President Trump’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes as thousands of Syrians continue to flee Raqqa as U.S.-backed militias intensify their assault on the ISIS-held city. Some 200,000 people have been displaced while U.S.-led airstrikes have killed hundreds of residents, in what U.N. investigators have called a "staggering loss of civilian life." As many as 50 airstrikes were hitting Raqqa each day. U.S.-backed forces expect the fight to oust ISIS from its de facto capital to take at least three months. We speak with Abdalaziz Alhamza, a Syrian journalist and co-founder of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The group was formed in 2014 to document the abuses of the Islamic State after the militant group took over the city of Raqqa. He is the main subject of the award-winning film titled "City of Ghosts."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the look at the crisis in Syria, one day ahead of President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg. Their meeting comes as thousands of Syrians continue to flee Raqqa, as U.S.-backed militias intensify their assault on the ISIS-held city. Some 200,000 people have been displaced from Raqqa, with more expected to flee as fighting intensifies. U.S.-led airstrikes have killed hundreds of residents, in what U.N. investigators have called a, quote, "staggering loss of civilian life." Reports say as many as 50 airstrikes were hitting Raqqa each day. U.S.-backed forces expect the fight to oust ISIS from its de facto capital to take at least three months.
AMY GOODMAN: According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 5,300 civilians have been killed in Syria this year. This includes over 1,000 killed in airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. On Wednesday, escaping civilians arrived at an open-air relief camp outside Raqqa complaining of constant airstrikes, artillery raids and extreme hunger.
DJAZIA: [translated] We left because of the fighting. We were afraid. We have children. We almost died of hunger, and no one helped us.
OUBAYD: [translated] We are displaced now, and we live in the open air. These are our house belongings. We just managed to get them today. This is what we have. These are the last things we owned in the house.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now here in our New York studio by Abdalaziz Alhamza. He’s a Syrian journalist and activist, co-founder and spokesperson for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The group was formed in 2014 to document the abuses of the so-called Islamic State after the militant group took over the city of Raqqa.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Aziz.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: We have seen so many of the videos put out by your group. If you can start off by talking about what is the situation in Raqqa right now? I mean, you have Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin expected to meet tomorrow for the first time in Hamburg, at the G20. Top of their agenda is Syria. What is actually happening on the ground?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, like what’s going on in Raqqa, that there are thousands of airstrikes are bombing, targeting the city daily. And it’s by the international coalition led by U.S. And there are SDF, a militia supported and funded by U.S., is trying to take over Raqqa from ISIS. So, the clash is right now in the city center. Most of the—like, in the beginning of this year, from January to June, most of the people who have been killed, they were—they got killed by the international coalition airstrikes; 1,454 people have been killed, mostly by U.S. airstrikes. In the same time, ISIS is still doing like human rights violation. There is like no services in the city—no electricity, no water. People are suffering. There is like no way to escape from the city or flee the city. Some people were like lucky to escape, last couple of weeks. Right now it’s so hard. And people, like even when they’re trying to go to the river to get some water, they’ve been killed by the airstrikes. So—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think people would be very surprised to hear this, because when they hear the name of the city Raqqa, that always hear "ISIS stronghold." So when we—they hear people are dying, they would think it’s at the hands of ISIS. But right now you’re saying it is the U.S. coalition airstrikes.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, and in June, like 358 people have been killed: like 177 by the airstrike, the U.S. airstrike; 118 by SDF, supported and funded by U.S.; and 60 by ISIS. So, when we were talking here, like most of the people are getting killed like by the U.S. airstrikes. So, the airstrike is not careful. They randomly bomb the areas. And even like they started to target like civilians’ cars. So, there is like no water at all in the city, so people, they are going to the river to get their water. And even when they tried like to get water, they’ve been killed. So, the thing like—people, they are like not only suffering by ISIS, they are suffering from all the sides, and like especially by the airstrikes recently.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Aziz, could you explain who the SDF militias are and why the U.S. is backing them and what their specific role in Raqqa has been in these last months?