President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Tuesday during a phone call to work together to seek a ceasefire in Syria. The phone call came the same day ISIS militants attacked a makeshift camp for displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees, killing nearly 40 civilians and Kurdish fighters near Syria’s northeastern border with Iraq. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has concluded that Syrian government forces have used chemical nerve agents, such as sarin gas, in attacks at least four times in recent months, including in the April attack that killed 86 people, including dozens of children. Human Rights Watch said new evidence, including photos and videos of weapon remnants, suggests the April attack came from a Soviet-made, air-dropped chemical bomb specifically designed to deliver sarin. For more, we air Part 2 of our interview with Anand Gopal, journalist and fellow at The Nation Institute, who has reported extensively from the region.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road today in Tampa, Florida. I’ll be speaking at the Seminal Church in Tampa tonight. We’re broadcasting from Tampa PBS, WEDU.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Tuesday during a phone call to work together to seek a ceasefire in Syria. According to the Kremlin, Putin and Trump agreed to meet in July to discuss a resolution to the protracted conflict. The phone call came the same day ISIS militants attacked a makeshift camp for displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees, killing nearly 40 civilians and Kurdish fighters near Syria’s northeastern border with Iraq.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has concluded Syrian government forces have used chemical nerve agents, such as sarin gas, in attacks at least four times in recent months, including in the April attack that killed 86 people, including dozens of children. Human Rights Watch said new evidence, including photos and videos of weapon remnants, suggests the April attack came from a Soviet-made, air-dropped chemical bomb specifically designed to deliver sarin. One of the other attacks, on December 12th, reportedly killed 64 people. The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes continue in Syria. The journalistic monitoring group Airwars says these airstrikes reportedly killed at least two dozen civilians in the final week of April in and around Raqqa. 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.
Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I recently spoke about Syria with Anand Gopal, a well-known journalist who's lived in the Middle East for years, fellow at The Nation Institute, has reported extensively from the region. Anand Gopal is the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. He began by talking about the U.S. policy in Syria.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I think it’s important to understand that there’s no regime change policy from the United States toward Syria. And there never has been a regime change policy. The Obama administration said, innumerous times, Assad must go. But what they mean is, "Assad should step down, and somebody else in the regime should take over, and there should be a continuation of the regime in the interest of stability"—and I put that in quotes, because stipulating from their point of view—"and in the interest of fighting terrorism." This is essentially the model that took place in Yemen, where you had the dictator step down, but you had the continuation of the dictatorship, in a way. It’s also really a continuation of what happened in Egypt. And that’s been the goal from the beginning. And so, the U.S. has never actually pursued a policy of regime change. If you want to see how regime change looks, you can look at how the U.S. did that in Afghanistan in the 1980s or even in 2001 in the air war. And neither of those have actually taken place in Syria.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, so, in that sense, Russia and the United States are in agreement, in other words, that they would rather retain Assad himself or someone from his regime as the head of state or in control of Syria because of fears of who might take over in the event that he goes or that his regime goes.
ANAND GOPAL: Exactly. I mean, I would say the only difference between Russia and the United States is Russia probably wants Assad himself to continue, whereas the United States is more interested in stability and wanting the regime to continue. And we see this in many ways. For example, there’s cases where, when there’s rebel groups that are fighting against the regime, and they’re getting weapons and funding from the United States, the U.S. will cut off funding to them unless they focus their fighting on ISIS only. This has happened numerous times, and these groups have lost their funding. And then, once they were bereft of support, they went and joined al-Qaeda. So, there’s a narrative here that says that the U.S. is supporting extremists and al-Qaeda groups. It’s actually false. In fact, the U.S. is punishing groups that are trying to fight Assad, and when those groups are being punished, then they are going and joining al-Qaeda or extremist groups.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But they are supporting the YPG, the Kurdish—
ANAND GOPAL: Absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —militia force that is fighting the Assad regime.
ANAND GOPAL: Absolutely. The closest ally of the U.S. in Syria is a left-wing group called the YPG , and they are the main force which is fighting ISIS right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about who they are.
