Yesterday, 2-13-18, Democracy Now aired a segment entitled “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Worse: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar.” Here’s my edited version of the transcript:
“Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amid a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched in Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from which the drone was apparently launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. For more, we speak with Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent articles are titled ‘Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet’ and ‘It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.’ And we speak with Syrian-Canadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.
ELIZABETH THROSSELL (UN high commissioner for human rights spokesperson): This has been a week of soaring violence and bloodshed in Syria, with more than a thousand civilian casualties in six days. We’ve received reports that at least 277 civilians have been killed, 230 of them by airstrikes by the Syrian government and their allies. In addition, 812 people were injured.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in the last week alone.
ANNE BARNARD: Well, thank you so much, first of all, for being interested in this subject. It’s very important that it continues to be talked about. I haven’t been in Syria for a year. I’m constantly applying for visas, but the Syrian government is quite unpredictable and restrictive about when it grants visas to foreign journalists. And once you’re there, you can’t operate entirely freely anyway. We’ve covered recent events from here in Beirut through an extensive network of contacts on all sides inside Syria. Over the last seven years, these kinds of death tolls are happening all the time. Civilians and hospitals are under attack, and it’s very hard to get humanitarian aid access. The Syrian government’s attempts to take back rebel-held areas have been particularly characterized lately by an intensified bombing campaign that’s taken a heavy toll on civilians, who are already tired, malnourished, maybe displaced already several times. Some of them are stuck behind siege boundaries. So, it’s really been a tough week.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, most of the media attention in the United States has been focused on the war against ISIS, and with the declaration that most of the ISIS enclaves had been defeated, the attention has largely dropped from the U.S. media. What’s happened since the so-called defeat of ISIS? How has the war in Syria transformed?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes, the U.S. focus has tended to be on ISIS within a framework of the so-called war on terror. But the war in Syria didn’t begin with ISIS and isn’t going to end with it. First of all, I think it’s probably a mistaken “mission accomplished” moment to claim that ISIS has actually been defeated, because many fighters have gone underground, and their ideology, of course, is continuing to assert itself. But since then, what the relative defeat of ISIS has unleashed is the ability of the Syrian government and its allies – Russia and Iran – to turn their attention fully back to fighting the rebels, who have already been on the run. And it’s very complicated, because there are different patches of areas around the country that aren’t connected to each other, that are controlled by different rebel groups, Islamist groups, some al Qaeda-linked groups. There are many wars within the war. And the rest of the world cares less about them than they cared about ISIS, because they saw ISIS as a threat to themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Saturday’s event marking the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s, also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. Can you talk about the significance of this?
ANNE BARNARD: Yes. This brings us to the second consequence of the end of the main part of the territorial fight against Islamic State. Many different international powers, as well as the Syrian government and some of its opponents within Syria, were all against each other, in a way, but united against the Islamic State. And they launched competing campaigns to defeat the Islamic State, racing one another to take its territory. Now that the Islamic State has been largely driven out of territory in Syria, these different combatants are finding that their conflicting interests are coming to the fore again. So, you see Turkey going against Syrian Kurdish groups supported by the US, and even confrontations between the US and Turkey. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria throughout the war, with relative impunity, but this is the first time that the Syrian government has managed to shoot down a jet. You also have Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran – which have differing views about how exactly the future of Syria should be laid out. So, we may be getting to a phase in the Syrian war where all the foreign interveners are turning it into an arena to fight each other, regardless of what Syrians want or the effect on Syrians. And, unfortunately, that could go on for a long time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne, I wanted to ask you about the role of Hezbollah, because, it’s been widely involved in the fighting in Syria, and has undoubtedly grown stronger as a result. Could you talk about its role in the conflict, and the concerns of Israel over the growth of Hezbollah?
