How to Define Violence in Aleppo?

Iason Giannakis/ April 6, 2017

Coming back to Aleppo, it could thus more safely be described as ethnic cleansing: the vast majority of East Aleppans have been displaced, and those evacuated may be able to leave with their lives but little else, and may never be able to return. Of course, the division in Aleppo not being entirely ethnic, but more religious, political and cultural is an issue. That said, the tactics used are the same as ethnic cleansing, so we could call it religious, cultural or political cleansing. This is related to a dilemma described by genocide scholars Tomislav Dulić and Roland Kostić. The so-called ‘ethnic security dilemma’ refers to the Yugoslav Wars, describing the fear of being subject to violence from another group within the same national boundaries, thus leading to radicalization and politicization of ethnic and religious differences. Given the ambiguity about the centrality of ethnicity in the Syrian conflict, we could talk instead about the religious or cultural security dilemma. Dulić and Kostić also mention ethnic mobilization: we could compare this to the situation in Syria (and Iraq), where we could instead talk about mobilization of Arab religious and cultural groups, and ethnic mobilization of Kurds, as the basis of the ongoing armed conflict.

Voice of America News (Scott Bobb), Bombed out vehicles Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, 2012

In relation to these considerations, we should discuss the highly controversial term used by the Syrian government: evacuation. That covers up that the choice for anyone even linked to opposition was to leave now (during the truce) or die, making the discussion around the use of the right term a difficult and challenging task. The term “evacuation” disguises the real nature of the operation, which would be better described as depopulation (it is depopulation when there is no specific relocation plan, otherwise it can be described as resettlement, as Valentino argues), induced by state terror and indisputable mass violence. Moving the refugees en masse to Iblib could not reasonably be described as “relocation” due to the lack of any long-term plan for them, so it is indeed depopulation.

While Sunni Arab populations may still be living under the regime elsewhere like Latakia, Damascus and even West Aleppo, this does not mean that the emptying of East Aleppo’s Sunnis is not an example of localized cleansing.

Furthermore, conflict scholars discuss, as an example of atrocity, brutal, indiscriminate or even genocidal counter-insurgencies, which show no regard for civilian lives, or which even actively target civilians as part of their campaigns. So we can see Assad’s campaign in Aleppo in this light, as an example of an ultra-brutal counter-insurgency. As at the very least, the Assad regime was and is willing to kill any number of civilians in regaining its control, and the evidence would suggest intent to kill civilians.

As we can see, defining genocide and ethnic cleansing needs a lot of elaboration and in-depth analysis based on detailed information that we currently lack. Civil society is not necessarily capable of gaining access to this information, as we witness in Syria at the moment. But with this in mind, how can we define the violence in Aleppo? In 1998 the political scientist Rudolph Rummel created the term democide, referring to many atrocities committed by states in the 20th century, which applies perfectly to the events in Aleppo. A democide is “the murder of any person or people by their government, including genocide, politicide and mass murder“. By using this term to describe mass violence in Aleppo we are able to overcome the problems above. So it is a safe umbrella term.

So to conclude, there is understandably much use of the term genocide in the discourse around Aleppo, but 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.

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  • Dulić, Tomislav and Kostić, Roland. 2010. “Yugoslavs in Arms: Guerilla Tradition, Total Defence and the Ethnic Security Dilemma.” Europe-Asia Studies 62 No.7, 1051-1072
  • Rummel, Rudolph. 1998. Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. Münster: LIT Verlag Münster.
  • Valentino, Benjamin. 2004. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.