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Slaughter or Liberation?: A Debate on Russia’s Role in the Syrian War & the Fall of Aleppo

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With the aid of Russian airstrikes, Syria has taken near full control of the city of Aleppo in a major defeat for forces hoping to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Before fighting began in 2012, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city with a population of over 2 million. Some of the first major peaceful protests against Assad’s rule broke out in Aleppo in March 2011. But today the city is in shambles after four years of fighting between Syria and rebel groups. A turning point in the battle of Aleppo occurred in September 2015, when Russia began carrying out airstrikes to aid the Syrian government. Russia described the fall of Aleppo as a victory against terrorists and jihadists. But the United States has decried the Russian-backed offensive. We host a debate between Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.

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StoryMar 17, 2022Syrian Activist Condemns Russia for Targeting Civilians & Hospitals from Aleppo to Mariupol
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: With the aid of Russian airstrikes, Syria has taken near full control of the city of Aleppo in a major defeat for forces hoping to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Before fighting began in 2012, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with a population of over 2 million. Some of the first major peaceful protests against Assad’s rule broke out in Aleppo in March 2011. But today the city is in shambles, after four years of fighting between Syria and rebel groups. A turning point in the battle of Aleppo occurred in September 2015, when Russia began carrying out airstrikes to aid the Syrian government. Negotiations are now ongoing for a truce to allow the evacuation of civilians living in the areas once held by rebel forces. An initial truce collapsed earlier today. Ismail Alabdullah, a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, said civilians had been executed by government forces.

ISMAIL ALABDULLAH: When Assad’s forces captured al-Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood and al-Fardos neighborhood, Assad’s forces, when they entered—when they entered these neighborhoods, they executed 82 people. And the relatives of the victims, who are now with us, told us they were executed, including like 13 kids and seven women. All of them were executed. And what we are now—and what we worry about, about our [inaudible], that maybe the genocide—that genocide will happen in the coming days, if nothing will stop them in the coming hours.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia described the fall of Aleppo as a victory against terrorists and jihadists, but the United States has decried the Russian-backed offensive. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said, quote, “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later—Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” unquote. The U.N. said at least 82 civilians, including women and children, have been shot on sight by Syrian government troops in recent days.

To talk more about Syria, as well as how the fall of Aleppo impacts U.S.-Russian relations, we’re joined by two guests. Kenneth Roth is with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch. His new article for The New York Review of Books is headlined “What Trump Should Do in Syria.” And Stephen Cohen also joins us, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. He’s a contributing editor at The Nation magazine.

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Ken Roth, let’s begin with you. What’s happened in Syria? And talk about Russia’s role.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, we’re all focused on Aleppo right now. And I think, as you mentioned earlier, Aleppo has been the victim of several months of siege, basically a starvation of everybody there, not simply the fighters, but up to 250,000 civilians. It also has been the victim of ongoing bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces. And what’s notable about the way this war has been fought—and Aleppo is no exception to this—is that the Syrian-Russian combination have not simply aimed at fighters on the other side, which is what you’re supposed to do in war, but they have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian institutions, like hospitals or markets and the like. And the aim is to make life so miserable that people either flee or the enclave ultimately topples. That’s been this tactic in other areas, and now that has been successful in Aleppo. This is an overt war crime strategy, and it’s been Assad’s method of fighting the war from the outset. And Russia very much joined it, when, a little over year ago, in September 2015, it joined in. We had all hoped at that stage that the greater precision that Russian Air Force brought to the fighting would enable a more targeted approach. In fact, they just continued the policy of targeting civilians.

Now, we had hoped, as of last night, that for the remaining civilians in Aleppo—as well as the fighters, apparently—that there would be an evacuation. That had been arranged. But this morning, Shia militia, backed by Iran, blocked that deal and resumed shelling the area. This is of deep concern because, as you heard from the White Helmet individual, there have been executions in Aleppo when pro-government forces have entered. They, in particular, have been targeting the families of fighters. These are well known, and they’re going door to door and executing women and children, as well as others who are there. So there’s deep concern that if the people who remain in eastern Aleppo cannot get out, that they, too, may face these kinds of summary executions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you accusing Russia and Syria of war crimes here?

