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As Death Toll Rises in Eastern Ghouta, Has International Community Abandoned the Syrian People?

Web ExclusiveFebruary 23, 2018
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In Syria, warplanes bombarded the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus for the fifth straight day, as human rights groups warned the civilian death toll has topped 400 for the week—with doctors unable to tend to the wounded in bombed-out hospitals.

On Thursday, we hosted an extended web-only conversation with 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!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our roundtable discussion on what’s happening in Syria. “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 in recent days.

On Tuesday, the charity UNICEF released a nearly blank press release, writing, “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones,” followed by quote marks and 10 blank lines.

The United Nations Security Council is meeting today to stop the crisis, they say. The meeting was called by Russia.

We continue our conversation now with three guests. Rawya Rageh is 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 The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. And Wendy Pearlman is with us, author of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Alia, talk about what’s happening at the U.N. today and what you want to see happen.

ALIA MALEK: Well, you asked a very interesting question, as to whether the international stakeholders are interested in a ceasefire. And to ask—to sort of answer your question in a roundabout way—and I would say I think all evidence would point to the fact that they’re not interested in a ceasefire, because a ceasefire only benefits one group of people: the Syrian civilians. And that’s clear—that’s been clearly established, that we sort of are at the bottom of the hierarchy of interests.

There is so much money to be made once these areas are emptied, once there’s reconstruction money. Reconstruction money is already coming in. Iranian and Russian companies and other companies in the region are eyeing those contracts. Russia has already gotten access to some of Syria’s natural resources. You know, the idea of a ceasefire—why stop? Why stop? What is the real penalty? There are no real penalties.

And so I don’t expect much to come out of—when we were, you know, in the in-between space, we both used—you know, I said in theater—you know, you said, “What do we expect to happen?” I said, “Theater.” Wendy said it in Arabic. And then, you know, I’m sure Rawya can’t comment. But we—that’s what it looks like to those of us who can say.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rawya, explain what happens at the United Nations around Syria. Has the conflict there rendered the U.N. absolutely useless?

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, we have been seeing, over and over again, the abuse and the misuse of the veto power by both Russia and China, the allies of the Syrian government in the Security Council. I think Russia has used its veto more than 10 times, including to block investigations into chemical weapons attack or even empower the mechanism to look into that. So, we’ve definitely seen that kind of abuse.

And let me just point out that it is the responsibility—the primary responsibility of the Security Council is to deal with peace and security. And so, when this happens, it’s not just frustrating for us. We look at this as essentially greenlighting more war crimes to take place. And so, there’s direct complicity. There’s direct shared responsibility. It’s important to say, however, that this is the mechanism we have to deal with: the Security Council.

The thing to point out, though, is, despite all the frustration, despite all the cynicism, we still have to do everything we can. Because what’s the alternative? Let these abuses go unrecorded? Let the mechanisms not call for a cessation of hostilities? We have to do everything we can.

And we’ve seen members within the United Nations member states come up with innovative ideas and other ways to circumvent or go around this paralysis in the Security Council. So, we’ve seen, for example, the General Assembly create a new body called the IIIM, or the International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism, to begin a series of investigations into the war crimes in Syria and try to build cases and look into prosecutions. So we’re already seeing the international community or member states trying to go around this paralysis in the Security Council. But that’s not to say that the Security Council should not be doing its job and enforcing its multiple resolutions calling for lifting the siege and access to aid.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the situation in Eastern Ghouta at the Security Council.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: I am deeply saddened by the terrible suffering of the civilian population in Eastern Ghouta, 400,000 people that live in hell on Earth. I know that very important consultations are taking place in this council, aiming at a cessation of hostilities during one month in Syria, with a number of conditions. And, of course, I fully support that effort. But I believe Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. And so, my appeal to all those involved is for an immediate suspension of all war activities in Eastern Ghouta, allowing for humanitarian aid to reach all those in need, allowing for the evacuation of an estimated 700,000—700 people that need urgent treatment that cannot be provided there, and creating also the possibility for the other civilians to be effectively treated in the site. This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes, and I don’t think we can let things go on happening in this horrendous way.

AMY GOODMAN: Rawya Rageh, what would make this happen? That’s U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, there’s obviously a significant amount of political will needed. And the primary thing that these governments, that these countries need to look at is, essentially, what it means to continue preventing aid to 400,000 people. What does it mean when you have 500 people who have been waiting since July, with chronic diseases, with critical medical cases, that need to be evacuated since July, and they are being used as bargaining chips by the Syrian government? Why is—why are these people being prevented from being evacuated? Why is it that we haven’t seen aid convoys going to Eastern Ghouta since December? ICRC convoys haven’t gotten in since December. And prior to that even, other aid convoys haven’t gotten in since October. There’s no reason for 400,000 people to continue to be living in these conditions. And the international community needs to look at these open-source images of what we’re seeing coming out of Ghouta, just to realize or even begin to get a sliver of the extent of the horrors that people are experiencing there.

