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Syria Has Become a Circus of Death: Doctor Warns of Growing Humanitarian Crisis as War Rages On

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In Syria, the death toll has risen from a suspected chemical weapons attack in the northern province of Idlib. At least 72 people have died, including 20 children. Hundreds more were wounded. It’s been described as the largest chemical attack in Syria since 2013. The United States, France and Britain have accused the Syrian government of carrying out the attack and have proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning it. Russia is claiming the gases were released after an airstrike hit a depot where rebels were making chemical weapons. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the chemical attack will not change the United States’ new position that the U.S. priority is not to get Assad out of power.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn first to Syria, where at least 72 people have died, including 20 children, in a suspected chemical attack in the northern province of Idlib. It’s been described as the largest chemical attack in Syria since 2013. The United States, France and Britain have accused the Assad government of carrying out the attack and have proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning it. Meanwhile, Russia is claiming the gases were released after a Syrian airstrike hit a depot where rebels were making chemical weapons. Survivors of the attack describe being unable to breathe.

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] We were sleeping in our house. The house was hit was between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. I went out to help people, and they hit the building with a chemical weapon. And I went out to help people, and then there was a smell coming out.

REPORTER: [translated] How did you know it was a chemical attack?

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] Because I had trouble breathing, and I fell to the ground immediately.

SURVIVOR 2: [translated] There was a rocket, a rocket explosion that had a lot of smoke coming out of it. There was a lot of smoke, and there was a smell. It was very difficult to breathe. We couldn’t breathe anymore. We couldn’t breathe anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: The World Health Organization is reporting some of the victims had symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents. The chemical attack comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Washington would not push for Assad’s removal.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: I think the status in the longer term, longer-term status, of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the chemical attack was a consequence of, what he described, the weakness of former President Obama.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a, quote-unquote, “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, and then did nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Dr. Rola Hallam, a British-Syrian doctor speaking at the Women in the World Summit here in New York today. She’s the founder and CEO of the nonprofit CanDo. Late last year, she led the People’s Convoy, rebuilding a children’s hospital in Aleppo. She led a team of British doctors to the Syria-Turkey border with a convoy filled with medical supplies.

Dr. Rola Hallam, welcome to Democracy Now!

DR. ROLA HALLAM: Hi. Thank you for inviting me.

AMY GOODMAN: What do understand took place in Idlib?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: So, it would seem that about 6:30 in the morning, there was an airstrike in a town that has—that resulted in hundreds of civilians, mostly children, I believe, about 50 percent of them, to exhibit signs of exposure to a nerve agent. So they were found to be either comatose, not breathing, foaming at the mouth, having spasms, vomiting. Many were rushed to nearby Rahma Hospital, as well as an MSF-based clinic, that were then also hit by an airstrike. And I believe the death toll now is at over a hundred civilians, with about 380 injured.

AMY GOODMAN: And who do you believe did it?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: As far as I’m concerned, there’s an air—it was committed by an airstrike, and only the Assad regime or the Russian air forces have that capability.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the International Rescue Committee responding to the chemical attack in Syria, calling it a breach of international humanitarian law. This is spokesperson Oliver Money.

