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Behind the Lines: Shane Bauer Travels to Syria to Uncover America’s Role in the Syrian War

Web ExclusiveAugust 08, 2019
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The war in Syria, now in its eighth year, has displaced some 12 million people — more than half of the country’s pre-war population. It’s estimated that more than 500,000 people have been killed since fighting began in 2011, although an exact number is impossible to ascertain. But while the death and the destruction of the war are well understood, the American role in the conflict is not. In May of 2018, award-winning reporter Shane Bauer set out to Syria to find answers. The result is his groundbreaking, 30,000-word investigation published in the June issue of Mother Jones, where Bauer is a senior reporter. He recently visited our New York studio to discuss his work.

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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 Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “There are four main types of Americans fighting on the ground in Syria: special forces soldiers, CIA agents, Islamic extremists, and anarchists.” That’s the opening line to a new investigation published by Mother Jones about America’s role in the war in Syria, that’s killed at least half a million people and displaced 12 million Syrians.

SHANE BAUER: My name is Shane Bauer. I’m a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Last year I traveled to Syria to understand America’s role in one of the 21st century’s bloodiest conflicts. America did not start the war, but it has become such a fog that few Americans know how deeply we are involved.

UNIDENTIFIED: It’s a remarkable shift in foreign policy.

PAULA FARIS: And how does the U.S. avoid getting pulled into a bloody, seven-war civil war?

SHANE BAUER: A battlefield with shifting allegiances and horrific civilian casualties. The only thing that seemed worse than getting sucked into the conflict was not getting involved at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer’s new two-part, 30,000-word investigation on Syria is headlined “Behind the Lines.” Shane’s been reporting on the Middle East for over a decade. He’s one of three Americans detained in 2009 while hiking in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the Iranian border. He and Josh Fattal were held for 26 months, and Sarah Shourd was held for 13 months, much of it in solitary confinement. Shane Bauer has gone on to become a prize-winning reporter. In 2017, he won a National Magazine Award for his piece “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” He later turned the piece into the book American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.

Shane, thanks so much for joining us again. This is an astounding exposé, well over a hundred pages. Talk about why you went to Syria.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I personally used to live in Syria. I studied Arabic there years ago. I lived there and was working as a reporter in the Middle East. And, you know, I had been following what had happened in Syria after the Arab Spring and as the kind of civil war unfolded, and, like many people, just really got kind of overwhelmed both by the complexity and just how — what a tragedy it was, and found myself kind of ebbing in and out of paying attention to the conflict. And I started to wonder — you know, I knew that the United States is involved. We’ve had many moments of involvement that have gotten — grabbed headlines and others that have gotten less attention. And I really wanted to kind of untangle our role in that war, which, you know, is one of this century’s greatest tragedies. And I wanted to understand not just the role of, you know, Obama and diplomats, but of the special forces, of the CIA and of private citizens who joined and fought on different sides of the conflict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back, I mean, to the position of the U.S. in this war and how it impacted directly on your reporting. Explain why you were initially denied a visa to Syria and how you managed to get in.

SHANE BAUER: I applied for a visa to Damascus and was denied, shortly after a chemical attack, a chlorine attack, on the suburb of Ghouta. After that attack, the Trump administration launched missiles on some research centers outside of Damascus, and my visa was later denied. So, the way that I went in was through Iraq. I entered northeast Syria, an area controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are the kind of allies on the ground of the U.S.-backed coalition. They control about 25% of the country, most of the Kurdish areas and also Arab cities like Raqqa and mixed cities like Manbij. So I crossed in with permission of the SDF.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you stay?

SHANE BAUER: I spent three weeks in the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to 2011. I mean, many have raised questions about why the Syrians didn’t immediately join in as people across the Arab world and North Africa were protesting against authoritarian regimes. You point out, of course, that the memory of the attempt at an uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, and that regime’s response to the protesters was a massive inhibitor. So explain what happened in 1982.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, I mean, I think this gave Syrians pause. There was — in 1982, there was an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, and it was brutally crushed. And in some in some ways, you know, looking back, there’s no comparison to what’s happened in recent years, but it was almost a precursor. You know, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, leveled parts of the city, and, you know, much like Bashar has done in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about oil and gas and what this has to do with this conflict.

SHANE BAUER: Syria, you know, compared to neighboring countries like Iraq, their oil reserves are relatively small, but control of of the oil in the country has been an important factor in — for groups to gain power and have resources and money to fight the war. A lot of the oil in Syria is in the northeast, and it, early in the conflict, came under the control of Nusra, which is a branch of al-Qaeda, later was controlled by ISIS. At one point, ISIS, between Iraq and Syria, controlled about 25 oil wells. A one point, they were making around $50 million a month in oil. So this, you know, was a huge reason they were able to expand like they were.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And who were they selling to?

SHANE BAUER: They were selling to — they were selling locally within their territory. They were smuggling oil out to Turkey, Iraq and to Syrian regime-held areas.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And as you say, actually, that made ISIS the best-financed terrorist organization ever. But now you say the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces — they’re U.S. allies — they control most of the oil and gas reserves in Syria.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, that’s right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain how that came about.

