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Syrian Researcher: Focus on Alleged Chemical Attack Ignores War’s Ongoing Deaths by Airstrikes, Bullets

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As the United Nations Security Council holds an emergency session over the growing prospect of a war between Russia and the U.S., after President Trump threatened U.S. strikes in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, we get response from Syrian-Canadian writer Yazan al-Saadi. “Let’s remind everyone that the U.S. is striking Syria already. You have more than 2,000 soldiers on the ground. There are bases.” He adds, “For me, as a Syrian, I see it as an occupation, just like how I see the Russians are an occupation on the country.” Regarding the alleged chemical attack in Syria, he says, “This ignores the fact that most deaths are happening through conventional means,” such as airstrikes.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Syria, where Syrian government forces have taken full control of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, in a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The capture of Eastern Ghouta followed a Russian-brokered deal that saw the last remaining rebel fighters granted safe passage to a rebel-held area in northern Syria. Human rights groups estimate some 1,700 civilians were killed in heavy fighting, after Syrian forces, backed by Russia, launched an offensive on Eastern Ghouta in February. The U.N. says food, water and medicine are in short supply for those left behind. This is U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland.

JAN EGELAND: There is, by our count, still at least 100,000 people in Douma, and they need desperately our help. We have been prevented from going there. We have had very little supplies to there. And now, hopefully, there is finally an agreement between the armed actors.

AMY GOODMAN: Eastern Ghouta’s fall comes as the U.N. Security Council is set to meet in an emergency session today over the growing prospect of a war between Russia and the U.S., after President Trump threatened U.S. strikes in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma last Saturday. This is Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya.

VASILY NEBENZYA: The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war.

REPORTER: Sir, you just mentioned that you want to avert the danger of war. The danger of war between the U.S. and Russia?

VASILY NEBENZYA: Look, we cannot exclude any possibilities, unfortunately, because we saw—we saw messages that are coming from Washington. They were very bellicose. They know we are there. I hope, I wish there was dialogue through appropriate channels on this to avert any dangerous—any dangerous developments.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as President Trump tweeted Wednesday, quote, “Get ready Russia, because [missiles] will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'” Then, on Thursday, Trump appeared to back off slightly from his aggressive stance, tweeting, “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” That last tweet came after Trump missed a self-imposed deadline of 48 hours to announce major decisions on Syria in the wake of an alleged chemical weapons attack on Douma on Saturday.

Those comments came as the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Russia has evidence the attack was fabricated. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he has “proof” that Syria’s government carried out the attack. And NBC News cited two unnamed U.S. officials who said blood and urine samples taken from a victim and smuggled out of Douma show signs of poisoning from a nerve agent and chlorine gas.

On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. is still investigating the attack. This is Mattis being questioned by Hawaii Democratic Congressmember Tulsi Gabbard.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: What would the objective of an attack on Syria be? And how does that serve the interests of the American people?”

DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: I don’t want to talk about a specific attack that is not yet in the offing, knowing that these are decisions—this would be predecisional. Again, the president has not made that decision.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on Syria, we go to Beirut, Lebanon, where we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Yazan al-Saadi, a Syrian-Canadian writer and researcher.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Yazan. Your response to all the latest developments in Syria?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Thank you very much for having me. One thing I wanted to say is how surreal this is, even this interview, because, Amy, the first time I was on Democracy Now! was almost a year ago, this exact situation appearing. And so—so it just struck me, and I feel I have to say that Karl Marx was right: History repeats. And it was a tragedy, a farce, and it’s even more absurd.

There’s just so much to say. I mean, my first comment I would like to really point out is this weird discussion happening in the U.S. as if in attack on Syria hasn’t happened by the U.S. and by others. Let’s remind everyone that the U.S. is striking Syria already. You have more than 2,000 soldiers on the ground. There are bases. For me, as a Syrian, I see it as an occupation, just like how I see the Russians are an occupation on the country. So, I just find the whole discussion that’s happening is so absurd.