OLIVER MONEY: What we want to remind people of is, the people who are paying the price are the civilians. They’re the civilians that you’re—you know, that we’re learning about who have been attacked in Idlib this week. But it’s not just in Idlib. These sorts of attacks are taking place across the entire country. Up to half a million people have died in this conflict. We’ve seen—I think it’s half the country displaced, so 11 million people. Five million of those are refugees that have gone to neighboring countries, and also some of which got to Europe, as well. So, this is a conflict that the 21st century has not seen before, something of this scale. We’re not addressing, either, the root causes. And we need to do so much better at helping civilians who are getting targeted like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Rola, to hearing what he had to say?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: Sorry, I couldn’t hear that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk more—talk more about what is taking place, what you found what is there, and what you believe the United States should be doing, and the world.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: I mean, Amy, Syria has now become a circus of death. There are just so many incredible ways in which civilians are now being slaughtered. From—as a doctor, as an anesthesiologist, you know, the targeting of healthcare and of doctors in these last few years, over 340 facilities that have been attacked, nearly 800 of my colleagues—doctors, nurses and aid workers—who have been killed, for delivering aid. And now you’ve got this chemical weapons attack. I was actually in Syria when the last large attack happened in Ghouta in 2013. Those images yesterday, I have to say, paralyzed me for most of the day, as they brought back horrific memories of what I witnessed myself, not in Damascus with the chemical weapons, but of a similar aerial bombardment with an incendiary weapon, and children who also arrived unable to breathe because of their choking. And that’s obviously not even considering the over 1 million who are being starved to death. So, I think that, with this—with this circus of murder, that there is a need to uphold international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, and that’s protecting the medical neutrality as well as stopping these indiscriminate, murderous attacks on civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Agence France-Presse reported, a few hours after the alleged gas attack, a rocket hit a nearby hospital, where the victims were being treated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it doesn’t know whether the attack was carried out by the Syrian government or its ally, Russia. Meanwhile, Russia is saying that it would have been an air attack that hit a site where rebels were making chemical gas.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: You know, I think what I find incredibly frustrating about all of these discussions is that, in a bid to kind of point the finger at whodunnit, we forget the civilians, and we forget the incredible, heroic work of the Syrian humanitarians. And we have had to get up and dust ourselves, day in and day out, as we get attacked, as our community and civilians get attacked. And then we’re not discussed, right? The suffering doesn’t get discussed.

There are now like hundreds of people who have lost their children, who have lost their wives, who have lost their husbands. There are now even fewer medical facilities, when we already know that 11 million people are in dire need of healthcare. What does that look like? We don’t talk about that. That means women are delivering on their kitchen floor with no healthcare workers. That means whenever there are the basic infections, there are no more antibiotics left in Syria. People are having to have surgery without anesthesia, or not having surgery at all. I find it really frustrating that we never really talk about these really incredible examples of suffering, which are really, really important to discuss.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in Syria during the 2013 chemical attack?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: Yeah, I was in Aleppo and Idlib areas.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you learn at that time?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: So, I was there in that—during that period. And, obviously, the images that we saw were just as shocking as the ones that you’ve been seeing yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a clip from the 2013 BBC documentary Saving Syria’s Children, where the filmmakers traveled with you, Dr. Rola Hallam, inside Syria to reveal how children are impacted by the war. This is Dr. Hallam describing the aftermath of an airstrike at a school playground, as patients pour into a hospital in Aleppo.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: It’s just absolute chaos and carnage here. We’ve had a massive influx of what look like serious burns. It seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon. I’m not really sure. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.

NARRATOR: Rola orders all casualties, and anyone who’s touched the victims, to be doused in water.

IAN PANNELL: Casualties just keep on coming in. The truth is, they can’t even barely begin to cope inside here. There are few beds, which is why people are laid out on the floor. One thing that the camera will not tell you is the smell that’s in the air. It’s a sickening smell of burning flesh. It’s an absolutely horrific scene. Hospital staff are now handing these out, because, of course, the fear is, they don’t know what’s happened, and they think it may be a chemical attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from this BBC documentary, Saving Syria’s Children, which shows our guest, Dr. Rola Hallam, visiting a camp where a septic tank flooded the only source of drinking water, spreading illness.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: It’s absolutely disgusting. I’m not surprised everyone in the tent is sick. I’m surprised not everyone is dropping down dead. I mean, they describe multiple cases of typhoid fever. It’s very contagious. They’ve been visited and spoken to many international NGOs. And nothing. I dare any of them to come and just spend one day in this camp to live. Just one day. See how they would like that. The bureaucracy of the international NGOs is just incredible. I’ll be having some words.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was 2013. In the United States, that was under President Obama. But today, under President Trump, on Friday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said the U.S. doesn’t think the Syrian people want to be ruled by President Assad, but that, quote, “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” A lot of people are commenting on this now publicly changed U.S. position, just being a few days before what’s alleged to be a Syrian government attack, a gas attack, on the people of Idlib.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: As doctors and as humanitarians, we’re not interested in regime change and who’s in charge. What we are interested in is stopping the bloodshed and stopping this mass murder and massacre of civilians. I don’t think that it’s a very big change in policy, to be honest. I think it’s just now a little bit more honest than it was before.