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, SDF like established in 2014 to defeat ISIS from some areas, so they are mostly—they are like mostly YPG, the Kurdish militias group, and some other Arab brigades and some minorities, like Turkmen. But it’s led and controlled by YPG. So, the U.S. is using them as a tool, like to defeat ISIS from some areas. And it started like with Kobani, because like this group are Kurdish, and they were trying to protect their areas. And later on, they were pushed to go and defeat ISIS from other places, like Manbij and, recently, Raqqa.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about the fact, Aziz, as we’ve been talking about, the fact that the U.S.-led coalition has led to this extraordinary loss of life among civilians in Raqqa? Can you talk about what people in Raqqa expected when the U.S. strikes began, the U.S.-led strikes began, and whether there was any hope that it would be successful?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, like the airstrikes started like a couple of years ago. And the airstrikes like were more careful than right now. So, it’s like a war. It’s like a conflict. And like we have to expect people are getting killed. So, but the thing—like they were like so careful, recently started like to be randomly shelling, randomly airstrikes. And people, they were expecting that like, OK, it will not take that long, they will be more careful, they will target like ISIS headquarters, ISIS gathering, not like killing people everywhere, even like people who are trying like to get water. And then the people, they are like so afraid, even like when SDF will take over the city.
AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian defense forces.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, yeah, because like the people, they had an experience with Tal Abyad, and other territories were like controlled by SDF. And SDF have been committing like human rights violation, displacing, recruitment. Like recently, they started like to recruit people, like in Tal Abyad, other—like other—and like people in villages in the countryside, in Raqqa countryside. So people, they are like afraid to be recruited, to be forced to join the army and to be displaced, to have their houses being burned. So, people, they are like so afraid to have a new group who will commit human rights violations.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back for a moment to how your organization began. You are the co-founder of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. Take us back a few years and how you got involved.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, so, like my colleagues and I, like we started to do these activities when the Syrian revolution started in 2011, and we started to be activists. And then, when ISIS came and took over—took control of our city, I was forced to leave, because ISIS discovered my identity. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Now—
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But talk—even before ISIS, you were—Raqqa was a site of protest against Assad, the president.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes, like talking before ISIS, like Raqqa joined the revolution early. In the beginning, there were like many demonstrations all the time, in the—like in March 2012. So there were like 300,000 protesters on the streets. Later on, Raqqa was the first liberated city from Assad’s control. And then, like in a couple of weeks, there were like more than 40 societal organizations, working on provincial councils. There were like—the universities, schools started to run again, started to be a normal life, even with Assad airstrikes, until like January 2014, when ISIS took over the control of the city.
So, my colleagues and I, we decided to complete our work to be not only against Assad, to be against Assad and ISIS at the same time. And back that time, no one have heard about Raqqa, about ISIS. So we decided to start our organization to draw the attention of the international community, international media, about what’s going on in Raqqa, because ISIS did the same thing as the Syrian regime. They prevented like all the media—most of the media organization to enter the country and cover what’s going on. And with ISIS, they prevented all of them.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain, though, Aziz, how—you say that Raqqa was the first city to be liberated from Assad government control. Where did ISIS come from? How did ISIS take over where the Assad government left off?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yeah, so, they arrived—like after Raqqa was liberated, there was like vacuum in power. So there were like many groups. And 10 fighters, they came from Iraq. So they were like established in Iraq. And then al-Baghdadi announced the thing. So, ISIS is not a new thing. It’s like a union between Islamic State in Iraq and Nusra Front, like al-Qaeda part in Syria. So, they came together, they gathered together, and they established ISIS.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go back to ask about the origins of ISIS, both in Iraq and in Syria. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, spoke at the Munich Security conference in 2015. He suggested the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq created the Islamic State.
