With a normal peacetime population of 2,300,000, Aleppo is the largest city in Syria -- larger even than the capital, Damascus. For much of the years-long Syrian civil war it has been in the hands of anti-government rebels, but ever since Russia began actively helping the Asad regime, government control has been reasserting itself at the expense of rebel groups all over Syria. Russian and Syrian forces are now in the process of retaking Aleppo. Large-scale fighting with modern military weapons in a city that size obviously involves terrible destruction and death, and by all accounts neither the regime nor the Russians are making any effort to minimize civilian casualties -- quite the contrary.
It's impossible to count the number of those killed or endangered (though there are at least a hundred thousand people in the area under fierce attack right now) or even get a clear picture of exactly what is being done and by whom, but we know what is happening to the victims. This is 2016, and unlike in previous such slaughters, the victims are able to make themselves heard in real time, via Twitter. We can read messages from people who expect to be dead within hours. This teacher, trapped in the war zone with his small daughter, reports "dozens of thousands" killed by bombing. There have been reports of atrocities.
The reasons for the brutality are not mysterious to anyone familiar with the region. Asad's regime is a brutal dictatorship -- the most brutal in the Middle East, now that Saddam is gone -- and has never shown much concern for the human cost of enforcing its rule. Russia, too, has a history of disregarding civilian death and suffering in the pursuit of military gains. Asad and most of his cronies in power belong to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, whereas much of the population of Aleppo is Sunni, and many Alawites fear the possibility that Sunnis (who make up 70% of Syria's total population) might someday overthrow and oppress them -- all the more so given the rise of the militant Sunni group Dâ'ish (ISIL), which has slaughtered and enslaved Shiites and non-Muslims in the territory it controls.
Blogger Aidha has a list of organizations that are trying to help, and her blog has been covering the crisis intensively. Today our Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke out forcefully about the massacre under way. Yet even if the US had the will to intervene decisively, it's hard to know what would be the right overall course of action. Any effort to stop the offensive in Aleppo by force would risk a direct clash with Russia. The greatest imperative in Syria overall is to end the civil war there, which is the only way the violence and destruction will come to an end and allow life to return to some semblance of normality -- and wars end when somebody wins them. Right now the Asad regime, brutal as it is, seems to be the only entity powerful enough to win the war and thus bring it to an end. Stopping its reconsolidation of control would mean prolonging the agony. Probably the best we can do is pressure Asad and Russia to to conduct the war more humanely, and I don't have much hope for their response to that.
The problem may eventually land on our plate anyway. Beyond Aleppo and beyond the territory still held by Dâ'ish lies Rojava, the de facto independent Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. The Syrian Kurds are allies of ours -- the US has been actively helping them in the fight against Dâ'ish. If Asad and Russia eventually try to conquer Rojava too, the US will face a choice of either stopping them or abandoning close allies for all the Middle East to see, destroying whatever trust others may place in us.
I shudder to imagine that choice being made by an ignorant and incompetent Trump administration. The future in Syria could be worse than the present.