SHANE BAUER: There was a moment in 2017 when the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF were fighting ISIS in Raqqa. The Syrian government and Russians were fighting ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. And the United States and Russia had, before this, essentially made an agreement to kind of divvy up territory in Syria. The United States-led coalition would control everything east of the Euphrates, and Russia would have the remaining territory. And the oil is mostly on the east side of the Euphrates River. And the Russians and Syrians, at one point, started to cross the river in attempt to take the oil. And the U.S.’s allies, backed by American jets, literally raced through the desert. There was a period where the forces that were involved in this explained it to me as a race between the SDF and the regime and their superpower backers. So, the SDF and the United States essentially swooped in and got these oil wells.

But it didn’t end there. There were conflicts later. Some might remember headlines about Russian mercenaries that had been killed by American jets in Syria in February 2018. When this happened, Secretary of Defense Mattis said — you know, he couldn’t understand why this happened. They were the — some militias and these Russian mercenaries were attacking a training area for the U.S.'s local allies. What he didn't mention was that the area they were attacked was Syria’s largest gas plant, which was under the control of the United States. It was a gas plant that was started by Conoco, the American company. And the United States retaliated and then subsequently turned Conoco into a base, into a coalition base.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to the uprising that took place and the hesitancy of Syrians to join in the Arab Spring, that was breaking out in so many places, but then what you felt were the causes of the uprising in Syria?

SHANE BAUER: You know, I think, in some ways, Syria was like, you know, the other countries in the region. This was a time when people were rising up against dictators. They were rising up against authoritarianism. And, you know, Syrians had been living under the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, since 1970. The Syrian government was notoriously heavy-handed, large amounts of political prisoners. All dissent was quelled. You know, children in school grew up giving chants to the president. And, you know, there were no elections, other than kind of referendums on whether or not the current president should stay in power. So, they were, you know, protesting against this and initially calling for government reforms, an end to emergency — a state of emergency that had been in place for many years. And once the security forces started to fire on protesters with live ammunition, the demands quickly changed to demanding the fall of the regime, like had — what had happened in other countries, like Egypt or Yemen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But the thing is, unlike other uprisings in the Arab world and North Africa, as you — and you return to this point again and again in the piece — no other uprising, no other revolt against a government had as many outside forces intervening — I mean, from Russia to the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, ISIS. So, let’s begin with ISIS. First of all, how did ISIS form? ISIS formed in Syria, from al-Qaeda Iraq, when they came in. And the fact that it grew, as you point out, also has to do with the fact that as Assad was arresting nonviolent protesters —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — he was simultaneously releasing Islamists from Syrian jails.

SHANE BAUER: Right. So, there was a period of, you know, a year — less than a year, that there were these protesters. There was the government cracking down on them. And these activists were getting arrested. They were getting tortured. They were disappearing. They were getting killed. And while this was happening, Islamists were getting released from prisons. These are people that had been in Assad’s prisons for a long time.

At the same time, you had, in neighboring Iraq, a long — you know, an insurgency that existed since the American intervention, an insurgency that turned into what was called al-Qaeda in Iraq, that had, you know, become very powerful and then was beaten back by U.S. forces and their tribal allies. So there was still a kind of core of that insurgency that existed in Iraq, and they essentially dispatched people to Syria to start something there. And that became what was called Nusra. It was a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Nusra joined up with a lot of these people that had been released from Assad’s prisons. And in 2013, ISIS — essentially, Nusra split in two, and ISIS became a kind of even more extreme version of al-Qaeda. And eventually the two groups were at war with each other. ISIS was, of course, at war with everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did Russia and the U.S. fit into this picture?

SHANE BAUER: The United States — you know, Obama was making statements early on in the conflict, 2011. He was calling for Assad to step down, but it wasn’t really backed by anything. Officials in the White House told me that they essentially believed that he was going to step down, like Mubarak had, and Obama kind of wanted to get a, you know, head of — be on the right side of history. But that, of course, didn’t happen. And eventually the United States, you know, got — one of their their first major moments was when the Assad regime used sarin gas in Ghouta in 2013, in the summer. Obama, before, before this this gas attack, had said that he had a red line, where if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, he would, you know, strike. So the chemical weapons were used, and there was a long kind of back-and-forth, and Obama decided not to strike. But shortly after that, just months after that, a new CIA program was started. It was called Operation Timber Sycamore. It was a billion-dollar program. It was —

AMY GOODMAN: Why Timber Sycamore?

SHANE BAUER: I don’t know, actually. I don’t know how they named it. But it was one of the largest CIA covert operations since the United States backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan. And this program was meant to arm the anti-Assad rebels. But there was a kind of strange strategy around it. Officials that were in the administration at the time described the strategy as not being to help the rebels to win, but they were attempting to create a stalemate, where there would be enough pressure on Assad to bring him to the negotiating table, and then he would essentially negotiate himself out of power. This, of course, didn’t work. I think many now see it as a foolish strategy. The idea that Assad would negotiate himself out of power, in retrospect, seems absurd. But that’s what the strategy was.

