Idlib on Brink of “Humanitarian Catastrophe” as Syrian Military Threatens to Invade Rebel-Held City

StorySeptember 07, 2018
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The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting today in Tehran as the Syrian military is threatening a massive invasion of the rebel-held city of Idlib. Russia and Iran are close allies to Syria, while Turkey has been a key supporter of the opposition. This comes as the United States will chair a U.N. Security Council meeting today on the crisis in Syria. The U.N. is warning that an assault on Idlib could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that if talks in Tehran fail, as many as 800,000 citizens may flee the region and that panic is spreading among Idlib’s 3 million residents. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that President Trump has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the U.S. military effort in Syria in part to push out Iranian forces from Syria. We speak with award-winning journalist Rania Abouzeid in Beirut. She’s the author of “No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria.” She has reported extensively from Syria since the uprising began in 2011, and has received the George Polk Award in 2014 and the Michael Kelly Award in 2015 for her coverage.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Syria. The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting in Tehran today as the Syrian military is threatening a massive invasion of the rebel-held city of Idlib. Russia and Iran are close allies to Syria, while Turkey has been a key supporter of the opposition.

This comes as the United States will chair a U.N. Security Council meeting today on the crisis in Syria. The U.N. is warning an assault on Idlib could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said if talks in Tehran fail, as many as 800,000 citizens may flee the region and that panic is spreading among Idlib’s 3 million residents.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post is reporting President Trump has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the U.S. military effort in Syria in part to push out Iranian forces from Syria.

Well, for more, we go to Beirut, Lebanon, where we’re joined by Rania Abouzeid, award-winning journalist and author, the author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. She has reported extensively from Syria since the uprising began in 2011, received the George Polk Award in 2014, the Michael Kelly Award in 2015, for her coverage.

Rania, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the situation in Idlib right now, with the Syrian national—

RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —with the Syrian elite guard, it’s being reported, have surrounded it, and we have reports of Russian airstrikes as early as this morning?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Idlib is basically the last real estate that the revolution owns, and this is going to be a decisive battle. As you mentioned, the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran are meeting. The Russian leader has rejected the Turkish leader’s plea for a ceasefire in Idlib. So the stakes are very, very high.

There are, as you said, about 3 million people in Idlib, and they are not just the residents of Idlib. They include people who are from Homs and from Aleppo and from Daraa and from other areas that were evacuated to Idlib in evacuation deals with the Syrian regime. These are people who didn’t want to reconcile with the regime or surrender—depending on your point of view, whether it’s a reconciliation or a surrender—and they were given the option to be bused to Idlib. The problem is, the people of Idlib have nowhere left to be bused, so this is going to be very decisive in terms of what happens next in Idlib.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation there? And geographically place it for us and explain further its significance.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Idlib is a very large province, and it borders Turkey. It was key in the Syrian uprising. It was the engine of the revolution in many ways. So, Idlib is home to, as we mentioned, like millions of people from the province and elsewhere. And there are many hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced inside Idlib. I remember when I was last there in the spring of 2016 to finish reporting on my book, along the Turkish foothills it used to be orchards—apple orchards, plum orchards, olive groves—for as far as the eye could see. The last time I was there, those orchards were replaced with tents. Canvas cities had sprung up as people who were displaced by Russian and Syrian airstrikes sought safety along the Turkish border, hoping that the planes that had driven them out of their towns and villages wouldn’t chase them so close to the Turkish border.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what are people saying inside? You’ve spent a lot of time there. You’re outside of it right now. How many people live there, and where are they saying they will go?

RANIA ABOUZEID: I’m sorry, I missed the last part of your question—

AMY GOODMAN: And where—where are they saying—

RANIA ABOUZEID: —but, yes, I’ve spent years in Idlib, and certainly the people that I still know—

AMY GOODMAN: Where are they saying they will go?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Where are they saying they will go? Certainly the people that I’m in contact with are saying that they will fight to the end, that they will defend their towns and villages. The men that I’m talking to are saying that they will evacuate their families to the Turkish border, if they can, and that they will stay behind.