ANAND GOPAL: The YPG is essentially an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which was—which is a group in Turkey which has been waging, essentially, a left-wing insurgency against the Turkish government for Kurdish right for decades. And in the last three or four years, they’ve expanded extraordinarily rapidly in Syria. They have set up these councils all across northern and eastern Syria. And they’ve become the main partners of the United States in this battle against ISIS. So the battle for Raqqa, which is the de facto capital of the caliphate, it’s the YPG who is the main ally of the United States.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you say a little, Anand, about what the impact of the Russian military intervention in Syria has been, in terms of the situation on the ground, in terms of civilian casualties and so on.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, in any discussion of Syria, it’s important to state at the outset that the two biggest sources of violence in the country—number one is the Assad regime, which has just killed incredible numbers of civilians, tortured, maimed, executed anybody who resists, essentially. And the second biggest source of violence in Syria is the Russian regime. And Russia’s role has been essentially to prop up the Syrian government at a time when it was looking very weak. When Syrian government—when the Syrian government retook Aleppo a few months ago, it would not have been able to do that without Russian air power.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last week, Democracy Now! spoke to former Guardian Moscow correspondent Jonathan Steele. He questioned whether the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack in Idlib in Syria earlier this month, saying the principal beneficiaries were the U.S. military-industrial complex and those in the Trump administration wanting to prove the president is not a puppet of Putin. He went on to outline the benefits to the opposition groups in Syria from the chemical weapons attack.
JONATHAN STEELE: A third group that’s really benefited are the armed opposition to Assad, because they’ve suddenly got a new lease of life, when it looked as though they were on the verge of losing their last sliver of territory around Idlib in northwest Syria. They’ve been given the option, the—perhaps the option of being defended militarily by NATO with airstrikes. They’ve had one airstrike, and they’re obviously hoping for more. And they’re certainly not going to compromise in the Geneva talks. So everybody who’s benefited is on the non-Syrian, non-Russian side.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s former Guardian Moscow correspondent Jonathan Steele speaking on Democracy Now! last week. So, Anand, can you comment on what he said and the speculation among certain people that the Assad regime could not have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack, because it didn’t benefit from it, and that it already, in fact, the Assad regime, is winning the war, so why would they do something like this, use chemical weapons?
ANAND GOPAL: The principal beneficiary of the chemical attacks was the people who carried it out, which was the Assad regime. This—you have to understand, this comes in the context of, just a week before that, you had statements from the American administration, from Tillerson and from Trump, saying that the Syrian question is up to Syrians to decide, which is a implicit way of saying that even our very weak statement prior to this, that Assad must go, even that we’re dropping. So, he was now operating from a position of what he saw as basically impunity. And that’s—it was under those conditions under which he carried out the chemical attack. It’s also coming under the circumstances that Russia was drawn closer to the YPG and was also having a rapprochement of sorts with Turkey, which is backing some elements of the FSA. And there’s speculation that the Assad regime carried out this attack as a way to force Russia back firmly in its corner.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why the United States—why you feel Tillerson and Nikki Haley made these comments, saying that Syria, the Syrian people should determine who is their president, signaling some kind of change in U.S. policy, not as if President Obama took out Assad, but had a different rhetoric around it?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I think this has been a logical culmination of eight years of Obama’s policy in the Middle East. And Obama said again and again that Assad must go, but didn’t give the opposition the means to actually make that happen, and, in fact, spent most of his time policing the opposition to make sure that Assad wouldn’t be ejected. When the Trump administration took office, they dispensed with that formality, and they said, "Look, our focus is ISIS. We don’t even need to talk about having Assad go." And that’s what that signaled, which was that, "Look, we just need to focus on ISIS, and Assad can stay as long as he wants, essentially." That’s what—that was the message that was sent to the regime, and it’s not a surprise that a week later you saw a chemical attack.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the Russians themselves had said—have said, more or less, similar things, namely that it’s up to the Syrians to decide what happens after Assad, that their explicit goal is not retaining Assad. So, last week, Democracy Now! spoke to professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at Princeton, Stephen Cohen. He explained why the Russians were backing the Assad regime.