ALIA MALEK: But people don’t care.

AMY GOODMAN: Alia Malek?

ALIA MALEK: I mean, it’s not—there’s no lack of imagery. There no lack—I mean, all this is accessible and available. So the reality is, people do not care. You know, I think there’s sort of like a consensus in the international community that Assad is staying. They sort of want—they want a cessation of hostilities. You know, once the dust clears, they think that everything will go—you know, everybody will come back. But when we talk about evacuation, I mean, this is the worst case—I mean, yes, this is what we need from a humanitarian perspective, but evacuation is also a death sentence for those people, because, basically, they’re not—they’re being told to leave where they’re from, and they’ll probably be evacuated to Idlib, where the regime will continue its assault, because that’s still, you know, in opposition hands. And they won’t have a home to come back to, because they’ll be replaced with new high-rises and new buildings that are brought—that are going to be inhabited by the supporters of the regime.

And the problem is, you know, what we need—when you ask, “What does it take to make this happen?” it takes cooperation with the regime. And so, you know, this is a pragmatic solution, but at the end of the day, rents—rents from humanitarian organizations are going to the regime. We’re only continuing to strengthen the hands of the regime and the supporters of the regime, ironically. But this is—and this is sort of the cost of doing business there.


ALIA MALEK: But it would be—

RAWYA RAGEH: I just want to clarify something quickly regarding the evacuations that I was referring to.

ALIA MALEK: The medical ones, yeah.

RAWYA RAGEH: I’m definitely not referring to these mass displacements of thousands of civilians—


RAWYA RAGEH: —that we have clearly called out at Amnesty International as forced displacement that has been deliberately happening by the government to empty these areas. I’m specifically referring to—

ALIA MALEK: Medical ones.

RAWYA RAGEH: —the 500 cases of medical, critical medical conditions that need immediate assistance. So that’s the—


RAWYA RAGEH: —medical cases that I was referring to.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendy Pearlman?

WENDY PEARLMAN: And I’d like to reiterate this idea of it’s a problem and a tragedy—a human tragedy, but a tragedy of political will. The Assad regime has said again and again, and shown, it is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. And its allies have shown that they are willing to do whatever it takes to also keep that regime in power. And where is the rest of the world? Silent. So I absolutely agree with Alia that—what is the unified voice of the international community? “Syrian civilians don’t matter very much.” And that’s not just the voice of governments that are failing to act and uphold the principles of never again, of responsibility to protect. It’s, in many ways, the response of citizens around the world, who have gotten used to the scenes of violence in Syria, who have kind of a fatigue about Syria, who have moved on. And we have blips like this where Syria kind of comes into the news cycle again, but the suffering of Syrians—

AMY GOODMAN: Because of how horrific the killing is.

WENDY PEARLMAN: Absolutely. But, as Alia was saying, there are so many forms of violence, and some are less dramatic—the suffering of prisoners in prisons where there’s systematic torture, the starvation of people, the absolute fear under which people, even in government-controlled areas, might be experiencing. There are multiple forms of violence. The world doesn’t care. And that is an outrage. It’s a stain on the human record. I think that it will haunt us for generations.

ALIA MALEK: Look, Americans barely care about—


ALIA MALEK: —each other. Like in—if in this country, this wonderful country, you know, theoretically wonderful country, where people can other their fellow citizens, how are you going to get them, after like years, almost two decades, of this rhetoric of the war on terror, and its Islamophobia—how are you ever going to get them to be able to see the, you know, Syrians as other? You know, we both wrote books. I mean, I wanted to write a book on Syria for years, and my agent kept saying, “No, no, no. There’s no market.” There was only a market for a book on Syria and its people when there was a conflict, when it began to fall apart.

And so, you know, what I—you know, people always want hope. You know, it’s very hard to be hopeful at this point when you’re Syrian. However, as I sit and I listen to those kids from Florida, what I can hope is that there’s a new generation that sort of, kind of is able to wade through the kind of identity politics that allow this kind of othering and dehumanizing, and maybe like we can look to something new. But like everything that Amnesty is doing, and other international organizations, is to try to maybe have some kind of justice and accountability down the road. You know, that’s sort of like the best that we can hope for.

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, because when we—I mean, I can’t agree more with my two colleagues about—


RAWYA RAGEH: —just begin to think about the sense of abandonment that the Syrian people feel. From day one, from 2012—you know, today’s the anniversary of the killing of—

ALIA MALEK: Of Marie Colvin.

