In classic cultures, each year, instead of being designated by a number, was given a name. It could be the name of a major battle such as The Elephant when Abyssinians invaded the Arabian Peninsula, an exceptional natural disaster, The Locust which marked the beginning of the end for Sumer, or even an obscure river north of Rome, the Rubicon, the crossing of which by Caesar triggered the civil war that led to the death of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Empire.
As various cultures established calendars and learned how to use them, the practice of baptizing each year with a name fell into disuse. In 1937 the French writer, later politician, Andre Malraux, revived the tradition by suggesting that year be named after Guernica, a small Basque town in northwest Spain which had been subjected to the first instance of carpet-bombing in the history of war by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe and Fascist Italy’s Aviazione Legionnaria.
In the context of the Spanish Civil war, then in its second year, the aerial crucifixion of Guernica was of little military value. In symbolic terms, however, it marked a turning point in the struggle which, as subsequent events proved, concerned the whole of Europe beyond the Spanish backwater.
Some Western intellectuals, among them the already-mentioned Malraux and the British writer George Orwell identified the event as the end of the tentative peace established in the continent at the end of the First World War.
Guernica sealed the fate of the League of Nations, a precursor of the United Nations as the guarantor of some international law. More importantly, perhaps, Guernica was to morph into the prologue to the Second World War as the greatest fight between dictatorship and democracy in the history of the blood-soaked continent.
The attack introduced a new form of warfare in which the aim was no longer to weaken or destroy an armed opponent, but to kill as many civilian non-combatants as possible. That was a dress rehearsal, albeit on a small-scale, for the carpet-bombing of London, and later Dresden and Berlin, above and beyond any justification in purely military terms.
Throughout history, war had meant a clash of two rival armed groups with civilians simply required to submit to the winner at the conclusion of the conflict. In Guernica, however, the aim was to terrorize the civilian population even before the end of the conflict.
The Western democracies, notably Great Britain and France, rubbed their hands and watched as the tragedy unfurled thus signaling to the Axis Powers that their dream of world conquest would run into little resistance.
With all that in mind, would it be outrageous to wonder whether 2016 couldn’t be named as the year of Aleppo? The Syrian city, crucified by carpet-bombing by the Russian Air Force and ceaseless artillery barrages by the remnants of President Bashar Al-Assad’s army backed by the Iranian military and their Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries, is far bigger and more populous than tiny Guernica. There, the number of victims is also larger. But we live in an age in which everything is bigger and larger and, often, more horrible.
Beyond that, the resemblance between the two events is staggering. In Guernica, German and Italian bombers deliberately targeted hospitals, schools and even markets and bazaars, exactly as Russia and its allies did in Aleppo.
In both cases, the attackers didn’t allow humanitarian aid to reach the people trapped in the inferno of the targeted city. German and Italian planes knocked out a small convoy of relief organized by volunteers from France and Britain. In Aleppo, Russian planes destroyed a similar convoy despite the fact that it had obtained the approval of the United Nations and the International Red Cross.
Before Guernica, the conflict in Spain had been a civil war with rival factions also enjoying some backing from outside powers. Guernica transformed that into a broader fight over who would dominate the European continent, indeed the whole world.
Aleppo may well signal a similar turn of events with a civil war becoming a broader struggle for domination in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond.
Aleppo looks like the end of the line for many things. One might wonder whether the UN isn’t going to share the fate of the League of Nations. After all, what is the good of an organization that cannot even allow a verbal condemnation of mass killing of civilians by one of its veto-holding members? Worse still, the other veto-holding members have either clung to carefully calibrated clichés or kept their mouths shut.
Russia and China vetoed a scheme to allow humanitarian aid to reach Aleppo. Britain and France shed crocodile tears but refused to even contemplate air-drops of food and medical supplies to the besieged population as the Russian went for the kill. The United State, under the Nobel peace laureate Obama, did even worse by harping about “consulting our Russian partners to find a solution.”
Aleppo debunked the shameless claims of the so-called Anti-War Coalition that is always ready to march in London, Paris and New York against even a threat of action against despotic regimes such as the Islamic Republic in Iran or the Castrist outfit in Cuba but cares not a farthing about slaughter in Aleppo.
Aleppo also exposed the true face of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran, exposing it as an opportunist and power-hungry Mafia that, though using a pseudo-Islamic lexicon, is more than ready to play second fiddle to an ambitious “Infidel” power in slaughtering defenseless Muslims.
By the time this column appears, the Moscow-Tehran axis may well be celebrating “victory” in Aleppo just as Berlin and Rome did after putting Guernica to death. But just as Guernica did not guarantee strategic victory for the Nazi-fascist Axis, the crucifixion of Aleppo is unlikely to advance Moscow and Tehran’s empire-building ambitions.
This does not mean that today, though gone rogue, Russia and Iran, are the same as Germany and Italy in 1937. What is clear, however, is that they are using similar tactics- tactics that should no longer be tolerated in a post-Communist, post-Fascist world.
Whatever happens next in this war, one thing is certain: 2016 will be remembered as the Year of Aleppo, Syria’s hero-martyr city.