And I’ll be speaking with the U.S. ambassador, Haley, at the summit this evening. And I look forward to speaking with her about what does the United Nations intend to do on these blatant disregard for various humanitarian laws and norms, because I think this is a really dangerous precedent that’s being set right now in Syria. When it becomes normal to target and bomb hospitals and use it as a weapon of war, when it becomes normal, after countless resolutions in the United Nations banning the use of these mass—agents of mass destruction, then what happens next? And what if—in another war in Europe, in the States, is it OK to start bombing your hospitals? I think that is an incredible, dangerous precedent.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think Russia can do?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: I think Russia can do an awful lot, as we know. It supposedly brokered this chemical weapons deal back in 2013, which we know was just a stage. There’s been over 160 chemical weapons attack. And actually, there was one large one back in December using sarin gas, where nearly a hundred people were killed there, as well. So, I think there is a huge amount that they can do.

But, look, we’re not short on evidence in Syria, Amy. What we are short on is action. We’re short on leadership. It is—it is complex. But there are—I cannot believe that in—you know, we’re human beings. We’ve put man on the moon. We’re now talking about setting up colonies on the moon and Mars. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we actually can bring a political solution and stop this bloodshed. But it requires leadership, and brave leadership, and we seem to be short on that around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Your hospital is opening today in Aleppo?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: Yes, that is the glimmer of hope in this real kind of scene of absolute devastation. So, the People’s Convoy was basically—it came out of the bombings of five hospitals in east Aleppo back in November. And I knew that so many people around the world, engaged citizens, wanted to show their love, care and support and solidarity with Syrian humanitarians, but didn’t know how to channel that. So that was where the People’s Convoy came. And over 5,000 people from around the world crowdfunded the first-ever hospital. And we then physically took the hospital equipment all the way to Syria, working with the Independent Doctors Association, our Syrian NGO. And they were just so incredibly moved by this happening from around the world. They’ve called it Hope Hospital. And today, Hope Hospital opened its doors to children in Aleppo area.

AMY GOODMAN: How much humanitarian aid is getting to the people of Syria, locally and from international groups?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: We have a huge deficit in the humanitarian aid that needs to be delivered there, and there are multiple reasons for that. Certainly, there’s over a million, as you know, in besieged areas that we cannot access. But the huge problem, Amy, is that we’ve got—it’s the local humanitarians, the Syrian NGOs, that are delivering most of the work. In fact, Local to Global Protection said we were doing 75 percent of the humanitarian work. But we are receiving a shocking less than 1 percent of the humanitarian funding. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the groups who have access, who are actually delivering the aid on the ground, do not have the funding, that therefore there are millions of people who are needlessly dying and suffering, because we’re not able to deliver the aid that is happening, that is there, to them.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ll be speaking with the U.S.-U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley. Do you think she made a mistake in saying that the U.S. is not interested in regime change in Syria?

DR. ROLA HALLAM: I think that there has just been so many signs by various international leaders that these war crimes are going to continue to occur with impunity. And that is what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Rola Hallam, I want to thank you for being with us.

DR. ROLA HALLAM: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: British-Syrian doctor, speaking at the Women in the World Summit tonight at Lincoln Center, founder and CEO of the nonprofit CanDo. Late last year, she led a People’s Convoy to the Syrian-Turkish border. They brought medical supplies and helped rebuild a children’s hospital in Aleppo.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Noam Chomsky. Stay with us.

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