Several neighborhoods have reportedly been reduced to rubble as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wages a massive ground assault to retake control of Aleppo. According to activists, more than 20,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians, have died in the last 17 months of fighting, and tens of thousands have fled the country. On Thursday, almost 2,000 people reached neighboring Turkey as refugee flows continue to rise. About a quarter of a million Syrians have left the country for neighboring states over the course of the conflict. We go to the Turkey-Syria border to speak with Reese Erlich, a freelance foreign correspondent who has reported from Syria on several occasions. "Apparently, the pattern is, if a neighborhood was the scene of Free Syrian Army takeover or even previous demonstrations there, the civilian neighborhood is bombarded from the air or by artillery. And it’s forced a lot of people to leave. The one U.N. estimate was 250,000 just over the last week or so, mostly internally displaced," Erlich says. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Syria, where the Associated Press says Syrian government forces are battling rebels outside the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, where fighting for control the country’s largest city has raged for more than two weeks. Several neighborhoods have reportedly been reduced to rubble as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wages a massive ground assault to retake the cities.
The Assad government also appointed a new prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, following the defection of Riyad Farid Hijab. Syria’s state news agency reported the appointment in a brief announcement that did not refer to the defection.
Meanwhile, today, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, announced a new commitment of almost $8 million in equipment to the Free Syrian Army, noting the assistance will not include any weapons.
WILLIAM HAGUE: I’ve agreed in principle that our assistance to the opposition will include communications equipment to help political activists overcome the regime’s communications blockade and ensure their message gets to the outside world. I can’t say anything, of course, that would risk identifying these people to the regime or reveal the precise nature of all of that assistance, but our help is likely to include, for instance, mobile phones, satellite phones and radio equipment, which can be used to warn civilians of impending regime assaults.
We will help build local capacity among Syrian doctors to collect forensic evidence of torture that can be used in future trials. We will provide more training to support the documentation by Syrian activists of human rights violations and abuses, and to support steps to help Syrian opposition groups to uphold human rights. I’ve also agreed in principle that our assistance should include life-saving protective equipment for civilians to help those carrying out vital work in the crossfire, and this could, for instance, include body armor.
AMY GOODMAN: British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria. If confirmed, Brahimi would succeed former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who resigned last week, saying both sides, particularly the Syrian government, had failed to respect his ceasefire plan. His six-point plan was never fully adhered to by either side, and the violence continued to escalate.
According to activists, more than 20,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians, have died in the last 17 months of fighting, and tens of thousands have fled the country. On Thursday, almost 2,000 people reached neighboring Turkey as refugee flows continue to rise. About a quarter of a million Syrians have left the country for neighboring states over the course of the conflict. Heavy fighting in Aleppo has raised fears of a larger exodus. The refugees are housed at nine camps in four Turkish provinces along the Syrian border. A Syrian refugee in Turkey said the opposition has not yet lost Aleppo.
SYRIAN REFUGEE: [translated] I was at Salaheddine district last night. The Free Syrian Army has not withdrawn. I was fighting with them. We have killed 100 Syrian soldiers and destroyed tanks.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Reese Erlich, a freelance foreign correspondent, has reported on Syria for several occasions. He joins us on the phone now from Antioch near the Turkish-Syria border.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Who are you meeting? What are you reporting on? What is the scene there on the border, Reese?
REESE ERLICH: Well, the most recent interviews I’ve done were with refugees from Aleppo, who told me about really horrific carnage as a result of missile and artillery attacks on neighborhoods. Apparently, the pattern is, if a neighborhood was the scene of Free Syrian Army takeover or even previous demonstrations there, the civilian neighborhood is bombarded from the air or by artillery. And it’s forced a lot of people to leave. The one U.N. estimate was 250,000 just over the last week or so, mostly internally displaced.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the camps?
REESE ERLICH: Well, the camps here in Turkey are kind of what you would traditionally think of as refugee camps, with tents that provide electricity, sewage, food, you know, basic supplies for the people. They have a few small businesses that they operate out of the camps. From what refugees—you know, people sometimes have an image of refugees as these poor, bedraggled, starving people, but, you know, the Syrians are very sophisticated, educated people, and a lot of them have mobile phones, and they communicate with their relatives in Jordan or Lebanon, where there are also camps. And the consensus of people I’ve talked to is that the treatment is much better here in Turkey than Syrians are getting in other places.
AMY GOODMAN: How many refugees would you estimate are there?
REESE ERLICH: Well, the official figure, prior to this most recent fighting in Aleppo, was 70,000 officially registered. But that’s probably a low number, because a lot of people can come in as tourists, and if they don’t go into the refugee camp, they’re not considered refugees. But, clearly, there are people who have fled the country and are not able to return.
AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich, you’re on the Turkey-Syria border. Can you talk about the Kurds?
REESE ERLICH: Sure. The Kurds are a non-Arabic people of this region who have their own language and culture. They face discrimination in all the countries they have lived in historically and today, particularly in Syria. There were some 300,000 Syrian Kurds who weren’t even given citizenship until the fighting began and the uprising began back in 2011. So they face a lot of discrimination. And they are overwhelmingly anti-Assad. However, they are also very suspicious of the conservative Islamist forces and fear that under a new government, if they were in power, the Kurdish rights wouldn’t be respected, either. So they have not been as actively participating in the uprising as some other Syrians, although that’s begun to change in recent months. And there have been some smaller villages and towns where Kurdish guerrilla groups have set up checkpoints and otherwise, you know, started a armed struggle against the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Reese Erlich, about Russia’s role in all of this?
REESE ERLICH: Well, Russia, to its credit, in my opinion, has prevented the U.S. and Europe from passing a resolution that would allow a military attack on Syria, like the U.N.—like those powers did using a U.N. resolution on Libya. And Russia has its own interests in Syria. It’s a longtime ally going back to the Cold War days. But they’re kind of made into this boogeyman by the United States, that if only Russia wasn’t blocking the U.N. resolution, somehow, that would mean the end of Assad, and democracy could come to Syria. And the point is, is that the people of Syria are struggling themselves, and Russia’s actions are not any more harmful than those of the United States, which is supplying arms and also supposedly non-lethal equipment to Syria. I couldn’t help but smile when the British official talked about providing body armor as being non-lethal aid. Come on. Imagine if Pakistan was providing body armor to the Taliban in Afghanistan, what the human cry would be from the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what are people calling for? What do you think should happen, as you’re there on the border of Turkey and Syria?
REESE ERLICH: Well, people—it’s a very, very difficult struggle. People are, of course, angry at the Assad government. They do have faith, however, that they’re going to get rid of him without outside Western interference. I spoke to a number of people who absolutely oppose any kind of U.S. or European military interference. The U.S. should keep its hands off the situation. They’re probably—I mean, nobody has a crystal ball, but it looks like there’s going to be fighting that will continue for some time, because neither side shows any signs of giving up.
AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich, I want to thank you for being with us, freelance foreign correspondent on the Syria-Turkish border. This is Democracy Now!When we come back, we’re going to talk about what’s happening in London, the Olympics. We’re going to particularly look at women in the Olympics. Stay with us.