And the U.S. was also, you know, kind of — they were worried about — the strange thing about when they decided to start arming these rebels was that they were also worried about the kind of — the Islamization of the opposition at this point. You know, by 2014, ISIS was in the picture. Nusra was a major player in the opposition. And they were afraid of them essentially taking power. Of course, you know, the weapons that the CIA was sending in, including anti-tank missiles, were ending up in the hands of Nusra, to some extent, because the groups that it was backing were sharing territory with Nusra, even though they weren’t necessarily — they weren’t on the same page. The groups that the CIA were backing were generally more secular and didn’t have the same vision as al-Qaeda, but they were fighting the same enemy, and they would sometimes sell weapons to each other, and sometimes the CIA-backed troops would give weapons to Nusra.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean U.S. weapons.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, sorry. And in 2015, Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime. And Russia said it was intervening to fight terrorism, to fight ISIS, but its initial strikes were actually against these CIA-backed opposition forces. So, you know, there was kind of — this was, in some ways, the beginning of a kind of proxy war between the U.S. and Russia over who is going to control Syria. You know, Russia — Syria had been kind of a Russian client state for decades. It had been, you know, really outside of U.S. influence. The United States seemed to have seen an opportunity to bring it into its sphere. But once Russia intervened, that option really went off the table.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you also mentioned, Shane, as far as what the focus of U.S. policy was — I mean, a couple of the people that you spoke to, and perhaps there were more than the people that you quote, that there was a lot of disappointment when in fact the shift occurred from focusing on Assad, whether regime change was intended or not or planned or not, to the exclusive focus being on fighting ISIS as the U.S. objective.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, there were many also who were skeptical of U.S. intentions in Syria because of the history of attempted interventions by the U.S. —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — and actually the 1945 coup.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you say a little bit about that, what you heard from Syrians about the U.S. position?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Well, you know, everybody — the Americans and Syrians — are confused, and have been confused, about what the U.S. position is. And I think that’s because there has not been one single position. There have been at least two camps within the American government, two different goals for what to do in Syria, and these camps have been at odds at times. You know, I described the CIA project, which kind of represented one camp that was kind of represented by the CIA and the State Department under the Obama administration, that wanted to get rid of Assad. There was another camp that was essentially coming from — it was still fighting the Iraq War in many ways. And that camp was strictly focused on ISIS. ISIS, you know, was an outgrowth of the U.S. war in Iraq. And so, there was this group that was kind of represented by the Pentagon, that was essentially still fighting the war in Iraq, that spilled into Syria. That group did not want to see Assad go, because they worried that it would just give more of an opportunity for ISIS. So, you know, there were a couple of years where these two missions overlapped. There was the CIA still trying get rid of Assad and then the Pentagon fighting ISIS. And, you know, the Pentagon camp ultimately won because of Russian intervention, and that kind of took off the table the notion of overthrowing Assad.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the area of northeast Syria called Rojava, where the Kurds are fighting. And first talk about the U.S. relationship with these Kurdish soldiers, and then talk about this whole area.

SHANE BAUER: Sure. Rojava is run by a party called the PYD, and its kind of military branch is the YPG. And the YPG are now the United States’s main allies in Syria. They’re specifically in the mission to fight ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: The People’s Protection Units.

SHANE BAUER: Right, right. The People’s Protection Units are very closely tied to the PKK in Turkey, which, you know, complicates the U.S. role in another way in Syria because the United States considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization. Turkey — you know, it’s Turkey’s mortal enemy. Turkey also considers the YPG to be its enemy, and it sees the YPG and the PKK as one and the same.

What is happening in Rojava is very interesting and very — really unique in Syria. Rojava, I think, is — I think, without a doubt, the most kind of calm and stable part of Syria, for the time being. It has — it’s essentially autonomously administered. It has implemented a system of trying to create a system of direct democracy. So, cities are broken down into communes or neighborhood communes. Communes elect co-chairs, a man and a woman. They have various committees for economics and solving neighborhood disputes, and really try to kind of localize governance. And then, Rojava, in general, is broken into several cantons that are largely self-administered. So, you know, in a region, in a country that has been ruled by strongmen, there has been this kind of experiment where — in trying to create a more horizontal type of governance, where there isn’t a strongman in power, although there is a figure of Abdullah Öcalan, who’s the founder of the PKK, who is a major figure in Rojava. He had kind of founded the ideology that, you know, the whole area is sort of governed by.

AMY GOODMAN: And this follows up on a theme that you follow throughout your pieces, and that is looking at Americans who have gone there.


AMY GOODMAN: It is seen, you say, as a kind of anarchist utopia. Talk about the Americans you met in Rojava.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. I met one American there who was a volunteer with the YPG. So he was fighting with the YPG against ISIS. Since roughly —

AMY GOODMAN: Where did he come from?

