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The Future of Syria: As Aleppo Falls, What Comes Next in a Country Shattered by War?

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The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution to investigate responsibility for war crimes in Syria. The resolution calls for a special team to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence,” as well as to prepare cases on war crimes and human rights abuses committed. Syria and Russia led the opposition to the proposal. This comes as the Syrian government prepares to fully retake eastern Aleppo after years of intense fighting. According to the Red Cross, the last remaining civilians will be evacuated from the once rebel-held area by tonight or tomorrow. The fall of eastern Aleppo marks a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. Earlier this week, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing war. The United States was not invited to participate. We speak to Mouin Rabbani, the former head of political affairs for the U.N. special envoy for Syria. He is a co-editor of Jadaliyya.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution to investigate responsibility for war crimes in Syria. The resolution calls for a special team to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence,” as well as to prepare cases on war crimes and human rights abuses committed. Syria and Russia led the opposition to the proposal.

This comes as the Syrian government prepares to fully retake eastern Aleppo after years of intense fighting. According to the Red Cross, the last remaining civilians will be evacuated from the once rebel-held area by tonight or tomorrow. The fall of eastern Aleppo marks a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. Earlier this week, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing war. The United States was not invited to participate.

AMY GOODMAN: The talks came just a day after an off-duty Turkish police officer shot dead the Russian ambassador to Ankara at an art gallery. The gunman yelled out, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” Despite the killing, Turkey and Russia relations appear to remain close.

To talk about the crisis in Syria, what happened in Berlin, the war’s larger impact on the region, we’re joined by two guests. Joining us from Istanbul is Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner. His forthcoming book is titled The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from The Hague is Mouin Rabbani, the former head of political affairs for the U.N. special envoy for Syria. He is co-editor of Jadaliyya.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mouin Rabbini [sic], let’s begin with you—Mouin Rabbani. Can you talk about both the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and what has taken place in Berlin?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, I don’t think the two are particularly related. And I think the important thing to note about the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey is that it doesn’t appear to have affected increasingly close Russian-Turkish—and, for that matter, Turkish-Iranian—relations, in terms of addressing the Syrian crisis through an independent set of negotiations that will be supervised by those three countries to the exclusion of the United States and the Arab Gulf states, and probably, to a certain—to a large extent, also the United Nations. So I think people who were describing this as a Sarajevo moment and all the rest of it, well, that might have been true had this happened a year ago, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Turkey was not disinvited from the recent meeting in Moscow, nor did Turkey decline to go. So it was, at most, a bump in the road.

In terms of Berlin, current indications are that the German—German police is looking for a Tunisian, who arrived in Germany—or, in Italy, rather, some years ago, I believe in 2012, and had spent some time in prison, had had his application for asylum rejected. And there’s now talk that he may be part of a larger cell planning similar attacks. So, I think we’ll have to wait to learn more about that. But unlike the killing in Turkey, this doesn’t appear to be related in any way—or, the Berlin attack doesn’t, for now, appear to be related in any way to the Syria conflict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mouin Rabbani, to go back to the talks between the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Russia, could you say why you think the United States and the U.N. were excluded from the talks?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, I think it has to do with the Russians trying to translate their military achievements into political ones and, in so doing, to seek to basically jettison the formula of a political transition, which many have understood to be a process that would ultimately result in the removal from office of Bashar al-Assad, to an alternative approach which calls for expanding the government by coopting some elements of the opposition into an expanded Syrian government. And if you can get Turkey on board with that formula—and Turkey being the most important conduit for sponsors of the opposition—then there’s really no need, or it would be preferable, from Moscow’s perspective, and certainly also from Tehran’s and that of the government in Damascus, to have other sponsors of the Syrian opposition excluded from the process—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and so on—because they will be able to exercise much greater control over the political process and its outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: And can I get your response, Mouin Rabbani, to Russia saying that communications with the United States, dialogue with the United States, relations with the United States, is almost completely frozen, expecting a better relationship with Donald Trump?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, that statement appears to be a general one concerning communications between Moscow and Washington over a whole host of issues, rather than specifically on the Syrian file. And I think it’s also a signal from Moscow that they’re waiting out the end of this administration, hoping for better things come January 20th, when Donald Trump is inaugurated.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mouin Rabbani, do you think, as some people claim, that Iran and Russia are the only two state parties that can help to facilitate a political resolution of the conflict in Syria, given that they have, in terms of external countries, the greatest influence?

MOUIN RABBANI: No, I wouldn’t, by no means, say that they’re—that they’re the only parties. My own view has been that a solution to the Syria crisis needs to be found primarily in the region, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to a much greater extent than it needs to be negotiated between the United States and Russia, who are not nearly as far apart on Syria as are the regional rivals. And so, I certainly think that Russia and Iran have greater influence over the government in Damascus than any other regional or foreign parties, but I think, for this to be successfully resolved, it’s also going to need the participation and consent of, particularly, other regional parties, who can do an enormous amount of damage if they’re not brought into the negotiations. Now, I think it’s very important that Turkey is participating, because if Turkey is on board, that also significantly reduces the capacity of other parties to act independently. But I do think it’s important, you know, to recognize this is not just a Syrian conflict. This is also a conflict in Syria involving all kinds of proxy conflicts between any number of parties, and, therefore, ultimately, many, if not most, of them will need to be part of any political resolution for that resolution to succeed and be sustainable.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting that Russia and Iran are working together around Syria, considering Donald Trump, well, has never addressed this, considering Russia a friend and Iran one of U.S.’s top enemies. That should be—present an interesting relationship when President-elect Trump becomes president. But I also wanted to ask you about your comment about Saudi Arabia, the U.S. going to Saudi Arabia very recently, its—what its role particularly is, as we wrap up this discussion.

MOUIN RABBANI: In terms of Syria? Or its relationship—

AMY GOODMAN: In both Syria, in Yemen, in the region, and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, obviously, have an extremely close relationship in any number of fields. And Saudi Arabia has traditionally functioned as a key American client state in the Middle East. Now, we see, for example, the war in Yemen is primarily a Saudi effort. But it is one in which the U.S. is, in fact, directly participating, both through massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, intelligence support, refueling of Saudi jets conducting many of these horrific bombing runs all over Yemen, and so on.

And in terms of Saudi Arabia—in terms of Syria, I think the situation is a little different. There you have one where Saudi Arabia has actually been much more eager to go much further in terms of its support of Syrian opposition groups than has the United States. But in Syria, you’ve had the U.S. more or less exercising a kind of veto over certain kinds of support that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are permitted to give to the Syrian opposition, particularly, for example, when it comes to anti-aircraft weapons and so forth. And so, I think it’s also fair to say that, particularly during the past two years, the Saudi ambition or the Saudi priority in Syria has remained regime change, whereas Washington has, I think, significantly shifted its attitude, where its main concerns in Syria relate not so much to the conflict between the Syrian government and armed opposition groups, but more with regard to the campaign against the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Mouin Rabbani, for joining us, former head of political affairs for the U.N. special envoy for Syria. We thank you for joining us from The Hague. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll go to Istanbul, Turkey, to speak with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner in Syria. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez, who’s just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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The Impossible Revolution: A Syrian Dissident on How a Fight Against a Dictator Became a Proxy War

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