Despite all the reports of atrocities, news out of Syria can still shock. And not always for the battlefield events; sometimes for the callous, clueless coverage in media like the New York Times.
Numerous outlets have reported that some Christians have been beheaded or crucified, others ejected en masse from ISIS territory. Two Orthodox archbishops have been kidnapped and many believe that one, or both, are already dead (at the hands of rebels with past ties to U.S. agencies). And irreplaceable churches, monasteries, sacred art and libraries have been systematically demolished.
Just as shocking, none of that is in the latest "in depth" on the war in the Times.
The article deals with the ongoing war over Aleppo, Syria's largest city. It mentions the Sunni-linked Al-Qaida and the Shia-linked Hezbollah. It looks at the army of President Bashar al-Assad and Russian air power.
What of the estimated half-million Christians, including 40,000 still in Aleppo? Silence. Everything in the Times story is about strategy and alliances, with religion pushed backstage as if it plays no role in this drama whatsoever.
Granted, the barrel bombs and gas attacks don’t ask about religion. The Times says much about the generalized suffering:
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The battle for Aleppo -- Syria’s most populous city -- is once again raging, once again trapping hundreds of thousands of civilians, once again rallying fighters seeking an advantage in the five-year-old civil war.
But it is just as likely that Aleppo will continue to burn, the war will move no closer to resolution -- and many people will continue to suffer and die.
"Every day we have wounded, every day we have sick people," Abdulqader Habak, an activist in the city’s rebel-held eastern part, said via Skype. He and other activists have also reported an increase in attacks using chemical gases, increasing civilian misery.
The newspaper holds up Aleppo as Syria's industrial center as well as its largest city. It tells of seesawing victories, with each side gaining ground, then losing it as it exhausts itself. And it sees no end: "[I]n many ways, the battle for Aleppo reflects the wider struggle for Syria after five years of war, an increasingly intractable conflict in which the combatants invest all they have, but come no closer to defeating each other or reaching a political solution."
The article also examines more familiar factors, including the food and water shortages, and the apparent targeting of hospitals by the Assad regime.
Some of the reporting here is gritty and precise, as you would expect from this elite foreign desk. The Times quotes an activist and a doctor in government-held east Aleppo and a merchant in the embattled west section. It also gets remarks from the political chief of a rebel group backed by the CIA. Their street-level anecdotes are vital, eyewitness accounts of the suffering.
But what of their religious affiliations? Do they feel their faith communities are under attack, as their physical communities are? When it comes to religion, who is who?
The Times shows no interest in such questions. This despite acknowledging that the battle for Aleppo reflects the wider war across Syria -- a war that has sent hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, moderate Muslims and members of other minority faiths running for their lives.
This is the Times' idea of the religion angle for this story:
But spearheading the rebel effort were hard-line Islamist groups including the Levant Conquest Front, which has been affiliated with Al Qaeda for years and only recently changed its name and claimed to have become independent. While American officials dismissed the rebranding, saying the group did not change its ideology or its goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria, analysts said it allowed the jihadists to work more closely with other rebel groups, blurring the lines between them.
That complicates matters for the United States, which has tried to drive a wedge between the extremists and other rebels, and targeted the former with airstrikes. The jihadists’ prominent role in the Aleppo offensive showed that they remain militarily indispensable to the wider rebel movement and increased their popularity at time when many Syrians criticize the United States for not doing more to protect Syrian civilians.
Civilians like whom? Christians would have been an obvious choice here, if you know anything about the history of this region. The BBC ran a long story on Syria's Christian heritage more than a year ago. It told of the apostle Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. And how some Christians in Maaloula still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. And how Aleppo is near the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, "who spent decades on top of a stone pillar to demonstrate his faith."
And in March, Agence France-Presse quoted a Syrian Christian leader -- Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo -- saying that two-thirds of the country's 1.5 million Christians have fled the country.
While the military aspect is undeniable, it's also true that the guns are being directed leaders driven by religious factors as much as any others. An analysis in the Canadian journal iPolitics recognizes this:
A very diverse array of political movements, cultures and other social and religious entities have called the city home since Syria’s independence from France in the 1940s.
This high diversity of religious and ethnic communities has been important to the development of the city’s urban space. Kurds, Christians (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Greek Orthodox) and Sufis all call the city home. It’s a heterogeneous population that historically has given the city a special place in the larger political life of the modern Syrian state.
The article also notes the abduction of the two archbishops, as well as the brutalization of Yazidis in Syria. "Ordinary members of minority communities have been kidnapped, held hostage, subjected to extortion and killed in Aleppo -- similar to the experiences of minorities in Mosul prior to and during the early months of the ISIS takeover in 2014," iPolitics says.
On July 6, I praised the New York Times for its in depth on jihadi suicide attacks against a Christian town in Lebanon. It was a laser-like focus on a continuing tragedy that has been sorely undercovered.
With its newest article, I'm sorry to say that Times has fallen short of its own high standard. For a newspaper that other media respect and often emulate, this is a tragedy in itself.
Photo: The ancient Citadel in Aleppo. Credit: FreeImages.com/Simon Gurney.