SHANE BAUER: I don’t know what state he came from. He didn’t tell me. I just know he was from the United States. But there have been Americans traveling there since roughly 2015 to join the YPG. Initially, these Americans were a real kind of mix. There were, you know, Christian fundamentalists that wanted to go and fight Arabs. There were former marines who wanted to get back into battle. And then there was a kind of cohort of leftists, largely anarchists, and those are the ones that are still going. There are less of these other types. The YPG have kind of — what I’ve been told, they’ve kind of cracked down on the kind of more right-wing elements. So, these people will go, and they’ll go through training with the YPG, and then they will join a battalion and fight against ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they respond to you being there?

SHANE BAUER: I met with some of the international fighters, you know, sat down with them and did an interview. They were a bit cautious with me, I would say, but were open to talking to me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you mentioned — I mean, of course, very few people know. I mean, I was stunned when I read that, that they’re American, and you also spoke to a Frenchman and an Irishman, that there are anarchists who are involved in this, but also you talk about a group, a Russian group called the Wagner Group —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — or Wagner Group, that you describe as a, quote, “shadowy Russian Blackwaterlike private army.”


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you talk about what they’re up to in Syria? And are those the same mercenaries that the U.S. allegedly killed?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, that is exactly who the U.S. jets killed. You know, there’s still a lot of mystery around what they’re doing in Syria. That battle over the Conoco gas field was the first time that I know of that they showed up in — at least in English-language news. There had been reports that they had contracts with the Syrian government, saying that they would have a cut in profits if they reclaimed oil wells from ISIS. You know, but they were mercenaries, and they’ve — Syria is not the only place that they’ve worked in. But, you know, part of this is, Russian law doesn’t actually allow for mercenaries. So there’s a lot of controversy, from what I’ve heard, back in Russia about —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Does American law allow for mercenaries?

SHANE BAUER: I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Accompanying the piece, you have videos, and I want to turn to one of the ones that Mother Jones published in the “Behind the Lines” investigation. This video is entitled “Burying Syria’s Dead.” It features you following a forensics team as they uncover the bodies of those who were killed during the U.S.-led military assault on Raqqa in 2017.

SHANE BAUER: I’m standing in a small park in Raqqa with a crew of first responders. Their job is to recover bodies throughout the city. These are ambulance drivers, essentially. For a while, their job was to try to rescue people after a bombing. Afterwards, after ISIS left, they continued to work as first responders, although the term “first responder” is maybe not so accurate now, because they’re still essentially responding to the same attacks that had happened months ago.

FIRST RESPONDER 1: [translated] This is a child, and his body is completely burned.

SHANE BAUER: You know, they’ve been doing this for months. This is their job.

[translated] Did you find anything?

FIRST RESPONDER 2: [translated] Yes. There’s a smell, a strong smell.

SHANE BAUER: This is, I think, 16 guys. And they really can’t get a lot of the bodies out of the building.

[translated] Why don’t you remove the body?

FIRST RESPONDER 2: [translated] We need heavy equipment.

SHANE BAUER: So they have a huge backlog of work. When I’m there, they’re still finding mass graves.

NARRATION: By May 2018, the team had found 750 bodies. Half were civilians. They estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 remained.

SHANE BAUER: In Syria, the American war really ramped up pretty dramatically once Trump became president.

DAVID MUIR: Overnight, airstrikes lighting up the Syrian sky.

REPORTER: Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles have hit a Syrian air base.

SHANE BAUER: Trump really loosened the rules of engagement. The military approach in Syria switched to what he called annihilation tactics. In 2017, there was, in the summer, started to be preparations for a much larger battle.

NORAH O’DONNELL: We know more this morning about a wave of coalition airstrikes against ISIS.

ROBIN ROBERTS: The battle to take back a key city in Syria under its control, Raqqa.

IAN PANNELL: Don’t underestimate how important this is. We’re talking the capital of ISIS.

SHANE BAUER: The battle of Raqqa was four months long, roughly 4,000 airstrikes, and 95% of those were from American jets. I think if something like Raqqa had happened in the Vietnam War, for example, it might have been one of the most sensational parts of that war. It was, you know, just a total onslaught. And, you know, the coalition claims that they were very precise in their campaign on Raqqa, but civilians that I spoke to described a campaign that was blanketing the city with bombs.

You know, it was strange to be in a situation where people are digging up a body in a park, and it’s completely normal. There’s kids walking around, young guys playing soccer. You know, people move on and try to kind of bring back some kind of semblance of normalcy.

They go to a particular location on the outskirts of the city where there is a very large mass grave. Then they go through a kind of brief prayer. It was touching that these guys who are just day in and day out digging up bodies, you know, still feel compelled to kind of give them that final send-off and head home for the day and start it all again the next day.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the investigation Shane Bauer did. It’s called “Burying the Dead.” Talk about who these dead bodies are and what exactly happened there in Raqqa that led to these deaths.