RAWYA RAGEH: —the journalist Marie Colvin in Homs exactly six years ago. And one of her lines from her story, the way she ended the story at the time, was—and this is all over Twitter. You can see people sharing that line about how a gentleman from Homs has told her, “The world has abandoned us.” This is six years ago, Amy. Just think about it today, after all of these horrors. And yet it’s—with all of this, you know, with this bleak situation we’re in, for somebody like me, I still feel it’s absolutely—for us, at Amnesty, it’s absolutely crucial to do what we do. Because what’s the alternative? We cannot let these horrors go unrecorded. We have to continue to do this, because justice and accountability has to come at some point. There’s no statute of limitation on war crimes.

ALIA MALEK: And there’s no reconciliation without that. I mean, there’s no way to go back to the way things are—things were.


ALIA MALEK: And one of the—I just want to—one of the best questions I got asked last year was by a Mexican high school student. And I think, you know, people who live in other parts of the world have been—at that age, have already been disavowed of the kind of idealism, I think, that we’re sort of raised, or at least I was raised on, back in Cold War America. And he said—so, first he said, “Well, you could have a kid our age,” which I didn’t love hearing. And he said, “If one of us was your child, what would you say to us? Or what would you have even said to us in—you know, now that everything has happened in Syria, would you say to us, 'Go seek your future outside the country. Get your—try to get your education outside and make money and make a life there'? Would you tell us to still stand up for our ideals and go out and fight? Or would you tell us to stay, because you love us and you want us to stay, but you would tell us to like put our head down and go along to get along?” which was like the preferred tactic of Syrians for the first 40 years of the regime. And so, when somebody 18—like, look at the 18-year-olds from Florida. They’re sort of already—they still have some idealism. And like this kid was able to ask me a question that sort of came out of the experience of what was going on in Mexico, you know. And what are you supposed to say? What are you—because if you have to protect your child, what do you say? Or do you put them in a raft and take your chances in the Mediterranean?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one way not to learn about a story is to stop the people from that country coming to your country—

WENDY PEARLMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —hearing the voices, that you bring out, for example, Wendy, in your book. What about the migrant policies and the refugee policies? What about the Muslim ban in this country and what it means? And other countries, as well, France now cracking down even more? When we were in France a few years ago, we went to what even the inhabitants of this refugee camp called—the largest in France, called “The Jungle.” And it was like a map of the U.S. bombings around the world. People lived in Afghanistan, they lived in Iraq—the areas of the refugee camp. The Iraqis lived in one place, the Afghans lived in another place. Rawya?

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, we have repeatedly discussed this at Amnesty International and said that there’s no way to deal with this situation without looking at it from the framework or the perspective of a shared responsibility across the world and across different governments. When you look at this administration, you look at the expressions of concern that has come out from members of this administration, from the president himself, when he decided to intervene after the chemical attack, you know, you make these expressions of concern, but, on the other hand, we’ve expressed deep concern about the executive order and preventing Syrians from being able to have a dignified way to exit their conflict and the situation they’re in. And so, there’s definitely two very competing narratives here. You can’t, on the one hand, express concern about these people, and, on the other hand, prevent them from escaping these horrors.

ALIA MALEK: I think Rawya put her hand—


ALIA MALEK: I just finished Valeria Luiselli’s book, An Essay in Forty Questions, where she’s talking about the migration of children from Central, South America to the United States. And, you know, she talks about how we conceive of this as their problem: Why can’t they get their, you know, situation under control in these countries? And she says that we need to redefine this, and this is a hemispheric problem that sort of brings us into it. And I would, you know, go one step further, with all of these migrations, especially ones that have a, you know, direct result with the destabilization of Iraq and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, we are not—this is also part of our problem.

And on a personal note, you know, my mom came here pregnant in 1974 from Syria, from what was supposed to be a temporary stay. And the reason we couldn’t go back was because the regime murdered somebody in our family, and our house was taken with the sanctioning of the state. So, I was somehow—I’m somehow spared. But for the, you know, grace of my American passport, I’ve been completely spared the sort of indignities of today. And, you know, I walked from Greece to Germany with a bunch of Syrians. And like, I mean, it was insane to think that my mom was just able to board a plane and set up a life here, and even though it wasn’t the life she wanted, and it wasn’t, at the time, planned.

And, you know, I just think the United States, Europe, we need to be a little bit more honest about our own histories and own formations of our societies. None of us emerged from the sea like Venus. You know, all of these societies are the result of massive migration, some forced, like slavery, others as a result of World War II. I mean, so both, both Europe and this place, have been made in those images. And to think that somehow, you know, history stops with this generation and we’re not going to continue with what has been the trajectory of human existence is myopic.

RAWYA RAGEH: Interviewees in Wendy’s book address—you know, Wendy, the interview in your book that addresses the concept of homeland. What is a homeland? She said she left her country. A homeland is a place where one feels safe, not trees and stones, Wendy.

