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This Endless Nightmare Must Stop: Syrian Author Speaks Out as Chemical Attack Death Toll Rises

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In Syria, the death toll from a suspected chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held town in the province of Idlib has risen to 86. The dead include at least 30 children. Dozens of civilians were also injured. Much of the international community has said the Syrian military is responsible for the chemical attack. Syria has denied the charge, claiming the chemicals were released after a Syrian airstrike hit a stockpile of chemical weapons controlled by rebel groups. Meanwhile at the White House, President Trump said the attack had transformed his views on the war in Syria. Just last week the Trump administration was signaling it would not push for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but during a press conference on Wednesday Trump struck a different tone. We speak to the Syrian-American writer Lina Sergie Attar, who is originally from Aleppo. She is co-founder and head of the Karam Foundation, a charitable organization assisting Syrians inside and outside the country.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Syria, the death toll from a suspected chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held town in the province of Idlib has risen to 86. The dead include at least 30 children. Dozens of civilians were also injured. Much of the international community has said the Syrian military is responsible for the chemical attack, but Syria has denied the charge, claiming the chemicals were released after a Syrian airstrike hit a stockpile of chemical weapons controlled by rebel groups. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session, where Britain, France and the United States put forward a resolution condemning Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile at the White House, President Trump said the attack had transformed his views on the war in Syria. Just last week, the Trump administration was signaling it would not push for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But during a press conference on Wednesday with King Abdullah of Jordan, Trump struck a very different tone.

JULIE PACE: Can I just quickly ask you if the chemical attack crosses a red line for you?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal—people were shocked to hear what gas it was—that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines. … And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. It was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility. And it’s very, very possible—and I will tell you, it’s already happened—that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. And if you look back over the last few weeks, there were other attacks using gas. You’re now talking about a whole different level.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: When President Trump was asked whether he would consider greater military intervention in the conflict, he said he would not disclose his plans. Tuesday’s attack has been described as the largest chemical attack in Syria since 2013. A day after the attack in Idlib, the United States, the European Union and Middle Eastern nations pledged $6 billion in aid to Syria at a conference hosted by the EU and the United Nations in Brussels to raise funds for humanitarian relief.

AMY GOODMAN: Almost half a million people have been killed in the war in Syria, which has entered its seventh year, with more than 6 million Syrians displaced inside Syria and 5 million Syrian refugees living outside Syria’s borders.

To talk more about the situation, we go to Boston to speak to Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer from Aleppo. She’s co-founder and head of the Karam Foundation, a charitable group assisting Syrians inside and outside the country.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lina. Can you talk about what you understand happened on Tuesday?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Thank you for having me.

What we saw on Tuesday was one of the most severe chemical weapons attacks we’ve seen inside Syria since 2013. And the death toll is over 80 people, hundreds of wounded, many women and children dead, gassed to death, once again. And it’s a series of attacks that haven’t really stopped in the past six years. It was more intense, the death toll was higher, but across Syria we’ve seen death in every single form every day. We’ve seen death by barrel bombs, death by thermal bombs, death by torture—so many forms of death you can’t even count anymore what we’ve witnessed in the past six years of this endless nightmare of loss. And Tuesday’s attack was more intense, more severe. And we have to find a way to end these attacks on Syrian civilians and Syrian families.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lina, you’ve been in touch with people in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, where the attack took place. What have they been telling you about what’s needed there now?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: You know, we’re a humanitarian organization, and when these kinds of attacks happen, we go into emergency mode. We reach out to people on the ground to see what they need, what is missing from them on the ground, how can we alleviate their suffering and their pain. And this time, the response was very stark, very bleak. And they said, “Nothing you can send will save us. Nothing you can send will help us. All we need is your prayers.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about, Lina—how do you respond to what Trump said, that his attitude, as a consequence of this attack, his position on Assad and Syria, has changed? And speaking Wednesday, he faulted Obama for not enforcing his red line on chemical weapons following the 2013 attacks.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago, when he said the red line in the sand. And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But in 2013, Trump himself had urged Obama not to go to war with Syria, tweeting, quote, “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A.” So, Lina, can you comment on that, what Trump said in 2013, the extent you think to which, if at all, you think the Obama administration is responsible for what’s happening in Syria now, and Trump’s statement that this attack has forced him or has made him change his position on Assad and the Syria conflict?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Well, absolutely, the red line statement in 2013 and after the chemical weapons attack and nothing happening to stop the Assad regime and its allies from attacking Syrians, killing Syrians by chemical weapons and other means, definitely, this set a precedent for really a green light from the world, including the Obama administration and including this administration, that everything is OK in Syria, attacking people is OK, killing people is OK, continue doing what you’re doing. And this is what we have sent the message to the Assad regime and its allies. We are tired of hearing these empty promises, empty words, empty red lines and condemnations. From the previous administration, we’ve heard it over six years. And now this administration is continuing to, you know, send mixed messages, send messages that are filled with hypocrisy, which is not surprising from this administration.