SHANE BAUER: So, starting in the summer of 2017, the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground launched a major assault on Raqqa. Raqqa was the capital of the ISIS caliphate. And it was a massive battle. I visited Raqqa. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve been to Fallujah, and there’s no comparison. I mean, the city is just utterly destroyed. The downtown was clearly blanketed with bombs. The coalition jets, 95% of which were were American, launched around 4,000 munitions from airplanes. A Marines battalion said that it literally melted the barrels of its howitzers from launching, from the volume that it was shooting. And ISIS was, you know, using every tactic they could, suicide bombers. They were mining everything and were using human shields, filling buildings with civilians. And so, this war had a really serious toll.

And when I was there in May — this was roughly six months after the battle had ended — they were still recovering bodies. There was a team of around 16 men that were going through and trying to get bodies out of the rubble still. They had very little resources. They mostly relied on shovels and picks. And one of the doctors told me that the bodies that — there are two kind of types or places that they would find these. They were in the buildings, and then there were mass graves. There were mass graves all throughout the city, that were hastily dug, either right before the attack or during. And the mass graves tended to have ISIS fighters in them. So, imagine they’re fighting, and they just — you know, somebody is killed, and they throw them in the mass grave.

The buildings, however, the doctor told me, were mostly civilians, you know, which suggests that there were many buildings that were bombed that didn’t have fighters in them. And this is something that people repeated to me in the streets of Raqqa all the time, you know, that “We didn’t have — there was no ISIS in the street when we were bombed,” and, you know, all these buildings got killed. And some of them, their neighbors were still trapped. Their bodies were still trapped in the buildings. You know, it smelled. I mean, if you — depending on where you were in the city, it was just really horrific.

And they also — these these first responders, I should say, many of them were first responders during ISIS’s reign, so they were also racing to buildings after they were bombed. And one of them told me that one of the first things that the jets targeted were the ambulances themselves. And he showed me a pile of bombed-out ambulances. And they would, you know, try to hide there their ambulances under trees, park them under trees or something, to disguise them from the jets so they didn’t get destroyed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go back to, you know, what conditions were like under ISIS in Raqqa. One of the people that you spoke to while you were there, as part of this investigation, “Behind the Lines,” in Syria, was Zayn, someone you called Zayn.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: His identity wasn’t revealed.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And his face was blurred. He was imprisoned by ISIS in Raqqa. And in this clip, he takes you around the sports stadium that was converted into a prison under ISIS rule.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: He details the torture he experienced while he was detained there. And he was not identified, for fear of his own security. So, this is Zayn.

ZAYN: [translated] The main prison, where we were held, has 15 solitary cells at the end of the hallway.

SHANE BAUER: So, it was the first time he had been back since he himself was in prison there.

ZAYN: [translated] And here were the group cells. We were in the solitary cells. Every once in a while, they would take me out to interrogate and torture me. They had us blindfolded. We didn’t know who beat us or who interrogated us. But most of the time, we were interrogated by children. They sounded like children, not adults. These are the handcuffs they used. It used to cut our arms. They showed us no mercy.

SHANE BAUER: He had scars on his wrist, and they would cuff him behind his back and then hang him. And then they would interrogate him.

ZAYN: [translated] This way, even if you haven’t done anything, you will still confess.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zayn also recalled coming to that stadium before ISIS turned it into a prison.

SHANE BAUER: [translated] Do you remember coming here when it was just a stadium?

After having shown me the prison, he talked about how he used to come there as a kid.

ZAYN: [translated] And the stadium was the best of its kind. Right here were training rooms.

SHANE BAUER: They would hold weddings in the area that was now a prison.

ZAYN: [translated] All of these were celebration halls used for weddings and events. They all took place here. Every once in a while, this stadium would be filled with people. Two teams would come play. Those were the best days. But since ISIS came, it’s become the worst days for those who enter the stadium.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Zayn, whom you spoke to. Can you explain why, first of all, he didn’t want his identity revealed, now that ISIS is gone from Raqqa? And how did people like Zayn respond to this massive bombardment that the U.S. led and that led to, as many say, the definitive defeat of ISIS, at least in Raqqa?

SHANE BAUER: So, Zayn told me that he didn’t want his identity revealed because, essentially, he didn’t know what the future held. I mean, ISIS is the latest version — was the latest version or incarnation of a group that has existed for, you know, some 15 years. There have been various versions of this kind of very brutal Islamic extremist group that cropped up, you know, in the early years of the Iraq War. And, you know, he thought this may not be the end of this organization, and he didn’t want to be seen saying anything that could be interpreted as critical of them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: People like Zayn, who — you know, he details in this video the kind of torture that he —

SHANE BAUER: Yeah, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: — was subjected to. What was the response of people like him to the U.S. bombardment?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. You know, I spent a week in Raqqa. And people responded in different ways, but I would say the most common response was “We are happy to be rid of ISIS.” You know, that was kind of the main thing, that they were glad that that was over. “But why did the U.S. have to destroy our city to this degree?” You know?

