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“A Monstrous Campaign of Annihilation”: Death Toll in Eastern Ghouta Tops 300 from Syrian Assault

StoryFebruary 22, 2018
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The United Nations has condemned the Syrian government’s recent deadly barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, outside the capital of Damascus. Aid workers report at least 300 people have been killed over the past three days. Many of the victims are women and children. Targets have included hospitals and residential apartment buildings. We are joined now by three guests: Rawya Rageh of Amnesty International, Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek and Wendy Pearlman, author of “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. “A monstrous campaign of annihilation.” That’s how the United Nations is describing the Syrian government’s recent deadly barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, outside the capital of Damascus. Aid workers report at least 300 people have been killed over the past three days. Many of the victims are women and children. Targets have included hospitals and residential apartment buildings. Ravina Shamdasani is spokesperson for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: What we are seeing in Eastern Ghouta is a repetition, if not worse, of what has happened in other parts of Syria. The high commissioner for human rights is talking about this being a monstrous campaign of annihilation of Eastern Ghouta, with no regard for civilian lives. How many more children dying do we have to see? How many more hospitals bombed? How many more doctors killed do we have to see, before the international community can come together with one voice and take resolute action on the situation in Syria to bring this violence to an end?

AMY GOODMAN: Medical workers in Eastern Ghouta accuse government forces of targeting hospitals and ambulances.

MEDICAL WORKER: [translated] Even an ambulance, if an ambulance is driving in the street, the regime will strike it. Ambulances cannot leave at all. This hospital is out of service completely. But it is not just al-Shifa. Arbin Hospital was hit. Sawa Hospital was hit. Al-Hayat Hospital was hit. Most of the hospitals of Eastern Ghouta have been hit and are out of service. All of the hospitals that have been hit by the regime are now completely out of service.

AMY GOODMAN: The attacks on Eastern Ghouta come as tensions in Syria have escalated sharply amidst a series of strikes and clashes involving Israel, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Syrian government.

We’re joined now by three guests. Rawya Rageh is a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International. She’s been working on documenting human rights abuses and violations of international law in Syria. Alia Malek is an award-winning journalist, former civil rights lawyer. Her book is titled The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. And Wendy Pearlman is author of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. She’s associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

There’s so much to talk about. You know, we just came out of talking about the massacre in Florida, the horror of 17 people being gunned down on Valentine’s Day. Multiply that over and over and over again, for people in the United States to understand what people are going through in Syria every day. Rawya Rageh, talk about what people should know in this country.

RAWYA RAGEH: There truly is no words to describe the extent of the horrors that we’re seeing in Syria. You know, when we talk to people on the ground in Eastern Ghouta, they tell us the malnutrition, the deprivation, the massacres they keep witnessing are a shame on humanity, and they themselves can’t come up with the words to describe their own horrors.

What we’re seeing in Eastern Ghouta and in other parts of Syria is a government that’s deliberately targeting its own people. And this is not something new. This has been going for more than six years now. It’s part of a wider military strategy by the Syrian government that’s referred to as “surrender or starve,” where you lay a siege to an area held by the opposition, starve the population, bomb them from the air and the ground, deprive them from access to humanitarian aid, and then force their surrender. We saw it happen in Homs, in Aleppo and now, once again, in Eastern Ghouta, this time with dwindling international attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Why Eastern Ghouta?

RAWYA RAGEH: Eastern Ghouta is just a stone’s throw away from the capital. And this is what even makes it particularly horrific, for children to be dying of malnutrition just a few kilometers from the seat of the Syrian government, from the offices of the United Nations, where everything is available. In Eastern Ghouta, medical supplies are running. Food is running out. People are deprived from any basic necessity to maintain their livelihoods.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the scale of the suffering there?

RAWYA RAGEH: What we’re seeing, essentially, there is a—it’s a catalogue of abuses, war crime after another. We’re talking about 400,000 people that have been besieged for more than five years now, almost six years. They are deprived, imagine, of any basic—we’re talking from diapers to water, parents seeing their children dying. “Skin and bones” is how medical workers are describing to us the conditions of children there, 400,000 people deprived of all of that for almost six years now in what has been one of the longest sieges in history.