KOFI ANNAN: The second and much more proximate cause of the instability we are witnessing today was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I spoke against it at the time, and I’m afraid my concerns have been proved well-founded. The folly of that fateful decision was compounded by post-invasion decisions. The wholesale disbandment of security forces, among other measures, poured hundreds of thousands of trained and disgruntled soldiers and policemen onto the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaking in 2015. So, Aziz, can you respond to what he said about the origins of ISIS and what you think will happen in Raqqa once ISIS is routed from the city?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, for sure, like Iraq War like provided an environment like to have ISIS and other groups. So, there was like a vacuum in power, the same thing with like what happened like in Raqqa. So, there was like not a real government to run and control everything in the country. So, all that things helped to create these kind of extremism groups or provided like a good environment to the extremists to come to Iraq. And later on, they started to grow, like day after day.
And the same thing like happened in Syria. There was like a vacuum in power. It was like a huge spaces and were controlled without any government, without not a real—or, like a real government. So, that helped to create that thing. And like we had like al-Qaeda before Raqqa was liberated, and that also helped. So, all the things started with Taliban, turned to al-Qaeda, ended up with ISIS. So, that’s the same thing like what will happen like in Raqqa, if—when ISIS will be defeated.
So, the thing, like all the governments are focusing on how to defeat ISIS by arms, so like to defeat ISIS as an organization. So, for us, like, ISIS is an idea. And as I said, it started with Taliban and ended up with ISIS. So, no one was focusing on defeating the idea. So, if they will defeat ISIS only as a group—so, we have like a whole generation of children who have been living with ISIS for like three years. And in Raqqa, there is like no satellites, no TV channels. There is like no access to the information. So people, they were stuck with ISIS propaganda. So, if the international community will not work on defeating the idea of ISIS or the idea of extremism, we will end up with a—new kind of groups will be like worse than ISIS in the future. So, we are afraid about the next generation. So that’s the thing. Like no one was focusing on defeating the idea.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of the new documentary, City of Ghosts, about your group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.
RAQQA IS BEING SLAUGHTERED SILENTLY MEMBER: [translated] At first glance, they seemed like other militant groups. But we soon realized that this group was unlike anything the world had seen before. They painted our city black and shrouded it in darkness. We couldn’t sit by and watch Raqqa being slaughtered silently. Did you start filming? Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, that’s a clip of City of Ghosts that has played at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival here in New York and is continuing to play now around the country. So, your approach was to video, to film, to use cellphones, to get images out to anyone who wanted to see a different view of what was happening in your city.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, like the main reason was to show the reality of what’s going on. ISIS, after they controlled Raqqa and other areas, they started to promote their propaganda. They started like to promote fake news. So we decided to film what’s going on, to show the people the reality, the other side of the real, the other side of the life, the reality of the life. And later on, we decided that we will not be like only a media organization. So we started to do many activities in Raqqa, like to educate to our—the people, who are living with ISIS control. So we started the graffiti campaigns, poster campaigns. And we ended up doing a magazine, has the same cover of ISIS magazine, to reach out like the largest number—the largest number of people in Raqqa to educate them about what’s going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Aziz, before we end, tomorrow, Trump and Vladimir Putin will meet. What about Russia’s role right now with and against, in both situations, it seems, the United States in Syria?
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, like Russia has been playing like a main role in the Syrian conflict, like the same as U.S. Russia, like before the—like in 2016, killed people more than anyone, especially in Aleppo. And they’re in charge of fighting extremism. And they were killing civilians all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: So now the numbers being killed, more are being killed by the United States and Russia than by ISIS.
ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: Yes. So, the thing right now, like it would be great if we have like a non-fly zone. We’ve been talking about non-fly zones when the—when the revolution then turned to conflict started. So, we were asking to have like a safe area to the civilians to go there and stay in case they want to be out of this conflict between all these countries. It’s not a local issue anymore. It’s like a proxy war between like Russia, U.S., Iran, Hezbollah, thousand of groups. Tens of countries are fighting each other in Syria, and every one of them has like interests in Syria. So, we want to have like the Syrian people out of it. So, right now, like the Syrian people, they want to just survive. All what they are thinking about, how to be alive for the next day. And they don’t care about this like international conflicts that’s taking—that are taking place in Raqqa and Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Abdalaziz Alhamza is a Syrian journalist and activist, co-founder and spokesperson for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.