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"Nothing Short of a Slaughter": 1 Million Syrians in Aleppo Under Siege with No Hospital, Food

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As the United Nations says nearly 1 million Syrians are living under siege and the last remaining hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been destroyed, we speak with Syrian analyst Bassam Haddad and get an update from a physician in touch with medical personnel in Aleppo. Dr. Zaher Sahloul is founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He has visited Aleppo five times since the war began.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today in Syria, where the United Nations is warning nearly 1 million Syrians are living under siege, double the number last year. The vast majority, 850,000 people, are being blockaded by the Syrian government. On Monday, the U.N. human rights agency said civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo, where the last hospitals have been destroyed by Syrian government bombing, are facing annihilation. On Tuesday, the U.N. spokesperson, Rupert Colville, said the attacks on hospitals, if proven deliberate and as part of a systematic pattern, could amount to war crimes.

RUPERT COLVILLE: The situation in eastern Aleppo is really so horrendous. I mean, it’s beyond words. I think we’re all struggling to say anything new about it, because it’s so unremittingly awful. Despite the occasional letups, overall, the picture is horrendous. And the fact that these hospitals and clinics are continuously being hit is a matter of very, very grave concern.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The World Health Organization says the Syrian government’s intense bombing campaign against eastern Aleppo has damaged and shut down the area’s only remaining hospitals, leaving 250,000 people trapped without access to medical care. Doctors warn the damaged hospitals may not be able to reopen. This comes as Syrian government forces have surrounded eastern Aleppo, which is rapidly running out of food, fuel and water. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the government of Bashar al-Assad said it had rejected a proposal by the U.N. special envoy for Syria, which called for eastern Aleppo to be granted autonomy if jihadist fighters linked to al-Qaeda withdrew and the fighting stopped.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Chicago, Dr. Zaher Sahloul is founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He has visited Aleppo five times since the war began. He was a classmate of Bashar al-Assad in medical school. And in Washington, D.C., Bassam Haddad is director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at George Mason University. He’s co-founder of Jadaliyya and director of the Arab Studies Institute. He wrote a piece for The Nation last month headlined "The Debate over Syria Has Reached a Dead End." He’s also the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.

Welcome back to both of you to Democracy Now! Dr. Zaher Sahloul, I’d like to begin with you to go over what we said in our introduction, namely, the state of hospitals in eastern Aleppo. According to the World Health Organization, there are no functioning hospitals left in East Aleppo. And you were last on the show in August, when you said the situation in Aleppo was, quote, "10 times worse than hell." Could you tell us what you know of the situation in East Aleppo today and, in particular, the state of medical facilities?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: It’s even worse than last time. And really, words at this point do not mean anything. The use of "catastrophic" or "beyond description" do not mean anything, because we’re talking about a city that has 300,000 people, among them 100,000 children, who are trapped with no food or medicine for the past four months and a half. And everyone is watching them with indifference. That’s at least what they perceive.

So, we’re talking about all hospitals in Aleppo right now that have capacity to treat victims of bombing that are destroyed, including the hospital that I spent last medical mission in with my colleagues. That was M10 hospital. It was a hospital underground for protection of doctors and nurses, and it was completely destroyed. That hospital used to perform 4,000 surgeries, life-saving surgeries, every year. In the last two days, two more hospitals were destroyed, which are the largest hospitals that are doing surgeries and taking the trauma patients. Every day there are massacres. And right now the space for treating these patients is shrinking, in addition to the shortage of the medicine, IV fluid, antibiotics, pain medicine, suture sets and, of course, the shortage of doctors.

Every 17 hours right now in Aleppo, there is a targeting of healthcare facility. Every 60 hours, there is a targeting and killing of a healthcare worker. In the last 144 days, there were 143 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria committed by the Syrian government and its ally, mostly Russia, and one-third of them happened in the city of Aleppo. So, right now, to be a medical worker in Syria is the most dangerous job on Earth. In spite of that, we have doctors and nurses in Syria, and Aleppo especially, who want to continue to save their lives, but they need to be protected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Dr. Sahloul, could you say then where people are going now? You’re in touch with medical personnel in East Aleppo. Where are people going now to seek medical treatment?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: There are still small medical facilities that are open and treating patients. They’re semi-destroyed or partially destroyed. There are some basements of buildings that our doctors are treating their patients. When I was in Aleppo, I visited seven medical facilities. These are hospitals that were in Aleppo before the crisis. And a few of them are very small, and they do not have the capacity to treat the victims of trauma or victims of chemical weapons, as we were seeing in the last few days. But in spite of that, they are opening some of their spaces that are not destroyed to keep accommodating the patients. You know, healthcare is one essential part that keeps a city going. And if you destroy every facility or medical facility, that means you are destroying the neighborhoods, you are destroying the city. And that’s why it’s very crucial to keep anything that will keep providing medical care to the civilians in the city available.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring in Professor Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at George Mason University and also co-founder of Jadaliyya. Doctor—Professor Haddad, on this site, Jadaliyya, which you co-founded, you and your colleagues have been documenting developments in Aleppo, and you point out on the site that in addition to the carnage in East Aleppo, there have been repeated attacks on the government-controlled side of Aleppo, West Aleppo. What do you know of the scale of these attacks and who’s carrying them out?

