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“The Genocidal Regime Is Still in Power”: Assad Forces Push into Idlib, Last Rebel Stronghold

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The United Nations says a quarter of a million people have fled the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib. Aid groups are now warning the offensive in Idlib could become the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war in Syria. Nearly 200,000 Syrian civilians have fled toward the Turkish border as Syrian government ground troops advance into Idlib, the last major rebel-held territory, where about 3 million people live. Displaced civilians have sought refuge in several camps along the border, where they struggle with harsh winter conditions, flooding and mud due to heavy rainfall. We get an update from Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner, and Loubna Mrie, a Syrian writer, photographer and activist who worked in Idlib from 2012 to 2014 for Reuters. “The genocidal regime is still in power,” Yassin al-Haj Saleh says. “It is more powerful now than ever because now it is a protectorate of the Russians and the Iranians.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria, where aid workers say Syrian government artillery fire killed at least nine civilians, including five children, on New Year’s Day in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is facing a heavy bombing and ground offensive by the Russian-backed Assad regime. At least 16 more civilians were injured.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the last month, nearly 300,000 civilians have been forced to flee the Syrian government’s offensive against Idlib, which is home to about 3 million civilians, three-quarters of whom are women and children. At least two hospitals and 14 health centers have been forced to close.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Via Democracy Now! video stream in Gaziantep, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, Yassin al-Haj Saleh is with us, a Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner. And in Berkeley, California, Loubna Mrie, a Syrian writer, photographer and activist who has worked in Idlib from 2012 to ’14 for Reuters.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Turkey first, to Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Can you describe what’s taking place right now in Idlib?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, as you have just mentioned, Amy, there has been a Assadi offensive, backed by Russians, in December, since December, where more than one-quarter of a million people displaced. Ma’arat al-Nu’man, which is a town in Idlib with 100,000 people just a month ago, is completely — the population are completely displaced. And the fortunate among them were the ones who were able to find a car or something to flee the bombers’ and the jet fighters’ attacks.

Most of these people are now in camps, not helped by the — with no aid from the U.N. agencies, because, you know, the Russians and the Chinese used the veto at the U.N. Security Council just a few days ago, and the decision — the talks at the Security Council were about humanitarian aid deliveries without control of the Syrian regime. So, it is extremely paradoxical that people are displaced by the Syrian regime, and the Russians want the Syrian regime to control the aid deliveries.

But let me say that it is this round of Russian-Assadi war is only one in a almost nine-years war with a death toll that I think exceeds 600,000 people. And it was the method that the regime preferred to face a popular uprising for change and for democracy and for freedom. We know that 6 millions, and maybe 6 millions and a half, are displaced outside Syria in the neighboring countries, and with almost 1 million in Europe. What’s happening in Idlib is only one month of this more than 105 months of a second Assadi war. When I was young myself, there was a smaller war with a death toll of tens of thousands, and tens of thousands in jail. I was one of them at the time. And now it is a bigger thing.

The most sinister thing about the situation in Syria is that the genocidal regime is still in power. Actually, it is more powerful now than ever, because now it is a protectorate of the Russians and the Iranians, with many substate actors also defending the regime, from Lebanon, you know, Hezbollah, from Iraq, from other countries. So, it is different from other genocides we have seen, we saw already in the 20th century, like in Nazi Germany.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: [inaudible]

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: It was — yeah. It was huge there, but the Nazis were toppled. In Cambodia, it was big, but the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled. In Rwanda, there was an evil genocide, but the regime was toppled. In Syria, the regime is being reinstalled by Russians and rehabilitated. And one can only expect that around that we may see in future the victims will be in millions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Yassin, of course, the justification of the Assad regime and its Russian backers is that Idlib has been controlled by a jihadist group, and this is the last area in which they’re powerful, and so this assault is to oust them. Your response to that?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, why schools and hospitals are being attacked? Is this for liberating the civilians from a terrorist organization? It is a terrorist and nihilist organization indeed, I mean Jabhat al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib. But when you target hospitals, markets and schools, as a New York Times report has shown today, it is to — the aim is to displace the population, not to liberate them, not to help them against terrorists. And it has been. We know that it has been the norm, actually, in all these almost nine years.