And the attitude changing, yes, maybe the attitude has changed. But what does that actually mean to Syrian lives? What does that actually mean to the future of Syria? And that is the biggest question. We are tired of the empty words and empty threats and the talking about being sad about Syrian children being killed. We want to see an end to our people’s suffering and the end to the senseless deaths of Syrians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lina, on Friday, the U.N.—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, though she made a very strong statement yesterday, on Friday, she and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said—she said, “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” Even Republicans yesterday, like Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, was saying this what laid the groundwork—this gave a signal for Assad to move ahead with this attack on Tuesday. Do you agree with this?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: I don’t know if that specifically caused this incident. I think that this—I think that there—if you look at what has been happening every single day, there really is no logic to the way that this regime has been attacking its own people since 2011. I think that statements like this make it easier to continue on. I think that the Brussels conference happening also makes it easier to make these kinds of attacks happen. I think that questioning what led to this assault is very difficult, because we see these kinds of assaults every single day. I mean, when people are talking only about Khan Sheikhoun, we’re not talking about Houtha, where over 120 barrel bombs were dropped on one area within just a few days. Hundreds of people have been killed across Syria. And just in the Houtha incident alone, we have a friend, Amal Kassir, who is a Syrian-American poet living in Denver, who lost nine people from her immediate family when an entire building collapsed on her family in Ghouta, outside Damascus. So these attacks are happening every single day. There’s no logic to them. The only thing is, every single day, Syrians face death by some kind of form by the Syrian regime, its allies, by the U.S. coalition now, by ISIS—by all of these forces that have declared the Syrian people their enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration people say that it is wrong to say Obama did nothing after the 2013 gas attack, that he worked out a deal with Russia for the removal of gas, weapons of mass destruction, from Syria’s arsenal. What happened with that? Why is this gas available? And do you know what it is?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: No, I don’t know what it is. I mean, some of the world health organizations are saying it’s some kind of nerve gas. It might be a mix of sarin plus chlorine. I don’t think we know. And that is one of the biggest problems, is that—yes, some of the chemical weapons were destroyed after 2013. We don’t know how much the Assad regime gave access to these organizations that investigated the chemical weapons arsenals and its destruction. People—organizations and investigative authorities have not been given access to Syria to be able to remove chemical weapons, to be able to remove all sorts of weapons that have been killing Syrians. And that lays—that is the problem, that there are no investigative groups coming in from the U.N., from other groups, to be able to really understand what is actually happening. And right now, the people of Khan Sheikhoun, the people in Idlib, are asking, Syrian civil society is asking, for investigative groups to come in and investigate to see what kind of gas this was and where it came from.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Lina, could you say what you know of the targets of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes? Who are they hitting in Syria? A lot of civilians have also been killed in U.S.-led airstrikes.

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: So, the U.S.-led airstrikes are targeting ISIS. We are seeing strikes in Raqqa and the surrounding areas. And we’ve seen many of these attacks being not targeting the—not being precise, if we want to use that kind of word of precision targeting of terrorists. And what we’re seeing instead are very large bombs being dropped and, in instances, hitting schools, hitting mosques, where there are civilians, where there are children. And we’re seeing the death toll of civilians rise because of such attacks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lina, what do you think the Trump administration should be doing? Do you think they should be pushing for Assad’s removal?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: I think that the Trump administration and world leaders and the U.N. Security Council and, really, everybody should be working towards finding a way towards peace, justice, security and freedom for the Syrian people. This includes bringing all the perpetrators of the wars—the war crimes in Syria to justice, including the Assad regime and its allies and the extremist groups who are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about President Trump’s Muslim ban and his edict that no Syrians, something he repeated on the campaign trail endlessly and then included in the ban, that has been stopped by the courts at this point—no Syrian refugee can come to this country. What about now?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Well, our record on welcoming Syrian refugees is very, very disappointing and shameful. This started with the Obama administration. Right now we have around 14,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. out of well over 5 million Syrian refugees that exist worldwide. So, already, we have a very bleak record. And, obviously, with this new administration, that number will—has halted. And I think that it’s very shameful that the United States is not welcoming Syrian refugees in much greater numbers to find safe haven and to be able to rebuild their lives and rebuild their futures and have a safe place to raise their families, which is all what Syrians really want.

But the most important part is the war needs to stop, and the violence needs to stop, because Syrian refugees ultimately want to go home. Syrians want to go home. They want to rebuild their lives inside Syria. And as long as these kinds of attacks continue daily, what we’re creating is more and more internally displaced, with less places for them to be able to go to and less places in the host countries immediately outside Syria to be able to accommodate. And we’re creating a major catastrophe. It’s the largest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.


LINA SERGIE ATTAR: So, attitudes toward Syrian refugees must change, but the war must stop.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lina, finally, about Russia—clearly, Russia plays an absolutely key role here. President Trump has said he wants to change the relationship with Russia, and, of course, there’s a whole scandal around that. But Russia did say today that it was a monstrous crime that took place, not willing to attribute the fault to the Syrian government, but did change in saying it was monstrous, what took place. What could Russia do? And do you think if they took action in stopping support of Assad, that could single-handedly bring down the regime?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Absolutely. I mean, Russia’s support of the regime for the past couple of years, especially in the airstrike support, has been one of the most devastating parts of this war, and what destroyed Aleppo and many other places inside Syria. And stopping that kind of support would bring the death toll down and would at least be able to create some kind of safe zone, some kind of place for Syrians to live, to not be afraid of what’s falling from the sky, targeting them and their families. This is what’s needed in Syria. The bombs need to stop. The airstrikes, all of the airstrikes, need to stop, to at least begin to work towards ceasefires that hold, and try to begin to work towards the ending of the violence, ending of the killing, and creating a place where Syrians can live in freedom, dignity, justice and, most importantly, peace.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Lina Sergie Attar, Syrian-American writer from Aleppo, co-founder and head of the Karam Foundation, a charitable organization assisting Syrians inside and outside of Syria, speaking to us from Boston.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump says Fox host O’Reilly did nothing wrong, as revelations come out of one settlement after another around women charging him with sexual harassment, Fox and O’Reilly paying out over $13 million, at least what we know to this point. We’ll speak with the lawyer for one of the women who have accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment. Stay with us.

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