BASSAM HADDAD: Thanks, Nermeen. Well, clearly, there’s been a slamming of western Aleppo by the rebels. And the issue here or the point here is that these, of course, pale in comparison to the brutal bombardment of eastern Aleppo and the almost total destruction of life. The issue is not necessarily want to create any kind of parity, but it reveals a lack of reporting in Western media about that kind of direction of shelling into western Aleppo. But the more significant point, as my co-panelist, if you will, has just shared, is that what we are witnessing in Aleppo today, and especially in East Aleppo, of course, is nothing short of a slaughter. And that is, unfortunately—when I was here three weeks ago on the show, I had discussed that we had not seen then anything yet compared to what is likely to happen, and I fear that this will continue, this viciousness will continue, until the regime and Russia take over eastern Aleppo, because it is considered a necessary step to prop up their position in any future negotiation, before, during or after the takeover or the Trump administration comes into effect. And that is a chilling prospect, given what needs to happen in order for Aleppo to fall. The rebels will not give up; the regime and the Russians will go to any length to not just take over, but the idea here is to destroy life in itself. And we see that with the targeting of hospitals that cannot be but deliberate in this situation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Haddad, could you say a little more about what you expect will happen, given the intransigence of the regime and other parties involved? What do you think will happen in East Aleppo?

BASSAM HADDAD: You know, I mean, it’s—as my colleague said, we are all in a loss for words. I mean, there’s nothing that could describe what actually might happen if this onslaught continues. But at a strategic level, the Syrian regime and the Russians will not stop until this—it seems that they will not stop until eastern Aleppo is within their control. And it is important to note that the regime and Russia today have overlapping interests in doing so. However, it is also important to recognize that there might be a rift after that point, because the degree to which they both want to conquer all of Aleppo is very similar, but in any future process it seems like Russia is much more interested in focusing on stability and some sort of control of the situation in Syria, whereas the regime is mostly interested in reconquering the entirety of Syria and re-establishing itself and certainly its survival. And that might actually open the door for some negotiation.

But I fear that if this is the case, if the entirety of Aleppo is captured, it will leave, in any scenario, very little room for negotiation at a time when no international power, and certainly the U.S., neither have the will or the interest in doing very much to stop this. So there is this theater that people are asking the United States to intervene and to do more, but, in reality, neither is there a will nor is there any kind of desire to stop this process. And it seems that there is a consensus, not just against the revolution, as people say—people are always concerned about the revolution—but there is a consensus against the well-being of Syria and Syrian, with—and Syrians, with or without the revolution or the regime, for purposes that are mostly geopolitical, because, as we know, before 2011, all the parties that supposedly today are trying to defend Syria or fight for Syria or help the revolution in Syria were supporting the Syrian regime, from the Arab Gulf states to the United States, at various times.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we talk about the role of the U.S. in Syria, I’d like to ask Dr. Sahloul about comments that some have made that groups like al-Nusra and other extreme Islamist groups operating in East Aleppo are keeping people hostage and using them as human shields in East Aleppo. Some—there have been reports that people in East Aleppo fear leaving for the western part of the city, because they’re likely to be detained there as terrorists. Dr. Sahloul, could you comment on that and what you know of the situation of people attempting to flee East Aleppo?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: When I was in Aleppo in the last medical mission just before the siege became a reality, I was there with two physicians from Chicago, Dr. John Kahler and Dr. Samer Attar. We frankly did not see al-Nusra. We visited all hospitals in Aleppo. And it’s dangerous for me as an American doctor to be in a situation where you have encounter with these terrorists. But we have not seen any signs for them, at least in the neighborhoods and the hospitals we visited.

