Joyce McMillan: Only defiant political activism can save us now

A member of the government forces pushes an injured woman in a wheelchair as civilians are evacuated from Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood. Picture: Getty Images
A member of the government forces pushes an injured woman in a wheelchair as civilians are evacuated from Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood. Picture: Getty Images
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The world has failed Aleppo, and our leaders will not take action unless a grassroots uprising forces them says Joyce McMillan

If you want to experience a moment of true heartbreak this December – or just have a reminder of how fortunate we are, to live in any kind of peace – then there is no simpler way than to take a look at the Wikipedia page for the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo – a page largely completed before the beginning of the battle of Aleppo four years ago. The page shows images of one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, a legendary centre of trade at the western end of the Silk Road to China. There are ancient city walls, historic buildings and ruins, shiny western-style hotels, elegant boulevards, a lively nightlife, the Mediterranean coast just 60 miles away, and a fast-growing population of more than two million. There are also hopes for the future, including a massive scheme for preserving and restoring Aleppo’s unique heritage sites.

And then, everywhere on the media, there are the pictures of Aleppo now: whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble, the dome of the great mosque destroyed, ancient sites shattered by war, hospitals and essential public services deliberately targeted, and the city’s people struggling to survive without food, water, or medicine. The population is officially listed as having declined by almost a quarter since 2012; the truth is probably much worse, particularly since the intensification of the Syrian-Russian assault on rebel areas three months ago. And the world looks on, apparently helpless – so much so that one cartoonist wryly portrayed the arrival of a lorryload of Facebook “likes” on the devastated streets of the city, as if people could somehow eat or drink those little blue symbols of online concern.

When we study historic man-made disasters, we are trained to think in terms of immediate causes and underlying causes; and if the world has failed Aleppo, then the immediate cause is clearly the presence on the UN Security Council of Russia, one of the main combatants in the devastating attack on the city. For the Assad regime and its Russian allies, Aleppo is a nest of Islamist rebels that has to be retaken at any price; there is therefore no chance, under its present charter, of the United Nations doing anything at all, except to attempt some humanitarian aid.

When it comes to long-term causes, though, the situation is much more complex. The truth is that if Russia now seems bent on acquiring a murderous reputation in the region, most ordinary people in the Middle East and around the East Mediterranean have long since regarded the other main regional foreign powers – the United States, Britain, France – in very much the same light. This very week, Prime Minister Theresa May was in the Gulf, emphasising the closeness of Britain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which is openly complicit in the bombardment and shelling of civilian populations now taking place in Yemen; when Boris Johnson uttered a few home truths about Saudi Arabia’s regional role at a recent meeting in Rome, Theresa May’s office moved at lightning speed to distance the British government from her own Foreign Secretary’s remarks.

And as for the United States – well, its conduct during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made its name, and those of its closest allies, a byword for illegal and lethal intervention across the entire Islamic world, and beyond; so that when it comes to Russia’s conduct in Syria, the position of the rest of the UN Security Council is now as weak as the late foreign secretary Robin Cook once predicted it would be, if we failed to adopt the kind of ethical foreign policy he advocated back in 1997, as a clear practical necessity in creating a sustainable new world order.

So where do we stand now, in a world where our international institutions have been so gravely weakened? It’s clear that we cannot expect much from the emerging group of self-styled “anti-establishment” politicians in Europe and America, the Trumps and Johnsons, the Farages and Le Pens. They may be more willing than their predecessors to abandon diplomatic language when it comes to pointing out the obvious about Saudi foreign policy, or noising up the Chinese government, but the tide of blinkered xenophobia and petulant self-pity on which they have risen to power renders them worse than useless in any effort to promote a peaceful and sustainable future at global level, where their “straight talking” is more likely to lead to a new age of violent confrontation. Both Britain’s Brexiters and the American president-elect, for example, seem to regard undermining and ignoring the UN as some kind of enjoyable political sport rather than as an act of near-criminal political irresponsibility, given the colossal global challenges humanity now faces.

And here in the West, there is only one answer, now, to any of this; and that is for those ordinary voters who disagree to stop shouting at the telly, get off the couch, and start compelling their politicians on to a wiser and more sustainable path. Because what we have learned, over the last dispiriting decade, is that our national leaders – even the relatively well-intentioned ones – no longer have the strength to do the right thing by themselves. They need us, the people, to stand by them when they try to act with wisdom and compassion, to reject the manipulative lies of the powerful delivered to us through an ever-expanding range of hate-mongering media, and to give our political leaders what they now struggle to articulate themselves: a vision of a sustainable and peaceful future.

We need, in other words, a new age of defiant political activism, aimed at expressing values of justice, humanity and survival at every level, from the local to the global. And if it fails to materialise – why then, the game is over, certainly for most of our grandchildren, and perhaps for human life on Earth. These are the stakes for which we are now playing; and there is no sign that any of our politicians will be able to rise to that challenge without massive support and lifting-power from us, the people, who now need to start fighting for our own future, from the grassroots up.