Moazzam Begg on Syria: A No-Fly Zone Is Needed Around Idlib to Prevent “Unprecedented” Massacre

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In Syria, international chemical weapons inspectors are still attempting to enter the town of Douma, where an alleged chemical gas attack killed dozens of people earlier this month. Inspectors with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus on Saturday but have been unable to reach Douma and have accused Syrian and Russian authorities of blocking access to the town. On Friday, the United States, France and Britain carried out airstrikes against two chemical weapons storage facilities and a research center in Syria. In response to the U.S.-led strikes, Russia announced it may supply Syria with a state-of-the-art air defense system—a move likely to anger the United States and Israel. Israel has carried out more than 150 bombing raids in Syria since 2011. Just last week Israel bombed an Iranian air defense system at a Syrian base.

We go to London to speak with Moazzam Begg. He is a former Guantánamo detainee. He was held in extrajudicial detention by the U.S. government from 2002 to 2005, first in Kandahar, then at Bagram Air Base for approximately a year before being transferred to Guantánamo. In 2011 and 2012, Begg made several trips to Syria to investigate reports of U.S. and U.K. rendition operations and to interview former prisoners of the Assad regime. Begg works as outreach director at the London-based organization CAGE, which advocates on behalf of victims of the “war on terror.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria. International chemical weapons inspectors are still attempting to enter the town of Douma, where an alleged chemical gas attack killed dozens of people earlier this month. Inspectors with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus on Saturday but have been unable to reach Douma and have accused Syrian and Russian authorities of blocking access to the town. On Wednesday, gunshots were fired at a U.N. security team in Douma.

This comes days after the United States, France and Britain carried out airstrikes against two chemical weapons storage facilities and a research center in Syria. In response to the U.S.-led strikes, Russia announced it may supply Syria with a state-of-the-art air defense system, a move likely to anger the United States and Israel. Israel has carried out more than 150 bombing raids in Syria since 2011. Just last week, Israel bombed an Iranian air defense system at a Syrian base.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Syria, we’re joined by two guests.

Still with us in New York is professor Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University.

And joining us in London is Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo prisoner, held in extrajudicial detention by the U.S. government from 2002 to 2005, first held in Kandahar, then at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for approximately a year before being transferred to Guantánamo. In 2011 and 2012, Moazzam Begg made several trips to Syria to investigate reports of U.S. and British rendition operations and to interview former prisoners of the Assad regime. Moazzam Begg works as outreach director now at the London-based organization CAGE, which advocates on behalf of victims of the “war on terror.”

Moazzam Begg, it’s good to have you back on Democracy Now! We interviewed you when we were in London and then again on various issues over the years. But right now, as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, can you talk about, one, what is happening now? And your response to what’s happening in Douma, the allegations that Syria was involved in a chemical weapons attack on the people, others saying it wasn’t Syria, and others saying a chemical weapons attack didn’t happen at all?

MOAZZAM BEGG: First of all, Amy, it’s good to be back on Democracy Now! I think what’s happening in Syria right now is one of the marked periods of our time where we will recognize that the denials that are taking place in relation to the massacres, not just in Ghouta or in Douma, but in fact what’s been going on since the outset of the Assad regime, and then his backers in Russia and Iran have been doing—literally the deaths of half a million people. Today, 70 years after World War II, still the concept of somebody who denies the war crimes that took place at that time, the Holocaust or the genocides, will and can be prosecuted. But as we speak today, people are in complete denial of what’s taking place live, though we’ve got—I mean, if we were just to put aside for one moment what took place in Eastern Ghouta, that still leaves approximately half a million people dead.

So, essentially, with the usage of these chemical weapons, everything’s being turned onto the discussion about this, as if the United States intervention has made any difference at all. And one thing I have to say, that whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s the Gulf states, whether it’s Britain or France, all have taken part in what I call the aerial gang rape of Syria. Everybody has bombed the opposition. And it’s only now twice that the United States government has bombed Syrian military positions, and this latest one with the chemical facilities.

Now, I’m completely against Western intervention, because I’ve tasted firsthand what that can do and what it’s done. But if you look at the strikes, literally, I think it’s the first time in history that the Americans have bombed over 150 missiles, together with the United States and France, and killed nobody. Now that’s great, but perhaps they could extend this kind of deathless aerial bombing campaign to everybody else that they’ve been bombing, because, thus far, it’s only the side of the rebels that the Americans have hit. They’ve hit, of course, ISIS, who are an atrocious organization that have committed war crimes. But they’ve also hit, by extension, anybody that fought alongside ISIS or, prior to that, other groups connected to them, against the Assad regime. And there’s never been an accountability for that.

So, all of this hype now all of a sudden that America has come in on the side of the Zionists and so forth—I mean, one of the things that I found really strange happening was when I tweeted out about the Ghouta massacre, was Nick Griffin, of all people—and Nick Griffin was the former head of the BNP, which was a racist organization, an openly anti-Muslim racist organization here in the U.K., which has thankfully now dissipated. But he actually said to me, to quote, “Shame on you for pushing the propaganda of the Zionists while your brothers are being killed in Palestine.” So here we have a far-right, racist neo-Nazi almost, who is speaking on behalf of the Assad regime. In fact, in 2015, I believe, he went over to meet with the Assad regime to go and show his open support. So what you’ve got here is a completely unbelievable scenario of people who call themselves, on the one hand, anti-imperialist leftists, and, on the other hand, far-right extremists, who converge on this point in relation to Syria and call any dissident, Muslim-based response to people like Assad terrorism. So, everybody calls us terrorists now. It’s not just the right; it’s also people who claim to be on the left. So, they’re united in this view, and I think that that should be the litmus test now.