And I feel like the hysteria that is being manufactured, in my opinion, by these politicians are just distracting from the core issues. And the core issues, at least to me, is accountability for Syrians. I mean, let’s be honest. Whether the U.S. strikes Syria—and here, I believe people mean the Syrian military or the Syrian regime—how is this going to bring justice? How is this accountability in any way? Because it’s not. And even then, what’s next? What’s the plan here? So I think the biggest issue that is really driving all of this is that this is another example of the complete dysfunctionality and failure of the international political and accountability system, that this is what we’re witnessing again and again. And we’re seeing it in Syria, and we’ve seen it in so many other places around the world. And it’s just—it’s become very absurd.

And it’s become—and it’s also, as human being, I mean, I just am so personally upset as a human, as I can. You know, I have to be empathetic here, because people are dying in the scheme of things. Men, women, children, they are being killed predominantly by the ones that have the most power, i.e. the regime and its allies, and they all are also being killed and harmed and abused by armed opposition groups, who are backed by other superpowers. So, that’s where we’re at.

And these theater plays, these things that happen over an alleged chemical attack—and I personally believe it happened, and I believe—I have my thoughts and my conclusions on who the culprit are, based on the evidence that we all have around. It’s really—

AMY GOODMAN: Who do you believe—who do you believe launched this attack?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Who do I think launched the attack? Based on the evidence that is around, based on trends, based on the history, based on context, I do think it was the Syrian regime. However, what does this change anything? Because, OK, the OPCW is currently investigating in the country, and they should start on Saturday. And I support that. I believe in an investigation. There has to be some sort of accountability here. I don’t believe in a Western invasion and overthrow of the Syrian regime, because I don’t think that leads to Syrian determination. However, how does this change anything? Because the OPCW has already said, in previous reports, that it has linked the Syrian regime to chlorine attacks, at least three of them. It has also pointed out there are links of ISIS using mustard gas. So, what are we arguing here? Are we arguing that chemical weapons are happening in Syria? Well, they are. People are using chemical weapons, are using chemical agents, whether it’s chlorine or anything else. What changes? This doesn’t—it ignores the fact that the most deaths are happening through conventional means. People are dying because of airstrikes, bullets, sieges. So this idea of chemical weapons is also—it’s absurd.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Yazan, for people who aren’t aware, OPCW is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But I wanted to go to Russia’s foreign minister rejecting the allegations of the chemical weapons attack in Douma.

MARIA ZAKHAROVA: [translated] Doctors, chemical defense specialists have been to Douma, where chemical weapons were allegedly used, but they found no traces of such use, no casualties or victims of this mythical chemical attack. The West stubbornly refuses to listen to a heap of information.

AMY GOODMAN: France says they have evidence that it was the Syrian government. But today the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said Western countries must increase pressure on Russia in order to solve the crisis in Syria.

HEIKO MAAS: [translated] We want these people to be held criminally responsible internationally, and there remains a lot to be done. The repeated use of chemical weapons, which is internationally prohibited, cannot come without consequences. You cannot just continue with the daily agenda. This now needs to be discussed with our Western partners.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Germany says they wouldn’t get involved with Britain and France and the United States with an attack. And, Yazan, your response to the Russians saying it’s not them?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Yeah, I’m not surprised that the Russians would take this line, just like I’m not surprised about the Western governments’ line. I mean, you know, a lot of people point to the example of what happened with Iraq. And I agree that, you know, what happened with Iraq is criminal, and this idea of manufacturing evidence.

But there are two things I want to point out. Does this mean that if the U.S. was actually telling the truth and there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—does this justify the killing of over a million Iraqis and the destruction of Iraq? Is this what people are arguing? Because that’s what I’m hearing.