WENDY PEARLMAN: Yeah, no, absolutely. So, in that sense, I think it’s really important to keep the refugee crisis, as people say, in the context of the larger war. The people I talked to would say things like, “The international community has shown the sense of abandonment. They’re not helping to resolve the war in Syria. Yet they’re also closing their borders and not allowing us to escape from Syria.” I mean, it’s completely unacceptable, under any imagination. And Syrian refugees, like many refugees—all refugees, perhaps—suffer this full array of challenges and forms of suffering and pain.

So, Syrian refugees with whom I spoke in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where five-and-a-half million refugees live on the borders of Syria, are in a state of political and legal limbo. They have guest status. Most are not allowed to work legally. They suffer exploitation in the informal economy, live in atrocious housing situations and just wait. There’s an epidemic, people say, of child labor, hundreds of thousands of kids working, some as young as 8 years old, 14 hours in sweatshops or the fields. And their families rely upon their incomes. This is those who suffer there. And then, for those who will risk their lives and the lives of their family, go into debt, to cross to Europe, as many did especially in 2015, find just a new cycle of challenges there—struggling to learn the language, struggling again with papers, the crisis of family reunification of people who are able to make it perhaps to Germany but then can’t bring their spouses and children, so families are separated. And people cope with the loss of their homeland, of their properties, of their identity, whoever they were, and have to start from zero in tremendously difficult circumstances.

So, given that situation, with some 1 million Syrians seeking asylum in Europe, five-and-a-half million on the border countries, that the United States would, on the one hand, institute something like a Muslim ban and not even allow Syrians to arrive, on the other hand, to have this attack on the entire refugee resettlement program, lowering the numbers to some 40,000 allowed a year from the entire world, is just a complete abandonment of responsibility in the globe.

ALIA MALEK: When the U.S. bears more responsibility for the destabilization than a country like Germany, for example.


ALIA MALEK: Because the destabilization in the Middle East had a big part to do with what is going on in Syria, I mean, with ISIS and al-Qaeda, also its support for the Saudis.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role—

ALIA MALEK: You know, and then, also, we should also say that the Obama administration negotiated a deal with Iran and brought Iran kind of back into the world system, but didn’t ask for anything in exchange on Syria, obviously. And so, that was also an abandonment of a serious card there was to play.

And just I would point out, for your viewers who might not know this, like, ironically, Syria has been a place of refuge for the last 100 years. When Armenians who survived the genocide to the north, in Anatolia, and in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, they found not only refuge in Syria. Sort of the only parts of western Armenian culture were reborn and like resurrected in Syria. We took in the—Syria took in the Palestinians after the dispossession of Palestine with the founding of the state of Israel. They took in Iraqi refugees. I mean, the irony—so, you know, I was just at a literary festival in Jaipur, and I was like—sort of concluded that maybe there is no karma, because if anybody has sort of earned the karma to be treated well as a refugee, it was the Syrians.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration recently reauthorized temporary protected status, TPS—


AMY GOODMAN: —for Syrian refugees, but said it will bar any more Syrian citizens from applying to the program, and said it’s unlikely to reauthorize the program again. TPS benefits something like 6,900 Syrians living in the United States. I wanted to end with this image of just last week, which was quite astounding, that Syria has just become the battleground of these major powers, a week ago. Israel shoots down what it says is an Iranian drone that has entered Israel’s airspace, after being launched from Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from where the drone was launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Saturday’s event marked the first Israeli jet shot down since the '80s. It's also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. And then, a few days later, the Syrian government warns Israel would face more surprises if it launches future attacks inside Syria. Meanwhile, in northern Syria, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. Are they using Syria just to fight each other?

RAWYA RAGEH: I mean, just stop and think—

ALIA MALEK: Yeah, exactly.

RAWYA RAGEH: —where do civilians factor in all of this? Where do the people who have been displaced from one city to the other fit in this grand scheme of conflict and how they have to deal with their day-to-day lives, given this kind of chaos that they’re surrounded with?

ALIA MALEK: And I think you sort of showed like what bad faith everyone is acting in. And the thing that I find troubling—and it happens on the right and on the left—is that people pick a side on this issue, and they back a player. Or either they’re like super-pro-Iran, because it’s the resistance against, you know, Israel, or they’re super-anti-U.S. intervention, and they can—so, like, these are the lines of their arguments when it comes to Syria. And if you back yourself into that position, you will find yourself, at some point, defending the indefensible. And that is happening because all of these players are acting against the interests of the Syrian people. And this is what I have found troubling, why people who—why we can sort of only—as if there’s a fixed amount of critical thinking, and we can only allot it to Iranian intervention or American intervention, not both, or Russian intervention or Israeli intervention, but not both. And I think you sort of answered your own question in the litany that we just heard of all the different actors who are acting in Syria. Nobody escapes blame for this, though the regime is a central sort of, you know, cancer.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this. Rawya Rageh, thank you for being with us, from Amnesty International; Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria; and Alia Malek, author of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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