That the fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces was a serious matter was shown by the rumour that accompanied it: that women civilians belonging to the rebel side were committing suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Syrian Army, and that 20 had done so. A letter by a hospital nurse began circulating as the news of the fall began:
“I am one of the women in Aleppo who will soon be raped in just moments. There are no more weapons or men that can stand between us and the animals who are about to come called the ‘country’s army’.
I don’t want anything from you. I don’t even want your supplication...as I am still able to speak I think my supplication is going to be more truthful than what you say!
I am committing suicide. And I don’t care if you say I am in Hell-Fire!
I am committing suicide because I did not remain firm in my deceased father’s home for all these years because his heart burned when he saw all those who left Aleppo.
I am committing suicide not due to no reason but because I do not want several members of the Assad Regime to savour raping me while just yesterday they were afraid to say the word ‘Aleppo’.
I am committing suicide because the Day of Resurrection has taken place in Aleppo and I don’t think Hell-Fire will be worse than this.
I am committing suicide and I know all of you will unite on my entering of Hell-Fire and that will be the only thing that you will unite upon: the suicide of a woman. Not your mother or sister or wife...but a woman you are not concerned about.
I will conclude by saying that your fatawa (verdicts) have become meaningless to me so save it for yourself and your family.
I am committing suicide.
And when you read this know that I have died pure despite everyone.”
In many ways, the note, which was passed on to scholars of the opposition by an aid worker, could serve as a feminist manifesto. It is one of the unspoken truths of war that combat is accompanied by sexual violence by victorious troops against the women of the losing side. Even if the note turns out to be manufactured, its wide circulation does reflect a widespread fear, and not just among the women of Aleppo, that the fall of the city will be followed by mass rapes and killings by a soldiery allowed to run wild.
Going back to Roman times at least, a city captured by force would be abandoned to the victorious soldiery, but one that surrendered was abandoned to their officers. There would be a limited period in which loot and plunder was allowed, after which discipline would be restored on the troops, and law and order enforced once again. Before slavery was abolished, one restraint was that people could be taken for sale as slaves. Since women would be thus enslaved for sale as sex objects, there was a restraint, though not necessarily a strong one, against rape. The first major city to fall to assault after the end of slavery was Delhi in the Mutiny. The city was abandoned to the soldiery for a week, and there was fearful plunder and slaughter committed, apart from rape.
The allegation should resonate with Pakistanis, for rape was a factor in the Partition. It is said that the brothels of ports to the east of India were filled for years after with victims who had been sold, from the Subcontinent. That was another event when women are reported to have committed suicide rather than submit to the invader. Another recent example is that of the rapes by Serbian troops of Bosnian women.
Apart from the harsh light shed on Syrian soldiers, the Russian influence becomes more apparent. Aleppo has been bombed and slaughtered into surrender, with relentless Russian airstrikes having battered the city almost to nothing. That is the pattern Russia followed in Grozny and the rest of Chechnya, when the separatist movement there was suppressed. There too the city was pulverised into surrender. The Americans merely coined the phrase ‘shock and awe’. The Russians really practice it.
If further evidence is needed, it will come as the government, supported by Russian forces, besieges Idlib, which is closer to the border with Turkey. If the Grozny strategy is followed, Idlib too will be pounded into submission, reduced to rubble, and those resisting killed, until survivors ask to be allowed to live. In the case of Aleppo, the survivors have asked for, and have been given, evacuation to Idlib and to Turkey.
Just as Grozny was a template for other separatists in Chechnya, Aleppo is meant to be a template for the whole of Syria. However, the resistance comes from different causes, and the Syrian regime has to fight all. There are the rebels who are against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, as the USA says it is; the rebels who promote an Islamic-state solution (in turn subdivided into those who owe allegiance to the Islamic State and those who don’t), and Kurdish separatists. Turkey has its own Kurdish separatists, and does not appreciate US support to them.
If the methods used in Aleppo are replicated against the Islamic State in Idlib, it would indicate how the Islamic State might be tackled in its strongholds both in Syria and Iraq. It is also noteworthy that the battle for Aleppo involved Russian and Iranian forces. This does not bode well for the Assad regime. The earlier US-Iran deal saw the coming close of two forces at odds with each other. Russia and the USA have drawn apparently closer because of Trump’s election. This shows that the Russians have overcome US objections to Assad continuing, and has apparently solved the succession question. This accords with the Chechnya experience where Ramzan Kadyrov has held office as head of the Chechen government since 2007. If Bashar is the son of Hafez Al-Assad, Ramzan is the son of Akhmed Kadyrov, the pro-government leader who emerged after the war there.
The Chechen experience cannot be called an unqualified success. There have been several attacks on Russia, indicating that radicalisation continues. Chechens still go forth and engage in jihad elsewhere. In the same way, the Bashar regime seems painted into a corner. After having carried out such terrible slaughter, how can the regime continue to rule? The task becomes complicated because of the foreign forces, whose intervention becomes inevitable, as Syria is the main source of the refugees exercising Europe, and seems destined by the fearful slaughter that may have only started in Aleppo to become the origin of many more militants. However, the alternative, which is a government committed to Islam, is so frightful that the USA has abandoned its regime change plans in favour of Russia’s slash-and-burn methods.
If any women have committed suicide in Aleppo, it would be a very costly defiance of the patriarchy represented by all the combatants. However, it would reflect how women continue to guard their honour. It seems that previous examples have not been enough to stem the need, as shown by this latest example.