And, you know, in talking to American officials about it, some — Brett McGurk, for example, who is the the special envoy, presidential envoy to the coalition to fight ISIS, he he told me that, you know, it went — everything went according to plan. You know, American soldiers didn’t die in that war. And I think, you know, that may be part of the reason why it wasn’t major news here when that battle was happening. You know, we didn’t have soldiers coming back in coffins. But, you know, the flip side of that is, unlike Fallujah, where we did have soldiers dying there, this on-the-ground fighting, we didn’t in Raqqa. So, the bombing was much heavier. So the civilian casualties were higher. Also, the casualties of our Syrian allies were high. There have been roughly 10,000 fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces that have died in this war. So, you know, the casualties still exist. They’re just not Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: In following Americans who went to Syria, tell us the story of Samantha Elhassani.

SHANE BAUER: I met Samantha in a refugee camp in Syria. This was a camp that was specifically for the wives of ISIS fighters and their children, mostly foreigners. I was allowed access to the camp because officials in Rojava were complaining to me that they have all of these ISIS families, foreigners, and they’re trying to get their countries to take them back, but they won’t. So they’re essentially stuck with all these people, and they don’t know what to do with them. So they let me in the camp, and there I met Samantha.

Samantha’s story is bizarre. She is, herself, a non-Muslim. She married a man named Moussa in the United States. He had been — he was from Morocco, had been in the U.S. for about 10 years. I believe he was studying programming and had a business, a shipping company, in Indiana. And, you know, they met. From accounts of people that knew them at the time, both Samantha and Moussa were kind of — you know, had kind of wild lives, involved — allegedly involving drugs and, you know, fast cars. And, you know, there was no — religion was no part of it. And then, at some point, they kind of suddenly disappeared. They went to Turkey. By Samantha’s account, what she told me is that they were moving — planning to move to Morocco and stopped in Turkey. And essentially —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Which is not exactly on the way.

SHANE BAUER: Right, right. Well, they had also gone to Hong Kong before that, because Samantha had been putting money in safe deposit boxes there. So, they go to Turkey. They’re in southern Turkey. And according to Samantha, they get in a van and then are suddenly on the border. And her husband grabs one of their children and goes across the border, and she’s in this kind of Sophie’s Choice moment, where she needs to decide whether to follow him or not, and she does. You know, I don’t know if this is true. It seems like a fishy story to me.

But, you know, what followed seems almost certainly to have been beyond what she expected she was getting into. She lived in Raqqa for, I think, three years, had two more children. Her husband joined ISIS, would go off fighting for stretches at a time. Her son, which she had from a previous marriage, was used in an ISIS propaganda video, threatening Trump. And her husband — or, they eventually bought three Yazidi slaves. These Yazidis are of a kind of minority sect, largely in Iraq, that ISIS had attempted genocide on, and they legitimized the enslavement of women and children. So, he bought these girls, you know, essentially as sex slaves, and Samantha raised them, and, in her view, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: They were children.

SHANE BAUER: They were 14- and 16-year-old girls and a younger boy. And, you know, Samantha’s view, of what she’s told me, is that she thought she was kind of protecting them, that they, you know, would have been worse off somewhere else, and she eventually would escape with them, and they would go back home. Samantha lived through the war, the U.S.-led assault on Raqqa. She was smuggled out of Raqqa. There was a truce between the U.S.-led coalition and ISIS, and they allowed ISIS to leave and go to deeper into its territory, and she was brought with them. And eventually she hired a smuggler and was able to escape. And she’s now in jail in Indiana pending trial.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will she be tried for?

SHANE BAUER: For support of terrorism, material support.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is her argument?

SHANE BAUER: You know, it remains to be seen. There’s not a lot of documentation out yet, but it seems that her defense is going to claim that she was a victim of her husband. She had — by the accounts of others, had been abused by him before they went to Syria. He seemed to — he seemed to have been very abusive. And so, the circumstances of how exactly she got there are still not clear at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Shane, you also speak to a number of Syrians — you profile a number of Syrians in your article, and all of them have extremely interesting things to say to you, and with whom you develop relationships where they tell you all kinds of things. Now, one of the person — one of the people you spoke to is Mohammed Abdullah, who goes by the name Artino. So, can you talk about who he was, how he came to become a photographer? And we were speaking earlier about the chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: His descriptions, what he told you, because he went to a hospital in eastern Ghouta right after the attack?

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. Artino was one of the people that joined in the initial uprising very early on. He became a kind of media activist. You know, he would film the uprising. If the security forces fired on protesters, he would film it and post it online. And he eventually, you know, was sought after by the regime. He was arrested a couple of times. And instead of fleeing the country, he left Damascus to this suburb of eastern Ghouta, where his family had a summer home. There, he could kind of lay low. The area was under control of the opposition at that time and became under control of the armed opposition as the armed opposition grew. So, it was, for a while, a kind of liberated zone in some ways. He described it as, you know, feeling free there in a way he had never felt before in Syria. The war intensified between rebels there and the regime, and the regime essentially cordoned off Ghouta. They were not letting food in and out. And the conditions got more and more dire.