ANNE BARNARD: Hezbollah entered the war overtly as an expeditionary force in 2013. And that was a big surprise, because this is a group that was founded to fight Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, not to go and help put down uprisings in other countries. But nonetheless, because of their close alliance with Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah entered the war, first in areas that made sense, in a way, for it in a local sense – areas near the Lebanese border. But gradually their role expanded. They were a much more effective pound-for-pound force than the Syrian military, and they ended up helping out in battles across the country. The southern part of Syria is now the biggest issue, because Hezbollah is entrenching itself increasingly in areas bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So, that’s obviously of big concern to Israel. There is also, of course, an Iranian presence in Syria. That’s something Israel’s been trying to counter throughout the conflict, and I think we’re going to see more tensions around that.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, you’re a Syrian-Canadian researcher. Talk about the situation in Syria, your country, as you see it.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: It’s absolutely tragic – a complete annihilation of the struggle for Syrian self-determination by various communities within the country. You’re seeing the complete devastation of a society. The healthcare system is gone. Half the population are either refugees or amputees. It’s absolutely devastating. What we’re witnessing in Syria is the failure of international mechanisms to hold states accountable. This has happened before in places like Iraq, Palestine, Congo, the Central African Republic, and in Myanmar now with the Rohingya. [And Yemen.] And it’s going to continue in various places, as long as states are allowed to do as they please. This can only end if populations and communities around the world start mobilizing and pressuring their governments to stop these types of actions.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yazan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Western powers were originally calling for regime change to end the civil war, and now that’s dropped off the table for a lot of them. Could you talk about that?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: I’m not surprised it dropped off the table, because, let’s be honest, Western governments don’t really care about dictatorships. In fact, they’re quite a fan. They don’t care if Bashar stays or not, as long as he plays ball and fits into their interests. Should Bashar go? Yes, obviously. He’s a dictator. But it can’t happen through Western intervention or Western forms of regime change, because we’ve seen what happened in Libya and Iraq. So we need to do something else here. There needs to be an international mechanism to hold dictatorships accountable, whether they’re allies to the West or to Putin.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anne Barnard, could you talk about whether the potential is increasing or decreasing for some kind of a conflict between the outside powers spreading beyond Syria?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, that’s certainly the danger. I mean, and just to build on what Yazan was saying, the reason that the international community, such as it is, hasn’t been able to come to any consensus is the deadlocked Security Council. So, we start from a situation in which Russia and the United States are completely deadlocked – they can’t agree on anything. And now they’re each backing a side in Syria that sees itself as fighting an existential battle. For Russia this is about restoring its great power status and countering the U.S. in a key area of the Middle East. Russia has interests with its port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Tartus on the western coast of Syria. And it’s clearly put more skin in the game than the US has. At the same time, the US has extended its commitment, perhaps indefinitely, in northeastern Syria, where most of Syria’s oil is. Now we’re hearing that last week US forces hit a pro-government force that may have included Russian contractors
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking January 17th at the Hoover Institution, calling Iran a ‘strategic threat’ to the United Sta,tes and using this alleged threat as justification for keeping U.S. troops in Syria.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking U.S. interests, our allies and personnel in the region. US disengagement from Syria would allow Iran to further strengthen its position there.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, if you can respond to the U.S. secretary of state?
YAZAN AL-SAADI: This concern by the US about Iran is typical, in terms of the warmongering mentality within the U.S. military-political establishment and their need to dominate the region. At the same time, Iran is a dictatorship and a problematic regime, just like every other regime in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Zionist regime, the Saudi regime, and others. We need to start creating mechanisms of accountability that force these regimes to accept the power of people and respect their rights of people beyond all.
AMY GOODMAN: Anne, what percentage of Lebanon is now Syrian refugees who have come over the border, not to mention Jordan and other places?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, Lebanon is a country of around 4 million people, and there are at least one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees here, more than a quarter of the population. So, Lebanon is bearing a huge brunt, and Turkey and Jordan also have large numbers of refugees. I like Yazan’s idea of creating a mechanism to hold the powers accountable, but look what happened when Syrian people and people in many other countries in the region tried to speak up and use people power to ask for more rights or reforms in their countries. Almost all of them were defeated by state power in one way or another. So, it’s really a puzzle. I wonder, Yazan, if you have any, you know, specific ideas about how things can go differently for ordinary people who want to make their voices heard. I mean, you know, we’ve seen a lot of idealistic people try, and, you know, you see the results.
YAZAN AL-SAADI: People have tried and are still trying, and we should continue. I mean, one of the most important things is international solidarities, right? Working between communities, whether it’s the Syrian community, working with communities in the United States, for example – let’s say the Black Lives Matter, because they are facing injustices and tyranny of the state. So I believe in creating ties like that. I believe in creating ties between the BDS movement in Palestine with other pro-rights movements in Bahrain or among the Rohingya. That’s the only way forward, because we’re dealing with an international problem of domination over our communities, wherever we are. What’s happening in Syria is a violent, physical manifestation of that. And it’s going to continue in other forms in other places, as long as states still have all the power.
AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually in Beirut, Lebanon, now in Kuwait, and Anne Barnard, the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.”