STEPHEN COHEN: I would ask all these Americans who vilify Assad, I would ask all your listeners and viewers: If you destroy the Syrian state, who’s going to do the fighting against terrorists in Syria? Do you ask—are you going to ask Russia to send troops? Are we going to send troops? So, for Russia—and this is the point—it’s not Assad. They could give a hoot about what happens to him and their family. It’s what happens to the Syrian state. And that’s why they will stand with Assad until there is some kind of military victory, and then a so-called political peace process begins, and then Assad is on his own.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was Stephen Cohen speaking last week on Democracy Now! So, Anand, can you comment specifically on what he said and also this idea that both the U.S. and Russia have that the Syrians will be able to decide for themselves, despite the fact that for decades Syrians have not been able to decide for themselves?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, it’s interesting, because what he said is basically a perfect summary of American policy in Syria, not actually Russian policy. And Syria is a dictatorship. Syrians do not have the ability to decide. When they wanted to try to decide for themselves, they had a revolution. And so, when people say it’s up to Syrians themselves to decide, when Russia or the United States says that, it’s a coded way of backing the Assad regime. And, you know, he said that the Assad regime is the main force fighting terrorism in Syria, and that’s absolutely false. The regime does not fight terrorism. It’s actually the single biggest cause of terrorism in Syria. It is the cause of ISIS in Syria. And from—if you talk to Syrians, Bashar al-Assad and the regime is the biggest terrorist in the country. The force that’s actually fighting ISIS, which I assume is what he’s referring to, is the YPG, which is backed by the United States.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain what you mean by that, that the cause of ISIS or what gave birth to ISIS in Syria is in fact the Assad regime? Because that’s not what’s commonly understood.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I’ve spent a good portion of the last few months actually interviewing a number of ISIS fighters and defectors from ISIS. And one of the things I’ve made a point to do is actually ask them, "Why did you join this group?" You know? And to a person, they all say they witnessed some horrific atrocity or massacre conducted by the regime. I’ve never heard anybody give another reason other than that. And so, what has happened is that the sheer brutality of the regime has led people to—some people to join ISIS, especially in the context where they see there’s not a lot of support for other groups. And you have to remember, ISIS is one of the few groups in Syria that doesn’t get foreign support. It’s almost entirely self-funded, which gives it a sort of—sort of staying power, that some of FSA groups don’t have.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is it your sense that ISIS’s power or control over Syria is weakening?
ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely weakening—again, not because of the Assad regime, but in spite of the Assad regime. It’s weakening because—for the most part, because of the YPG. But we should also look back a couple years ago. When ISIS was taking over broad swaths of territory near Aleppo and pushing into Idlib, it was the Free Syrian Army and their allies that actually pushed ISIS back into eastern Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the gas attack, what you actually think happened? You have Assad saying not only didn’t the Syrian regime do this, but he says he doesn’t even believe that the children were dying.
ANAND GOPAL: So, to start with, we know that the children died. We know, through investigative reports, that they died of sarin. And we also know that there was a airstrike that took place. The claim by Russian intelligence and by the Assad regime was that this was an airstrike on a warehouse that contained chemical weapons, and those chemical weapons were being stockpiled by the opposition. We’ve had many, many, many Syrians actually go to the site to photograph this and show that the warehouse was never struck. And they have actually photographed the actual point of the impact of the bomb, which was on the street, not in the warehouse. We’ve also had a Guardian reporter go to this area and do the same thing. And also, you have to remember, the regime has actually carried out numerous chemical attacks against its own people, so this is nothing new. The idea that the opposition somehow stockpiled chemical weapons and waited for the regime to strike it so that it could then use it to its benefit, that’s just a conspiracy theory. In my view, that’s on the level of Big Foot or UFOs.
AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, journalist and fellow at The Nation Institute, who has reported extensively from the Middle East. We’ll post our full interview with Anand at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we go back to North Carolina to look at how a group of African-American residents are fighting against factory farms that spray liquid hog manure on their communities. Stay with us.