And eventually, late one night, there was a sarin attack. Roughly 1,400 people were killed. And Artino at that point was working as a photographer. He had met a photojournalist, who trained him and got him a job at Reuters. So he was essentially covering Ghouta for Reuters. And the morning after the chemical attack, he went to the hospitals and mosques and schools where people were being brought who were victims of the attack. And, you know, the situation he described, combined with videos that I’ve seen online, are just absolutely horrific. You know, he is going into rooms that are just full of dead children on the floor. He’s seeing people that are — seem to be kind of hallucinating or delusional; they’re repeating the same thing over and over. Doctors and nurses are getting infected. And he, himself, when he was trying to take a photo of a child, he lost consciousness. The sarin was just — you know, it was impacting everyone that were around even just the bodies of the people who had been in the zone of the attack. He was given atropine, which is an antidote, so he survived.

You know, and he described that period of time when, after the attack, people expected that there would be a U.S. response, because Obama had made his famous red line statement. And he described the day that Obama made a speech shortly after the chemical attack. It was very anticipated. Ghouta didn’t have electricity, but people had generators, and people bought fuel to be able to watch this speech and gather around televisions. And Obama had, you know, been having domestic kind of battles with Republicans, and Republicans were against him striking in Syria. And he announced that he was going to seek congressional approval. And in Ghouta, the way that Artino described it, you know, people were very disappointed. They just couldn’t believe that they went through this horror and there was going to be no kind of response.

And, you know, Ghouta left the headlines, but Artino lived there for a long time after, and the siege tightened. He lost many, many pounds. He was repeatedly injured. People were starving to death. It just became very grim. And then, at the same time, the rebels, you know, were overtaken by Islamist groups. So he was not only having to deal with the siege, but Islamist groups, who were also kidnapping activists and disappearing some of the most famous activists in the Syrian opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about these gas attacks, and you write extensively about them, but how you know where these attacks have come from. The State Department has said that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons during recent fighting in Idlib, the State Department warning the United States and its allies would respond quickly and appropriately if it’s determined that chemical weapons have been used. This all coming as questions have been raised about, well, an alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma last year. The Syrian government was accused of dropping two gas cylinders on the city, killing dozens of people. The U.S. and allies responded by carrying out airstrikes. But a newly leaked internal document from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, reveals there were conflicting views within the OPCW as to what happened, the leaked document suggesting the cylinders were manually placed on the ground or were not dropped from the air. This led some observers to conclude the chemical attack might have been staged by Syrian rebels. The leaked document appears to contradict the official OPCW findings on what happened in Douma. In its official report, the organization said it had found, quote, “reasonable grounds” that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon had taken place on April 7, 2018. So, talk about how you track who was responsible for these gas attacks, of which — and you clearly document this in your extensive piece — there have been hundreds.

SHANE BAUER: Yeah. So, the original sarin attack, for example, this one I was describing in Ghouta in 2013, there was a U.N. team that investigated afterwards. And the U.N. team was not actually — their mission was not to determine who was responsible. It was to determine what the attack was, what the substance was. They determined that it was sarin. I spoke to the head of the team. And in their report, while they’re not determining — saying who launched the attack, they clearly lay out where the sarin was launched from. They show that it was — the head of the inspection team told me it was high-grade sarin. This is not the kind of sarin that you can make at home. And it was launched from the direction of a military site on the Qasioun mountain in — on the outside of Damascus.

You know, when you add up all of these factors and try to imagine a scenario in which some other group is launching it, you have, somehow, you know, a rogue group that’s making military-grade sarin, that’s sneaking into an area controlled by the government, launching a weapon on its own side and escaping without being caught. And, you know, this kind of scenario repeats over and over when you look at these chemical attacks, where the scenario in which they’re not launched by the Syrian government is — it’s almost, you know, outside of reason. Then, later, after this attack, other attacks have been documented much more extensively. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was studied by the U.N., and they did assign responsibility. And, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: They said it was?

SHANE BAUER: That it was the Syrian government. And it’s important to also note that while there have been maybe two or three attacks that have gotten a lot of attention, they’ve been really picked apart, and, you know, Russia has been a major actor in casting doubt on this — Russia is an ally of the Syrian government — there have been hundreds of chemical attacks in Syria. Most these are chlorine attacks, not sarin attacks, that have been extensively studied. And there was a recent study that came out that showed that the vast majority of these — I mean, we’re talking over 95% of these — have been launched by the Syrian government. There have been some launched by ISIS, specifically mustard and possibly one sarin attack.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, one of the things that you point out in the piece is that, I mean, there’s no other war in recent memory that has been subject to so many disinformation campaigns —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — and so many conspiracy theories, and coming at this point from all quarters. I mean, as you said, the Russians and the Assad government itself —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — though the Assad government doesn’t have the reach that Russian media do, refuting a number of these international organizations that have reported on these attacks, and then simultaneously groups in the West, certain groups, claiming that a lot of these attacks are in fact false flag operations and that these are all a pretext to get the U.S. —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — to militarily intervene, including Republican — you cite —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — former Congressmember Ron Paul, who also claimed that the Ghouta attack was a false flag operation. Now, obviously, there’s some justification, given the claims that the U.S. made about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and, arguably, the decision that the U.S. made to go into the — to invade Iraq is, in fact, what’s given rise to ISIS and spawned these wars, at least one of the main reasons. But could you comment on what you think — I mean, the complexity of the war is there. So many different actors are involved. What do you think accounts for the fact that there are so many conflicting reports from so many conflicting different quarters about what’s actually happening in Syria and who’s responsible for what?