So, the language of the “war on terror,” whether it’s China with the Uyghurs, whether it’s Burma with the Rohingya, whether it’s the United States with its policies of countering violent extremism, or whether it’s the United Kingdom or Great Britain with it’s Prevent program, the entire anti-terror legislation and language has been formulated based upon your position on Syria. So if you support the Syrian opposition, then at some point you’re going to be regarded as a terrorist, either by the Assad regime or even by the West. And that is a paradox if ever I’ve seen one.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Moazzam, you’ve spent time in Syria in recent years, in 2012 and 2013, and you remain in touch with people who are in Syria, and notably in Idlib. So, can you tell us what they’ve been telling you about what the situation is on the ground and who they see as complicit in, let’s say, the majority of war crimes, as you say, that are being committed?

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Idlib today?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yeah. So, I’m in communication with aid workers and doctors who are working day to day and have been there for several years. Some of them are actually British citizens who have been living there at least five years. And I speak to them quite regularly, and my views and opinions are not only based upon their experience, but on my own, as you’ve rightly pointed out, in 2012 and ’13.

And what they’re telling me now, of course, is that now that ISIS has started to disperse, though they’re not completely defeated, they are feeling the push once more. So, first of all, the doctor that I was speaking to told me that the majority of casualties they had coming into their hospitals were actually retreating ISIS fighters trying to force themselves and impose themselves into these other rebel-held territories, and they, of course, wouldn’t accept that and fought them back, but at the expense of having the rear unguarded and open to attack by the Assad regime.

And now, of course, they told me that they are treating wounded and internally displaced people who are coming into the Idlib region, evacuating from Douma and Eastern Ghouta. So they believe now that Idlib will be the last bastion, and it will be essentially a place where all of these aerial—the powers of these governments that have air forces—Russia and, of course, the Assad regime and the Iranians—will all gather for the final battle.

And that will be a massacre, they believe, I believe. And I think if we base upon everything we’ve seen happening in Aleppo and indeed in Eastern Ghouta, that the—if we thought what happened now was bad enough, what will take place in Idlib, unless there’s some sort of a corridor that allows the evacuation, unless there’s some kind of no-fly zone, I think it will be a massacre of unprecedented proportions, if this wasn’t already bad enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of Idlib today, where it is geographically and where it is in relation to the opposition and the Assad regime.

MOAZZAM BEGG: So, Idlib—when I was actually in Syria in 2012, 2013, Idlib wasn’t in the hands of the opposition. It was still in the hands of the Assad regime. So it’s in northern Syria, and it’s not too far from the border with Turkey. The opposition, with a mixture of different groups, eventually took over and captured Idlib, and it’s been in their hands for a while. They are bombed regularly by the regime. The people I’ve been speaking to told me that it’s abated a little over the past few weeks, but it has been regular. At least three to four bombs land every few days. And, of course, the effect of that is the deaths of the civilian population.

The refugee camps are bursting at the seams. There’s simply not enough to provide for everyone. Many people are trying to, and have indeed—I mean, the largest number of refugees exist now in Turkey, Lebanon and in Jordan, and all have tried to absorb these millions of refugees, both internally and externally. So the situation is dire.

And when I speak—I spoke to a doctor yesterday. He told me, “I just don’t know how long I will be here.” He said, “I’m not going to leave this place, because I’ve come to this place to save life, however and whenever I can. And many of my colleagues are doing the same thing. But it’s just a question of time before one of the regime bombs, one of the Russian bombs, one of the American bombs, one of the French bombs, one of the British bombs, or anybody else who happens to be taking part in this aerial gang rape of Syria, hits us and kills us.”

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen?

MOAZZAM BEGG: My view is this. At least, you know, we know that in the Kurdish regions, for example, during the Iraq War, there were no-fly zones. Indeed, in Bosnia—I was in Bosnia during the war, the time there. And it was bad enough, but a no-fly zone at least stopped those who had air forces to carry out even further killing with the mass casualties.

Now, I mean, one of the things that people need to understand, that in modern warfare, any army, any air force that is operative against an enemy that doesn’t have an air force will inflict far more damage. You take America in Vietnam or the USSR in Afghanistan or America in Afghanistan or Iraq and so on, you’ll always find this. So whoever has airpower must be brought at least to a position whereby they are pressured by other nations into not being able to drop bombs, which by definition are indiscriminate, other than the recent ones fired by America on the chemical facilities that actually didn’t kill anybody.

And that only happened, by the way, because America coordinated, orchestrated and scheduled those strikes at 2 a.m. with their Russian counterparts. In other words, America—I’ve never come across this before, that you coordinate with your enemy in order that you can strike them so that there are no casualties.

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Rashid Khalidi: Ending the Proxy Wars in Syria Is Key to De-escalating Deadly Conflict

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