AMY GOODMAN: Alia Malek?

ALIA MALEK: Thanks for having us this morning. I think it’s critical to point out, because I think people have kind of tuned in to Syria since 2011—we’re talking in terms of a 7-year period—but violence has been a central and constant and preferred tactic of the regime to maintain both its rule and its legitimacy. And it goes back to its founding days, when it came to power in 1970. And I think there’s this misconception out there that somehow violence was forced on the regime, or the regime suddenly has embraced violence because of the—because of the conditions and the circumstances of how many different foreign players are involved in Syria now. But we do sort of have to keep that in people’s—the forefront of their mind, that violence is not only their preferred tactic, they’ve also been rewarded for using it.

AMY GOODMAN: You have expressed concerns about how Syria appears and then disappears from the news. And you’re talking to people in Syria, and you have, of course, been to Damascus and other places in Syria.

ALIA MALEK: Yeah. I mean, we are here because there’s been an uptick in violence. But that’s—again, I just want to emphasize that violence has been part of the daily reality. It’s the way that the regime has decided to consolidate its rule since it came to power in the 1970s. And now it’s using it—what we’re seeing in Eastern Ghouta is it’s using it as a tactic to demographically engineer the kind of body politic in Syria that will ensure that its rule lasts longer than—than it really should have because of any of the ideas that it has put forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what people are saying. Even if you can’t be there right now, you’re talking to people.

ALIA MALEK: Well, in your lead-up, you said—or there was somebody who was saying, “Why can’t the international community speak with one voice?” But I think, to many Syrians, the international community has spoken with one voice. And that voice says that Bashar al-Assad can stay, he can act with impunity, and we will add flame to fire, but that we are not going to take the steps that would require to bring all of the stakeholders, the people that enable both the regime and the armed opposition, to the table and get them to come to some kind of agreement that would spare the Syrian civilians, who have been paying the costs of this sort of both proxy war and the regime’s assault on its people for the last seven years, and really for the last almost 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendy Pearlman, the title of your book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, actually comes from someone from Ghouta.

WENDY PEARLMAN: Yeah, absolutely. It’s from a testimony. The book is a curation of testimonies. And this is from a passage from a man named Annas, who’s a doctor from Eastern Ghouta. And he’s describing a mass protest that happened in early 2011, because one thing that’s been buried is the memory of that civilian uprising, that civic uprising, calling for freedom, for dignity of millions of people going out into the streets risking their lives to call for change, first for just reform, and then, ultimately, for the collapse of this authoritarian regime. So, Annas went out and described a protest that was so large, had so many people. The people marched from one town in the Damascus suburbs to another, literally crossed a bridge. And he said, “We crossed a bridge, and it trembled under the weight of so many people.” That is from the exact same place that we see now under the bombs and under the siege that my colleagues have described.

AMY GOODMAN: Rawya Rageh, it’s interesting that Wendy raises 2011, because you were reporting in Egypt. I mean, that was the uprising in Egypt. Talk about what happened in Egypt and what has happened in Syria.

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, obviously, the way these uprisings have unfolded is not the happy trajectory that we had been hoping when our people rose up against authoritarianism. There are so many questions as to whether we should have done what we did, whether we were prepared for that. And it’s just important to remind people that after years of surviving this kind of autocracy, people had to resort to essentially speaking out. And this should not be the price for asking for democracy. We should not, time and again, be put in the situation where either we ask for our rights or we face absolute chaos. This was not an inevitability. So many factors came into play. So many external players sort of robbed people of their dreams and their hopes and their ability to bring about the basic reforms and democracy they were asking for. No one in Syria was asking for this kind of civil infighting. And this just shows you the lengths to which the Syrian government and its supporters were willing to go just to maintain the rule of one man in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia maintains a veto at the United Nations. It’s a main ally of Syria. It says it could support a 30-day truce, but not one that included the Islamist militants it says the Eastern Ghouta operation is meant to target.