KENNETH ROTH: Absolutely. In other words, I mean, the fighters on the ground today are principally either Syrian or—I mean, the other major forces that have been backing Syria on the ground have been Iran and Hezbollah. Russia has been playing mainly an aerial role. But it—and often you can’t tell which plane is which. You know, there are various efforts. But the combination of the Assad-Putin air forces have been deliberately bombing civilians and civilian institutions, time and time again. You speak to people in hospitals who report being targeted over and over again, until ultimately the hospital is destroyed. And this, you know, sadly, has been the strategy that Putin and Assad have pursued in Syria. This is a blatant war crime. The Geneva Conventions require that you take all feasible precautions to spare civilians. In this case, the deliberate purpose has been to target civilians. It’s a blatant war crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Cohen?

STEPHEN COHEN: Is anybody here old enough to remember the expression “fog of war”? I think it may have originated in World War I. I’m not sure. But then, when you get a war, you have a very difficult time getting reliable information about what’s going on.

There are several narratives about the Syrian civil proxy war—and that’s what it is, a lot of great powers, or would-be great powers, involved in Syria. The United States and Russia are involved in a proxy war there. It’s a civil war. The account Mr. Roth just gave is only one of two or three competing narratives. One narrative is—and in war, innocents die. That’s why we’re all antiwar. He says that the Russians joined with the Syrians in deliberate war crimes. This is based on very selective reports that come from sources that cannot be verified. For example, the White Helmet man, that you had testify to this, didn’t tell us how he knew that, how he observed it, how he escaped with his own life. Moreover, there are people who doubt the reports that come from the White Helmets, that they have an agenda. So the rest of us are left here trying to weigh the different narratives. Mr. Roth’s is a very extreme set of accusations. What Samantha Power has said at the United Nations, over a long period of time, can’t be taken at face value, because she has performed there not as an ambassador, but as a propagandist for a certain point of view.

The problem here is, is that what’s the alternative to ending the siege of Aleppo? Now, you, Amy, Mr. Roth and The New York Times have dropped the word “jihadist” and “terrorist” from your narrative. I don’t know if you’re aware you’ve done that. You may have done this because The New York Times, until September—why was September important? Because President Obama had proposed to join with President Putin in what Mr. Roth now calls war crimes—that is, a military alliance against the people who are holding Aleppo captive. And they called them terrorists. When our Department of Defense sabotaged that potential Russian-American alliance in Aleppo, in Syria, suddenly the narrative—and we’re back to the fog of war—changed. The New York Times, for example, and many of us who depend on the Times or The Washington Post for our information, suddenly changed their narrative. There were no longer any terrorists in Aleppo, no longer any jihadists, but people called rebels. And since our nation began in rebellion against Great Britain, rebels have a rather positive connotation. The reality is, I think—at least this is what the United States government told us until September—that terrorists were holding large parts of eastern Aleppo. They were not letting innocent civilians use the multiple corridors out of the city that the Russians—yes, there’s plenty of testimony to this—had opened up and guaranteed, that people could not escape the city because of these terrorists. Then, suddenly, when the American-Russian—Obama’s plan to cooperate with Putin there disappeared, apparently all the jihadists and the terrorists disappeared.

So we’re left today in a fog of war. Perhaps Mr. Roth is correct, but I don’t think he’s fully correct. And we have two narratives. Either we have witnessed the liberation of Aleppo, and then we would say this is a good thing, or we’re witnessing war crimes by the Russians and the Syrians in Aleppo, which is a bad thing. So, I would ask Mr. Roth: If the Russians hadn’t done what he alleged they would do, what was the alternative to setting the people of Aleppo free?


KENNETH ROTH: Let me begin with this fog of war argument, because, you know, when there’s nothing to say, when there’s nothing to defend, let’s resort to the fog of war. I mean, I’ve heard this argument many, many times. This is not fog of war. We know exactly what is going on. Human Rights Watch has teams on the ground, based in Beirut, occasionally going into Syria, in regular communication with people in Aleppo, in other places. We don’t publish until we know exactly what is going on, until we corroborate and we’re certain. So this is not a matter of just, you know, taking some jihadist propagandist and repeating it. We know exactly what is happening. And there is no question that the bombardment has been targeting civilians and civilian institutions. There is no question that the siege was starving everybody, including a quarter of a million civilians. So, you know, fog of war? Please. You know, this is the reality.

