How to Define Violence in Aleppo?

Iason Giannakis/ April 6, 2017

There is understandably much use of the term genocide in the discourse around Aleppo. However, when it comes to academic circles it is perhaps advisable to use terminology that more accurately describes the criminal nature of the Regime, and is harder for the Regime’s supporters to contest. Therefore, we discuss the potential applicability of other terms, including ethnic cleansing, depopulation and democide. We conclude that democide is the safest umbrella term to describe the mass violence against civilians in Aleppo.

An article by Board Members Iason Giannakis and Jacob Agee

Genocide is a term with massive power in the public sphere. In Aleppo hundreds of thousands of civilians faced an imminent threat some months ago and it is no surprise that a headline in The Guardian read: “Aleppo’s people are being slaughtered. Did we learn nothing from Srebrenica?” This comparison between current events of mass violence in Aleppo and the recognised genocide in Bosnia in 1995 serves a specific aim: raising awareness and creating a feeling of the need for action. The term genocide has been vastly politicized from the beginning due to its specific power: it can, in any given context, motivate feelings of support, sympathy or even encourage military intervention. Through history it has been used multiple times in order to draw attention to, rather than to describe, an event of mass violence. In order for someone to distinguish between political use of the term and actual genocide, in-depth knowledge is required but seldom considered.

We as a part of civil-society need how to define that which we oppose, in our case mass violence against civilians. As an NGO our aim is to contribute to that by stressing a more distinguished and precise use of different terms concerning mass violence. Are current events in Aleppo part of a genocide?

After the Second World War many different countries came together to define crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The result was the United Nations Convention for the Prevention of Genocide which defines genocide as a number of actions committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Many civilians trapped in East Aleppo, accused of supporting the rebels and facing systematic violence by governmental forces, used the term genocide to describe their terrible suffering under the Assad regime’s fist. From a moral perspective we are not yet in a position to pedantically discuss the terms used by these people to describe their subjection to mass violence and suffering. But what we can do is discuss Aleppo in relation to the legal and academic discussion of genocide.

Of course, the perpetrators (the Regime, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia militias) and their supporters describe all opposition to the Assad regime as “terrorism”, or associate it with Islamist Fundamentalism with no reflection on the presence of equal numbers of Shia Islamists on the Regime’s side. This is similar to numerous historical justifications of mass violence against civilians/military operations with no regard whatsoever for civilians’ lives: Russia in Afghanistan, America in Vietnam to name just two, not to mention atrocities committed by Bashir al-Assad’s father in Hama 1982. All of the above-mentioned situations were justified as counter-insurgency actions, while their implementation and results were for sure war crimes, and arguably genocidal. The rebels, and civilians caught in the crossfire, are describing this as genocide based mainly on the ferociousness of the indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population (unarmed civilians, women, children, elders), and scattered information. But the sheer amount of violence never was nor is an adequate way to define genocide. But, as the definition given above clearly shows, the identity of the victims is., Russian President Putin with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, 2015

So we can empathize with the use of the term genocide by those suffering so much, though in academic discourse there are perhaps various issues concerning its use. For example, the extent of sectarian polarization: although the vast majority of the regime’s victims are Sunni, there are Sunnis on both sides. While the survival of Sunnis under Governmental control, and (so far) of refugees from East Aleppo under regime forces would suggest that it is not a genocide of Sunnis generally, that does not mean it cannot be on a local level. Therefore, the involvement of some Sunnis as perpetrators does not necessarily diminish its genocidal intent.

But the killing of large proportions of East Aleppo’s heavily Sunni population, even disguised under “fog of war” and “collateral damage” excuses, definitely could be argued to be localized genocide: part of its population killed, including leaders/activists, and its cohesion as a (Sunni) community intentionally destroyed. At this point, it must be noted that according to the UN genocide convention, the implementation of genocide indicates that religious groups as well can be victims of such actions, so the lack of ethnic difference does not disqualify use of the term. And even if the annihilation of people is not complete, that does not disprove genocidal intent. But it is problematic to use the term ‘genocide’ as we do not yet have sufficient evidence to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt clear intent to commit genocide. Why is stressing intent so important? Take Srebrenica as an example again: not every Bosnian Muslim was killed, but the intent was to destroy Muslims as a group in that area. Therefore it was a localized genocide.

If we can’t prove genocidal intent or the fixed identity of the victims, current violence in Aleppo needs to be defined differently. Srebrenica was a culmination of mass violence perpetrated during the on-going war in Yugoslavia. Large proportions of ethnic groups were deported under deadly circumstances, whole villages were emptied and many civilians lost their lives. To describe these actions ethnic cleansing emerged as a fitting term. The Conflict Studies scholar Benjamin Valentino defines ethnic cleansing as the effort to implement ethnic, national, or religious purification over a certain territory through removing large sections of the population by force, often resulting in mass violence.