Secondly, the position of manufacturing or victim blaming isn’t really new. All regimes, whether they are the Russians, the Syrians, the Israelis, the Saudis, the Americans, say the same thing, and they’ve said the same thing throughout history. A lot of people say, “Remember Iraq.” I also say, “True, and I agree: Remember Iraq. And also remember things like Guernica, where the fascist government at the time, during the Spanish Civil War, completely denied what happened to Guernica, and said it was fabricated and that the anarchists and leftists were bombing and burning themselves.” So, this is—this is the situation, let’s all agree. And let’s be frank: They are all lying in many ways to us. They are all lying.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting you raise Guernica. The famous painting by Pablo Picasso of what happened in Guernica well over 75 years ago, the banner of a tapestry of that painting, famous painting, that is known around the world, hangs outside the U.N. Security Council. Today, the U.N. Security Council will be meeting on Syria. So, what do you think is the solution, Yazan? You are a Syrian. You have seen your country destroyed. You now—don’t you have actually Russian soldiers and U.S. soldiers on the ground in Syria?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Yeah, we have everyone on the ground. It’s a buffet. So, what do I think? And I can only—and I am going to say this very clearly: I am speaking for myself; I’m not representing, you know, Syrians or Syria, because there’s a whole wide range of views.

What I think I believe the solution is: accountability. I believe the only way and the only way we, as Syrians, could move on and build a sustainable—a sustainable, coherent country is to move for accountability, accountability against every crime inflicted on every Syrian body over the course of seven years. I mean, if the regime—and I know that the regime has committed crimes. They should go—they should be taken to court, and then they should be put in prison. Same thing with the armed opposition. Same thing with the Americans, who have devastated places like Raqqa. Same thing like the Russians, who have devastated places around Syria. They should all be held to account.

And the only way to do that is not resorting to the international legal, political mechanisms, because they are failing. They are dysfunctional, and they are not made to help us citizens of the world. I believe, or I think, I should say, the best thing we can do—me and you and whoever else is listening or watching—is that we need to build a movement, because the movements today, whether it’s Stop the War or the so-called mainstream left, they are abysmal, and they are failing just as well, because not only are they not stopping the wars, they are reproducing narratives that are harming people on the ground in the end—no different from the neocons and the Orientalists and anyone else that are warmongers.

The solution, or the idea, in my mind, is a better discourse, as well. For example, if one says that Assad is a criminal, this does not mean automatically Western intervention. And we shouldn’t think that. At the same time, Western intervention cannot be presented as the only solution to dealing with Assad. Neither are correct. Both of them are terrible. And the Syrian people, like many other communities in the world, deserve better discourse and movements. Our bodies are being devastated, just like bodies are being devastated in Iraq, in Palestine and in Yemen. And we all need help. And that requires, really, an international mobilization of people, because everything else is horrendous. Don’t you think so?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yazan, let me ask you a last question. President Trump making this decision as he is embroiled in various sex scandals, accusations of—the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is moving in on him. His lawyer’s, you know, home and hotel room and offices have been raided. Apparently there are recordings of his lawyer that have also been taken by the authorities. Now, why raise this as you’re dealing in Syria with a possible chemical weapons attack, the number of people killed over these years, is because this decision might not actually be made because of what’s happening on the ground in Syria, but the internal politics of what’s happening here in the United States and wanting to distract attention.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: That could be certainly so. I mean, whatever Trump does, he can do. But let’s not forget that behind Trump is a whole system in place, right? There is—it’s not just Trump. We’re talking about a political military system within the United States, just like within other countries, that makes these decisions. So, I have no faith in that, and I have no faith in Trump.

And there’s one thing. The tweet that Trump had—it was yesterday—where he ended that people should say “thank you” to America. You know, I have something to say, and I’m going to say it in Arabic: Kol khara, which basically means—you can tell him it means “thank you.” Because, in the end, what Trump is doing and all this hullabaloo that we also hear from, let’s not forget, France and the U.K., who are no better and who are embroiled in a lot of crimes and supportive of repressive regimes in the region—how can I expect them to save me? They are no different from the Russians, in my opinion, you know, in terms of—will they bring me self-determination? Are they actively working to help me and my society and our neighbors? No, they’re not. Let’s not forget that the three main countries that are gung-ho to start, you know, launching attacks are also—you know, the U.S., the U.K. and France—are also the three main countries that deny the rights of Syrian refugees to enter their lands. So how can I take them seriously? I cannot.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yazan al-Saadi, I want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian writer and researcher, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump railed repeatedly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was one of his first acts in office to pull out of any such agreement. He is now saying he wants to rejoin the TPP. We’ll speak with Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach. Stay with us.

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