Now, what—you know, what could have been done? We speak about terrorists, and so let’s get specific here. When people use that term, they generally refer to two groups. One is the Islamic State, or ISIS. ISIS is actually not in Aleppo at all. The U.S., working with its Kurdish allies, is fighting ISIS, you know, in Iraq around Mosul and in Syria around Raqqa. And Russia, for the most part, and Assad have largely been ignoring that fight. They’ve been focusing on Aleppo. Now, in Aleppo, there are what are known as sort of the moderate rebels, and then there’s a group that the United States agrees is a terrorist, is an al-Qaeda affiliate—until very recently, when it supposedly distanced itself from al-Qaeda—traditionally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jabhat al-Nusra forces are a relatively small component of the people in Aleppo, but the U.S. has agreed with Russia that it would like to see those people defeated.

Now, you know, however you feel about that, however you feel about the other rebels, the issue is—here, is not who wins. The issue is the method of warfare. And the right way to proceed is you shoot at the combatants on the other side. That’s what the laws of war are all about. Unfortunately, Putin and Assad have chosen to target the civilians who also live there. It’s a very deliberate strategy: make life so miserable that ultimately the city has no choice but to capitulate.

Now, you know, there is tremendous fear on the part of civilians in all of these enclaves who are targeted, and they—on the one hand, they fear staying there, because they’re facing the bombardment by the Russian and the Syrian troops; on the other hand, they fear going over into Syrian hands, because, you know, we know what happens in Syrian prisons. We’ve seen extensive torture and execution. We have photos of, you know, thousands of people who have died in those prisons. And so, if you’re a young man, for example, you basically are facing a choice: You know, do you either risk your life in Assad’s detention facilities, or—you know, what they’re increasingly doing is forcing you to just get into the Syrian military and go to the front line—you know, essentially a suicide mission there. So, it is, you know, a very poor possibility. Now, many families are staying with their relatives who are fighters, and these are the people who are being first targeted by the pro-government forces that are coming in. So, we are—you know, this is not about how do you defeat terrorists. This is about slaughter of civilians. And we should keep that focus.

AMY GOODMAN: Slaughter of civilians. The United Nations calls it a meltdown of humanity. Stephen Cohen?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, the United Nations has issued conflicting reports. There’s a bit of a struggle at the United Nations about what to say about all this.

Look, Mr. Roth’s organization does God’s work. No question about it. But for millennia, we’ve argued exactly what God’s work is. One can support what Human Rights Watch does, with great enthusiasm, make a donation, urge Mr. Roth on, and still question his narrative. He has, he asserts, absolutely verifiable sources. The reality is, he doesn’t. He criticizes me for saying fog of war, but there are other reports that have to be taken into account. The charge that Russia deliberately targets civilian facilities and centers is, of course, a part of the growing anti-Russian line that’s captured our politics and has led to this scandal in Washington.

I think we need to step back for a minute. And I won’t speak of my own involvement in human rights or civil liberties, because I’m older than both of you, and I would have you at a disadvantage, because I’m not sure you even remember these struggles—you do, but I’m not talking about only in the South, but in Russia and elsewhere. Putin said, prior to sending his Air Force to Syria, just over a year ago, in September 2015, I think—said it at the United Nations. He said it to President Obama. He said it at every press conference. During the period, three-year period, prior to that, the United States claimed it was fighting the Islamic State—and, of course, Mr. Roth is right: There are different terrorist groups fighting in Syria, some in Palmyra, some in Aleppo. During the three years the United States claimed to have been fighting the Islamic State, the Islamic State gained more and more and more territory, after the fall of Libya, or after we overthrew Gaddafi. It gained more territory in Iraq, and it gained an enormous territory in Syria. And something new emerged in the world: a terrorist organization that had actually turned itself into a real state. I mean, it was governing these territories, running municipal facilities, collecting taxes. This was something new and exceedingly dangerous.

So Putin said we have a choice: Who do we want in Damascus, the capital of Syria? Do we want Assad, the president of Syria, or do we want the Islamic State in Damascus? This was the key policy difference between the United States and Russia. The Obama had—administration had pursued, in fact, a policy of overthrowing Assad. Dealing with terrorists in Syria, some of whom we’ve funded, as Mr. Roth well knows, because they claimed to be anti-Assad, meant that, in fact, as we pursued the war against Assad, the Islamic State turned—took more and more territory. And Russia decided it had had enough, because it believed Syria was vital to its national security, and it intervened, and the war has been turned around. The United States has been on the wrong side of history from the beginning of this. The United States has made its contribution, since Vietnam, at least, to the destruction of hospitals and civilian facilities, most recently in Afghanistan. Was it deliberate? I don’t know. It was probably an accident. In Mr. Roth’s absolutist view, everything is certain, everything is deliberate. I’m more problematic.