The thing is that the Turkish border is sealed shut, and it has been for years. The Turks erected massive concrete blast walls, topped them with coiled razor wire, and adopted a shoot-to-kill policy for anybody who was trying to traverse that massive barrier. So it is a sealed border. Even if they end up on the Turkish border, it’s unclear whether or not Turkey will open that border and allow the hundreds of thousands of people who are amassed there, and the many hundreds of thousands more who may flee there once this offensive starts—it’s unclear if Turkey will allow them in. Turkey is already home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees.

So the pressure on Turkey is immense in terms of what will happen if and when this offensive starts. And just from the preliminary reports from this tripartite meeting between the Turkish, the Iranian and the Russian leaders today, it’s clear that the Russians and the Iranians have rejected any calls for a ceasefire. They share Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s desire to, quote, “reclaim every inch of Syrian territory,” and that obviously includes Idlib.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Idlib’s significance in the original uprising of 2011, Rania.

RANIA ABOUZEID: The uprising kicked off in the southern city of Daraa, the southern province of Daraa, bordering Jordan. However, Idlib was key to the uprising. There were so many events. The armed uprising, there were many battalions that came from Idlib. It was and remains key to the revolution. It is a very large agricultural province, and as I said, it borders Turkey. So, in terms of where people can flee, if they don’t try and head towards Turkey, the other option is regime-held territory, which obviously isn’t an option for many of Assad’s opponents.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the rebel groups that are in Idlib? Talk about the political configuration of this last rebel stronghold, as it’s described.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, the rebel groups have always been fluid. They form coalitions that then melt, and then they form other coalitions. But for the past few years, a group called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has dominated the province, basically, and that is a hardcore Islamist group, and it is led by the former al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. So they have significant sway in Idlib; however, they’re certainly not the only group. There are many forces that oppose them and oppose the regime, as well, but when faced with what is expected to be an overwhelming regime assault, they’re trying to like—you know, every man with a gun is going to try and defend his home, regardless of political affiliations.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, Rania, you profile different people to give us a sense of Syria and the humanity of Syria. Can you talk about Mohammad?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Mohammad is an Islamist fighter, and he was a man who was radicalized in his youth. He was radicalized when he witnessed the effects of the former Assad, the father, Bashar al-Assad’s predecessor, Hafez al-Assad’s assault against an earlier Islamist insurgency in the late '70s and early ’80s. And Mohammad grew up witnessing the results of that, quote-unquote, what he called “humiliation.” And he was also radicalized in prisons, in various stints that he spent in many of Syria's prisons.

So, in 2011, when the protests kicked off, he saw a much darker motive in the coming unrest. And he went on to become a leader in Jabhat al-Nusra. And he’s a man who still believes in al-Qaeda’s beliefs. He holds those—that’s his creed. So, you know, he is one element of what happened in Syria, but he’s certainly not the main element. When it started, this started, let’s remember—it’s difficult to remember, so many years later, that this started with peaceful protests. This started with people who took to the streets with nothing but their voices. And given the news today, we can see, you know, what it has devolved into.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed in an excerpt of his forthcoming book, Fear: Trump in the White House, that President Trump ordered Pentagon chief James Mattis to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in April of 2017. Mattis reportedly ignored the order. This week, Trump denied Woodward’s report. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The book is fiction. I heard somewhere where they said the assassination of President Assad by the United States. Never even discussed. The book is total fiction.

AMY GOODMAN: Rania Abouzeid, your response?

RANIA ABOUZEID: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know. I’m not privy to what was happening in D.C. and in those circles. I was on the ground in Syria. But, I mean, certainly, in terms of the reaction to U.S. policy in Syria, it has been very confused, a confused policy. At times, many of the Syrian rebels that I talked to weren’t sure whether or not Washington really wanted to remove President Assad or if that was just simply empty talk. And we’ve seen—even President Trump, just a few months ago, said that he wanted to completely withdraw from Syria, and there’s a report today saying that he’s actually talking about staying there indefinitely. So it’s a very wishy-washy policy, at least in terms of what I’m hearing from the people who are on the ground and on the receiving end.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the U.S. Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama in 2011? Go from Ford to Obama to Trump in terms of U.S. policy in Syria.