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, obviously, Russia has been a big backer of Syria on the ground in the military operations and in the Security Council, providing protection, repeatedly blocking attempts to investigate chemical weapon attacks, or have any sort of resolution or breakthrough within the Security Council. We have another session today at the Security Council, later today. That’s been called for by Russia. There is a resolution being tabled by Kuwait in Sweden that calls for a 30-day cessation of hostilities.

The excuse that we have—that the Russian or Syrian government is using, that there are so-called terrorists in these areas, is really an excuse to go ahead with further war crimes against civilians. There are 400,000 people besieged in Eastern Ghouta. I don’t think even Russia and the Syrian government would look anyone in the eye and say all of these people are terrorist elements. And the reality is, the attacks—our documentation clearly shows the attacks have been targeting civilian areas, residential areas, well away from borders. Why prevent the exit of wounded and injured people? Why prevent humanitarian access to the thousands of these people? These are all violations and crimes against civilians that human rights—that international humanitarian law clearly indicates are a violation, a war crime, and even a bigger pattern that amounts to crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there is a way for the violence to end and Assad to maintain power?

RAWYA RAGEH: I don’t have a crystal ball to answer that question. As Alia has mentioned, it has been frustrating to see that the international community has made it clear, more than once, that Assad can stay in power. It is not my place to make these kind of political comments or analysis, but what I could say is what we have to have right now is an end to the siege and an end to these attacks on civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghouta, 400,000 people, Alia?

ALIA MALEK: Mm-hmm. I mean, I want to say that the sort of United States war on terror and the language in which it was framed and the resultant and inevitable Islamophobia that came out of it has been a gift to these authoritarian rulers in the Middle East, who have been able to use the exact same language, not only for international legitimacy, but also for domestic legitimacy. And, you know, when we talk about if—let’s just say there are many—let’s say a huge percentage of 400,000 are terrorists. The reality is, the regime is not trying to use more surgical elements, because its goal is not to root out only armed opposition. Its goal is to clean out the area, and then, through demographics, sort of change what it looks like, what it looks like as to who surrounds them. This is a tactic that the regime has been using since the ’70s. When Hafez al-Assad came to power, he brought a lot of his supporters from the regions that he came from, and brought them into Syria, into Damascus, into the capital, and had them live around them as—around him as a kind of barrier.

And when you say “when the violence ends,” what—it depends on how you define “violence.” You know, we might see aerial bombardment stop, but the regime has used violence every single day in Syria. Its use of detentions, which we don’t talk about as much because it’s not as visibly violent, is how it has controlled—how it’s remained in power. And this is part of the reason that evacuee—so-called evacuees will not opt to come into regime-controlled areas. And this is the reason that refugees will not return from abroad, because the threat of the violence of detention, arbitrary detention, where you basically disappear, will remain a constant.

AMY GOODMAN: Are foreign powers more interested in a proxy war or a ceasefire? You have Israel shooting down the Iran drone. You have the latest news on the Turkish border, Reuters reporting Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said today the fighters backing the Syrian government were deploying on the front line to help repel a Turkish assault.

RAWYA RAGEH: What all of the international actors should be really concerned about at this stage is primarily the welfare of civilians. International law cannot be more clear. Direct attacks against civilians are unlawful and are a war crime. And what we need to be seeing is, these civilians have lived through horrors upon horrors for the past six, seven, eight years. They have been deliberately targeted. They have been deprived of very basic necessities in order to survive. And these kind of behaviors, and other actions supporting these kind of violations, is what we should really be concerned about. How do we spare civilians this ongoing onslaught?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Wendy Pearlman, your focus on the voices of the people of Syria, we will end there, the voices that need to be heard.

WENDY PEARLMAN: There are voices that are calling for, primarily now, an end to the war, an end to the violence. People want to be able to survive and live, provide for their children. So there needs to be civilian protection. I agree with my colleagues that this is the ultimate priority at this stage. But there’s also a dream and a hope for freedom, for dignity, for a kind of political transition that allows Syrians to live under a system of rule of law, that protect basic rights, that allow them to speak without fear. Those political goals have not gone away. But first and foremost now, we need to protect civilian lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation and post it online at And I’ll just end by saying, on Tuesday, the charity UNICEF released a nearly blank statement on the killings, writing, “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.” I want to thank our guests for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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