But look what’s happening in Syria today. It’s extremely interesting. The Russians and the Syrians, some months ago, took back Palmyra, this historic city, where the Islamic State had been chopping off heads in public, where it had lined up its victims and had young children—looked to be about 10, 11, 12—execute them. I’m sure Human Rights Watch reported that and protested it. And then the Russians and the Syrians liberated the city. Now Palmyra is under siege again. The Islamic State may take control of the city. What is the United States doing about it? This is what we should be asking. This is our country now, not Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Roth, your response?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I’m glad—

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let—wait, let me finish my point. You filibustered. Let me just make my last point. He hasn’t mentioned Mosul, by the way, and whether the same thing is happening in Mosul. The American-led—

KENNETH ROTH: I just mentioned that, yeah.

STEPHEN COHEN: One second, please. There are verifiable reports that jihadists in Mosul are fleeing, because of the Iraqi-American war there. Where are they going? They’re going to Syria. The United States has bombers in that area. They could stop these people from going to Syria. They’re headed, I would guess, toward Palmyra. Why is the United States allowing these jihadists, these terrorists, to go to Syria? Because, possibly, they want them to take back Palmyra from the Russians and the Syrians. Now, we don’t know if that’s true, but the American role is highly suspect.

And rather than sit here and say the Russians are committing war crimes—because, look, one person’s war crime is another person’s liberation. On the front page of The New York Times this very morning, there is a story by Anne Barnard—by the way, Americans are not filing from Syrian that; they’re filing from Beirut, so they’re depending on different sources. But she makes an interesting point. She repeats what Mr. Roth says, that—about people being executed by the Syrian Army. But she goes on to say these can’t be verified. And then, two or three paragraphs later, she reports that people trapped in Aleppo are welcoming the Syrian Army with jubilation, she reports. So, even in The New York Times, which has not been very helpful in these narratives, you see the two narratives.

And undoubtedly, part of what Mr. Roth said is absolutely true. Part of it is part of the position that he has taken more generally about Russia being mainly responsible for virtually everything bad that’s happening in the world. And I’ll just end by saying that, in my judgment, the real threat to our national security at this moment, number one, is not unfolding in Syria, but in Washington, D.C.


KENNETH ROTH: Let’s get back to reality here. The U.S. has been bombing ISIS in both Mosul and in Raqqa. You know, Professor Cohen says jihadists are fleeing Mosul. That was several weeks ago. You know, since then, it’s actually been encircled, and so they’re not fleeing. But there’s no question that the U.S. is actively bombing in Iraq. It’s backed by, you know, government forces and Kurdish forces on the ground. And in Syria, it’s backed by predominantly Kurdish forces with a Syrian component to it. You know, that war seems to be progressing slowly.

If you look at what the Russian role in this has been, yes, you know, a year ago Russia retook Palmyra from ISIS. These days, it’s been focusing entirely on Aleppo, where there is no ISIS. If you look at—there’s a group called the Institute for the Study of War, which puts out very interesting maps, basically once a month, to show where the bombardment is. And so, they show the Russian bombardment. And you can see all these little explosives around Aleppo, and, you know, one or two around Raqqa or Palmyra. I have tweeted that on my Twitter account, if people want to find it. So, I mean, there’s no question that the focus of Russia and Assad today has not been ISIS. They use the terrorist rhetoric, but they’ve been going after the opponents of the Assad regime.

Now, you know, that’s their choice. For me, the issue is how they fight the war. Now, Professor Cohen says, oh, you know, I’m just making this up that they’re targeting civilians. You know, look at the hospitals. They’re a very good illustration. Until September 2015, you know, at a point where it was just the Syrian Air Force in the skies, they were using these so-called barrel bombs, which are very imprecise weapons. They’re essentially canisters filled with explosives and shrapnel, which would tumble to earth—very difficult to target. Since the Russians entered the war, they’ve got precision weapons. And so, you talk to the doctors—and which I’ve done repeatedly—and they describe much more precise hits on the hospital. And this is not a mistake. This is over and over and over until the hospital is destroyed. There is no question that these hospitals are being deliberately targeted. You can say, “Oh, fog of war,” but last time I checked, the only people in the sky over Aleppo are the Russians and the Syrians. There’s no one else.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion and go to this issue that Professor Cohen has raised: Washington, the Russia-U.S. relationship. We’re speaking with Professor Stephen Cohen, has taught Russian studies at both New York University and Princeton, now writes for The Nation, and Kenneth Roth, who’s executive director of Human Rights Watch. Stay with us.

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