the centre of international attention. Because, even without a standalone massacre of Srebrenica’s magnitude, Aleppo is already a frightening humanitarian emergency. Aleppo isn’t the new Srebrenica, it’s the old Aleppo. And that’s easily bad enough. 

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