The Last Men in Aleppo


Still from “The Last Men in Aleppo.”

Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, “Last Men in Aleppo” opened yesterday for a week’s run at the Metrograph in New York. It will open on May 18 at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout and VOD to follow. Nominally covering the same terrain as the 41 minute “The White Helmets” that was voted the best short documentary by the Academy Awards, this is a much darker film reflecting the desperation of people facing the imminent collapse of a rebel-controlled area that might have contained 250,000 people. The film was directed by Firas Fiyyad who was in attendance for the Q&A at the Metrograph last night. He was jailed twice and tortured during the early days of the Syrian revolt. The guards told him: “You’ll have double the amount of torture because you’re a filmmaker.”

Fiyyad filmed in East Aleppo throughout 2015 and 2016 often facing the same risks as the White Helmets who were singled out for attack, just like the local hospitals. If the goal was total war to stamp out terrorism, why not snuff out those responsible for saving lives? If a three-year old might grow up to join al-Qaeda, isn’t it better to take preemptive action?

The film follows two White Helmets on their daily rounds. Khalid is a clean-shaven, chain-smoking bear of man with two young daughters he dotes on. Apparently he is one of the infidels that managed to avoid the jihadists in East Aleppo described by Charles Glass in a New York Review of Books blog: “Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.” Like many others who view Assad as a lesser evil to the “jihadists”, the former Newsweek journalist can be relied upon to bend the truth in the interests of the war on terror.

Khalid’s partner is the twenty-something Mahmoud, who has lied to his parents about his whereabouts. He reassured them that he is in Turkey but has remained in East Aleppo because he sees saving lives as his duty. Repeatedly, we see Khalid and Mahmoud digging people—both living and dead—out of rubble. Modest to a fault, Mahmoud does not want to come across as a hero. When he visits one of the people he saved, he sums up his feelings: “I didn’t like that, I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.”

When they are not at work, they chat about their situation with a mixture of sardonic humor and gloomy resignation to their fate. Trying to figure out why they stay, Khalid volunteers this assessment: it is better to live under siege and face death than in a refugee camp. This does not stop him from imploring an unnamed man to help smuggle him and his family into Turkey. Ultimately, Fiyyad’s film is a portrait of men living on the edge rather than a paean to the Syrian revolution that many Syrians, including Khalid, consider a lost cause.

East Aleppo was the last stronghold of the Syrian revolt. With his Grozny-like scorched earth tactics that beta-tested new weapons, Putin brought home the coonskin and nailed it on the wall as LBJ hoped to do in Vietnam. He proved to skeptics that air power was invincible, especially when those you are bombing lack anti-aircraft weapons. Of course, bombs and missiles were the only thing that would work given the dire straits of the Syrian army.

Last May, Tom Cooper reported on the sorry state of Assad’s military on the War is Boring website. Indeed, the army was already critically low in numbers by the summer of 2012 because of defections to the FSA and flight from the country by young men unwilling to die on behalf of someone like Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf who supposedly controls 60% of the Syrian economy and shelters much of his wealth in offshore banks served by Mossack Fonseca.

To shore up his dictatorship, Assad first called on Iran that supplied 100,000 fighters constituted as the National Defense Force, a militia with its own interests. Other militias would follow suit, especially those that were Alawite-based and financed by wealthy adherents to the sect that constituted the dictatorship’s hard-core support.

But these bodies proved insufficient. Hezbollah joined in and became a powerful counter-revolutionary force, squandering whatever respect it had earned for standing up to Israel. Next came Shia brigades from Iraq, no doubt seeing their intervention as part of a region-wide defense against Sunni extremism even if most of the people they fought were far more interested in overthrowing a mafia state than in making a statement about who was Mohammad’s true successor nearly 1500 years ago.

Even then, these hundreds of thousands of men aided by Syria’s powerful air force, which had no effective opposition from the ground, would not suffice. Russia stepped in two years ago and its intervention proved decisive. The lessons won’t be lost on Middle East dictators. If you are confronted by a revolutionary movement made up primarily of poor farmers, small businessmen and workers crushed by neoliberalism, immediately denounce it as a jihadist threat to civilized society and enlist Putin’s support just like General al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who have become the Kremlin’s solid allies.

Before the war broke out in 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city and one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. For many, the rebel presence in eastern Aleppo was tantamount to an invasion by rural folk with little regard for the city’s high culture and religious diversity. Edward Dark, a pseudonym for an Aleppo resident who claimed to be initially supportive of the rebels, wrote an article in 2013 that has been widely cited by Assad supporters :

Rebels would systematically loot the neighborhoods they entered. They had very little regard for the lives and property of the people, and would even kidnap for ransom and execute anyone they pleased with little recourse to any form of judicial process. They would deliberately vandalize and destroy ancient and historical landmarks and icons of the city.

And who were “they”? Dark described them as if they were from another planet:

They were the underprivileged rural class who took up arms and stormed the city, and they were out for revenge against the perceived injustices of years past. Their motivation wasn’t like ours, it was not to seek freedom, democracy or justice for the entire nation, it was simply unbridled hatred and vengeance for themselves.

Did they really “storm the city”? If you see “Last Men in Aleppo”, it will become immediately obvious that these are long-time dwellers of East Aleppo that remained there despite the bombing and siege. Why? Because it was their home. Dark is correct to refer to class but only in the sense that those who protested against Assad and ultimately took up arms were not part of the nation’s elite. Obama pegged them fairly accurately as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” who would never be able to overcome a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and a battle-hardened Hezbollah. Obama was correct, I suppose, in realpolitik terms. Might does make right.

Despite the bleak situation faced by Syrian rebels and the dead certainty that Assad will remain in power, there are leftists who will greet the release of “Last Men in Aleppo” in the same way they greeted “The White Helmets”–as a propaganda film designed to burnish the reputation of a group serving al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria. In articles by Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, you get the same talking points that you get in RT.com. The White Helmets are creatures of the USA and Britain designed to make Assad look bad, just like those “false flag” sarin gas attacks.

Now entering the seventh year of war, the notion that first responders rescuing people from rubble can trigger an American “regime change” operation makes about as much sense as 9/11 Truther belief in an inside job. On February 5th, 2003, Colin Powell made a speech at the UN claiming that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s. On March 20th, just 43 days after Powell’s speech, George W. Bush invaded Iraq and toppled the regime. How many years have to pass when people like Max Blumenthal stop warning darkly about regime change? Another seven? Seventy? Maybe Obama had different intentions all along. Perhaps he took to heart the advice that the Rand Corporation proffered in 2014 “Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests.”

So, with the collapse of the Syrian revolt, let’s all raise our champagne glasses and toast the fulfillment of U.S. strategic interests.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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