Now, there might be a few fighters of al-Nusra in the city of Aleppo and around it, but that’s not what is keeping the people in. Let’s not forget that the population of eastern Aleppo was 1.5 million before the crisis, and right now it’s 300,000. That means that 1.2 million are already refugees or internally displaced somewhere, in Turkey, in Europe or in the rest of Syria. The 300,000 people are there because they don’t have any other place to go. Even if they wanted to leave, where would they go? Turkey has sealed the border completely. Any other place in Syria is dangerous, because the Russians and the Syrians have been bombing Idlib, for example, which is nearby. They cannot go to government-controlled areas, because they can be tortured and detained. And, of course, that happened frequently, previously, in other places that were put under siege. And if they are let go, that’s called ethnic cleansing, forced evacuation, according to the United Nations. It happened in Darayya. It happened in Muadamiyat. It happend in Zabadani. It happened in the Old City of Homs. And right now we are witnessing what’s becoming the next ethnic cleansing or forced evacuation in Syria. There might be some terrorist group or al-Nusra around Aleppo, but that’s not what’s keeping the people in. And what’s keeping the people in, that they have no other place to go, and they are also trapped. They cannot go to any place that is safe.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Bassam Haddad, to return to the point that you raised about U.S. involvement in Syria, I’d like to quote from an interview with the Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh. You pointed out that the U.S. has been supporting rebel groups in Syria, as of couse they have, but he says in this interview with The Intercept, quote, "In many important ways, the Americans have been supporting Bashar al-Assad. The United States helped create a situation," he says, "in which Syria would be plunged into chaos, but the regime would remain in power." So, could you respond to that and also give us a sense of what U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria has been from the start of the uprising in 2011 to the present day?

BASSAM HADDAD: Yes. Well, first, I respect the perseverance of Yassin al-Haj Saleh as a dissident who was imprisoned by the Syrian regime and suffered the structural brutality for 16 years by the Syrian regime. And I support the idea that the U.S. intervention has been anything but positive from the very beginning. And, you know, as I shared earlier, I mean, this has been, in my view, quite obvious. It’s just that I also wish—based on the quote that you gave me, I wish that Yassin al-Haj Saleh has—or, had thought about this or provided it as an advice early on to the revolutionaries, when they were tripping over themselves here, next door, down the street, in Washington, D.C., to cozy up to U.S. policymakers in trying to move things in a particular direction, when, in reality, this was basically a moot point, considering exactly what Yassin al-Haj Saleh is saying right now. So, in my view, that is not a controversial point, and the idea here is to move beyond this call for U.S. intervention and think about what is the real interest of Syrians, because everybody is bypassing the interests of Syrians.

In fact, as a result of this kind of support by people like Yassin al-Haj Saleh for a more critical view, we are beginning to see a rift, if you will, between think tank analysts within the U.S. supportive of a traditional establishment approach that seeks to secure, first and foremost, the security of Israel—we’re becoming—we’re beginning to see a rift between this group of supporters of the Syrian revolution and many Syrians who support the Syrian uprising and revolution, whereby the former group is much more interested in the outcomes of the revolution in relation to Iran’s domination of the region, or control, and Israel’s security, whereas the revolutionaries are much more interested in the well-being of Syrians. And this rift actually can be—can be viewed by looking at how think tank analysts today are scrambling to oppose a Trump policy on the basis of not the Syrian people, not the health of the Syrian uprising, but on how it might produce positive effects—that is, Trump’s policy might produce a positive effect for Iran, Syria and their allies, including Hezbollah, in the region, and how it would threaten Israel. This line of argument reveals from the—reveals what has been a concern and the worry, from the beginning, of that kind of trajectory. And this is actually what we are witnessing today—and that quote is apt—a rift that should have existed from the very beginning for the sake of building a healthier, independent and democratic uprising in Syria against a dictatorial regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Sahloul, very quickly, before we conclude, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, commented for the first time on Trump’s electoral victory last week, calling him, quote, "a natural ally" of his regime. So could you, very quickly, tell us what you expect from a Trump presidency vis-à-vis Syria?

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Before that, we’re calling for a day of solidarity with the doctors and nurses in Syria on Friday, where everyone should put a hashtag that #NeverAgainIsNow to support medical medics in Syria. And this is something that is very important, because committing war crimes against doctors and nurses should be rejected by everyone. It should not be normalized.

Now, Trump has said that he will be—support President Assad. What kept the people in Syria hopeful of the future, the fact that there will be one day that they will have the same liberties and freedom that we have and enjoy in this country. And if this is removed, if Trump will be supportive of Assad, and Assad will control the rest of the Syria, and he will declare victory, and he will continue to be a president for the next 14 years, as he has promised, then that will be really the last nail in the coffin of the aspiration of the Syrian people, the young people of Syria, who rose up in the beginning of this five years ago for freedoms and liberties that we enjoy and we all support.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria and senior adviser and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society, he has visited Aleppo five times since the war began, and was a classmate of Bashar al-Assad. Bassam Haddad is director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program. Thank you so much for joining us. He’s also associate professor at the Schar School for Policy and Government at George Mason University, co-founder of Jadaliyya and director of the Arab Studies Institute. He wrote a piece for The Nation last month headlined "The Debate over Syria Has Reached a Dead End."

And when we come back, we turn to Trump’s policies that are concerned—that people are concerned about: "Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again." That’s the name of an article by Katherine Franke, who will be joining us in the next segment. Stay with us.

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