RANIA ABOUZEID: The former ambassador went to Hama, which was a city in central Syria, and he attended some of the protests there with the French ambassador. And I was in Hama shortly after the ambassador was there—I snuck into the city—and many of the people interpreted the U.S. ambassador—well, the trip by the ambassadors as almost like a green light to their revolution, that the U.S. and France, the Western powers, were backing their peaceful movement to try and get rid of their longtime leader, Bashar al-Assad. And, you know, I mean, it’s not a small thing when people around the world think that the U.S. is backing their movement. And that was certainly how Ford’s trip to Hama was interpreted by the people who were there.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book takes us both deep inside Assad’s prisons to covert meetings where foreign states and organizations manipulate the rebels and to the highest levels of the Islamic militancy and the formation of ISIS. Just give us a sense of this.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yeah, I wanted to show—you know, so often, we see people for a moment in time. We see them in news reports for—I mean, I’m thinking, for example, of the young toddler, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach as his family tried to escape, to cross the Mediterranean to safety. We saw that young child’s lifeless body on the beach, but that was it. We didn’t really know what happened before the family got on the boat and what happened to the family afterwards. So, in my book, I wanted to present a longer spectrum. I wanted to show real people in a place over six years, so that you could understand something of their motivations and get a broader spectrum of their experience.

At the same time, I also went back and investigated many of the key sort of moments, in terms of the arming and the later Islamization of the uprising. I wanted to talk to people who were in the room with the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks and the Americans and the British, to see what was being promised, what was being said, the arms that were supplied, when that happened, where they came through, and to map out the trajectory, on an investigative level, not just a human level, of what happened in Syria over the past six years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the formation of ISIS, Rania?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yes, I tell that based on the accounts of a number of insiders. Mohammad, the man that I referred to earlier, as a Jabhat al-Nusra commander, is one of the people through whose trajectory you also learn about how Islamic State was formed. But I also had an insider and many other senior Islamists who I had known for years, who also helped me understand how Islamic State formed and the split between Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria and, you know, how the Syrian uprising was an opportunity for al-Qaeda to rejuvenate itself. And that is all explained in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get around? This is based on years of your reporting. You were not granted permission by the Syrian government. What risks did you take? Where did you travel?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yeah, unfortunately, I learned that I had been blacklisted by the Syrian regime in the summer of 2011. I was in Damascus in February 2011, and I witnessed some of the first tentative protests in the Syrian capital, and I’ve been covering it ever since, quite intensively. But the fact that I was blacklisted and wanted by three of the four main intelligence agencies obviously meant that I couldn’t risk going into Damascus, and I couldn’t tell that side of the story. I mean, having said that, I did manage two trips, one in 2013 and one in 2016, to that side.

But so, I had to focus on the rebel side, and that meant being smuggled in across that same Turkish border that we were just talking about, and being as low-key as I could be, traveling very carefully, really understanding the terrain that I was entering—the political, the religious, the social, the military terrain—to understand who was who, just in order to keep safe.

So, but, you know, I mean, that’s nothing compared to the Syrians who have been living there for six, seven—we’re in the eighth year now—and the relentless airstrikes and all of the other difficulties that they have faced in what is one of the bloodiest conflicts to date. I mean, at least conservatively, we’re talking about half a million dead. Half of the country of 23 million people has been displaced either internally or externally. These numbers are massive, and every number is a person who was part of a family, who was part of a community. And that is the tragedy of Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Rania Abouzeid, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning journalist, author, author of the new book No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria.

And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! has a job opening for a full-time broadcast engineer here in New York City. Find out more at democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Syrian Journalist: U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey Helped Destroy Syria, Now They Must Help Fix It

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