SHANE BAUER: I mean, at this point in the war, and in the last at least several years, people — the war has become so entrenched, and people on the outside are so invested on different sides of the war, that, you know, people are fighting the ground war, and people outside are fighting an information war. And for so many people, what is happening in Syria is not necessarily about facts. It’s about winning. And I think, for a lot of people, it’s also not about Syrians, you know? Syria is a full proxy war. And I think — I don’t know if we’ve had a conflict like this where it’s not only a literal proxy war, but it just ripple — the ripples go so far. I mean, you can find major divisions just within the American left about the Syrian war, you know. And this is all over the world. You know, there is just — it reaches, I think, farther than we can even realize. And, you know, in some ways, I think these points that people — that people kind of focus in on, like particular chemical attacks, you know, they’re also just places that we can kind of fight these battles with each other, but in some ways, you know, they are maybe not as relevant as we make them. I mean, the last study of civilian casualties in Syria was 2016, and that put them at half a million, you know.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the vast majority of whom have been killed by conventional weapons.

SHANE BAUER: Yes. And studies have have shown that around 85% of civilian deaths have come from the Assad regime. You know, this doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS or Nusra or the Free Syrian Army are, you know, absolved of any of their crimes or any of their atrocities. These are just the facts of the situation, you know. And whether you — you know, whatever you think about American intervention or Russian intervention or anybody’s intervention, this is still the fact on the ground. This is still what is happening in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do you see this going, as we begin to wrap up, your piece called “Behind the Lines: I went to Syria to understand America’s role in one of the 21st century’s greatest tragedies”? Do you think you understand any more?

SHANE BAUER: I’m still confused, in some ways, about this conflict. It’s incredibly complex. I think now, you know, Assad has clearly won the war. There’s no doubt about that. And I think the final or the current phase of the war is about territory, who’s ultimately going to control what. Is Assad going to get back all of Syria? He’s currently fighting in Idlib to try to take that from opposition forces.

And then there’s still the question of northeast Syria, the area that is under U.S. control. This is 25% of the country. And, you know, Trump recently announced that he was going to withdraw troops, and there was a lot of panic around it, understandably, because, you know, a sudden American withdrawal could likely mean — will likely mean that Turkey will invade to fight its enemy, the YPG, and this will be a horrific situation for the Kurds in Syria. It could also mean that the Kurds in Syria ally with Assad to keep Turkey out, you know, which is also going to have detrimental effects. We just don’t know where it’s going to go.

And not to mention there are still thousands of ISIS fighters being held there, and there are hundreds that are from other countries that are not being taken back. Syria has, in some ways, been used as a kind of dumping ground for these people. And not only is that not fair, but it’s just not smart. I mean, ISIS has broken out of prisons many times. Imagine a situation when Turkey has a massive military invasion. You think these people are going to stay in these small jails that they’re being held in? Probably not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s end with the person whom you end the piece with, your Kurdish fixer, Ibrahim. So, as you were preparing to leave, explain what happened between you and Ibrahim.

SHANE BAUER: I had worked with Ibrahim, on and off, during my time there, specifically when I was in Kurdish areas. And he had been a journalist covering a lot of the war. He was in Raqqa. He covered the ISIS attack on Sinjar. He saw people fleeing Sinjar with literal dead children in their hands. He had seen horrific things. He had been threatened — his village had been threatened by ISIS. And during the time that I knew him, I rarely saw him eat. He was having really serious physical problems, and he told me that there was a time before I came — a couple months before I came, Trump had announced that he was pulling out troops, and that since that had happened, he was having serious stomach pain. He was just — he didn’t know what he would do if Turkey invaded. And, you know, he was clearly kind of struggling.

And a couple days before I left Syria, you know, we had an appointment, and he kind of told me he was having issues with his car, and he needed more money. And I’m in Syria. You know, there’s no ATMs in Syria. I just have what I have, and I tell him I don’t have it. And he kind of just snaps, you know, and he shouts at me, you know, “If this is what America is, you can keep it!” And he punches me in the face, and I jump in a taxi. And that’s the last time I saw him. It was an unfortunate way to leave the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones. His latest investigative piece is an in-depth look at the role of the U.S. in the war in Syria. He spent three weeks in northeast Syria in May 2018. The multimedia feature, in two parts, is headlined “Behind the Lines,” and we’ll link to it at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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