Actually, I think we have really terrorist organization, Daesh in the past and Jabhat al-Nusra today, but the regime needs this to justify it is inviting Russians and the Iranians and to stay in power forever, as they openly say. And we know that not a Russian speaker or Assad speaker defended the people or called for a special tribunal for the terrorists in Daesh. And not a single American, by the way, or a U.N. speaker has called for a special tribunal for justice for the victims of terrorism. I am myself from Raqqa. I was from Raqqa, and I lived there for some time. And my brother disappeared more than six years ago, and many of my friends. Not a word. Not a word we were talked by Americans, by U.N. officials about the fate of our loved ones.

So, it is not about it, about the war against terrorism. It is only a pretext for sovereignty for power agencies, like the Assad regime, Russia, Iran. And it is helping everybody to be a fighter against terrorism — the Israeli government, the American administration, the Russians, the Iranians, the Assad genocidal regime. It is only a pretext. They are not helping us against terrorism. And you know that maybe one — maybe 90% of the Syrian victims fell at the hands of the Assad regime and its protectors.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote an article, Yassin, called “Terror, genocide, and a 'genocratic' turn.” Explain what you mean by “genocratic.”

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, it is — I built this from “genos.” You know, it means tribe or race, or it is the word that’s used in “genocide.” I want to say that now it is not about democracy. It is not about the options of the people. It is about culture. Racism now is taking this cultural guise. And it is the rule of cultural majorities, or minorities, like in Syria. And it is the infrastructure for genocide.

They are using this grand narrative about the “war on terror” to justify weakening democracy to empower those who are already powerful, and to weaken popular movements and ordinary people and independent organizations and civil society. And the world now is in this bleak shape because of the powerful is more powerful. This is happening in the U.S. itself, when Trump was elected. It’s happening in India. They are using the same narrative about the “war on terror.” It’s happening against the Muslims in China. And it is everywhere in the world.

So, democracy is now in a crisis because it is not about democratic majorities. It is about cultural or racial majorities, the white supremacists in Europe and the U.S. and Hindus in India. And, by the way, in our country, in the Arab world, I mean, in the Middle East, it is the Islamists are genocratic. They want a war because they are the majority. It is happening in Israel, of course. Israel, as we know, the basic law decides that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, so it is not a state of the citizens. Palestinians are excluded from this.

So, this genocratic turn is taking global — is dominant globally now. And it only promises us with genocides in the future. Genocide is becoming normalized, a political solution to many problems in the world. And I’m sorry to say that in the West, in the U.S., they have prepared the stage for this through developing, after post-Cold War, this discourse about the “war on terror.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Yassin, if you could talk about what happened to your wife, to your brother? We had interviewed, years ago, Razan Zaitouneh, who also disappeared. And your wife and Zaitouneh and her husband disappeared together? Explain who they are.

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, Samira, Samira Khalil — the name of my wife — was a political prisoner for more than four years, between 1987 and 1991. At that time, I was myself in jail as a leftist. Both of us were members of communist — two different communist parties in Syria, but opposing the regime. Samira was an activist. And she was with Razan, who’s a very well-known and highly respected human rights activist in Douma, Wael Hamadeh, Razan’s husband and our friend, and human rights activist Nazem Hammadi, who’s also a poet. They were there, and they were abducted, most probably by Jaysh al-Islam, who is a Salafi military formation in Douma. They are now mercenaries of the Turkish government in the northern part of Syria. We don’t know — unfortunately, we don’t know anything about their fate.

This happened — let me just say something about the context. This happened after the chemical massacre in August 2013 and after the chemical deal. It was a gift to the Middle East Islamist organizations, and it created a paranoia atmosphere everywhere in Syria.

So, they were the independent people, two women, independent women, without supporters, without — and who were politically active against the regime, were extremely visible in that region, which was besieged, completely besieged, by the Assad regime powers. And my brother and other friends were abducted at the hands of Daesh in the same year, by the way, almost in the same period, in the summer of 2013. Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Italian religious figure, and the Syrian, who was at the same time a Syrian revolutionary, was abducted. And my doctor and my friend, Ismail al-Hamed, was abducted.

So, it was part of this extremely inhuman situation that was inflicted on Syrians, and many criminal organizations that appeared in the country. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib is only one of these. But the main thing is the Assad regime that has been holding the country for 50 years now, which is one-half of the whole modern history of Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly, Yassin, link to the article, your most recent piece, headlined “The love of my life disappeared six years ago, but still I cling to hope,” as we turn now to our next guest.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Loubna, you are a Syrian writer and activist. Your response to this latest offensive, the ongoing offensive in Idlib, and what the situation is of these civilians there? Seventy-six percent of the population there is a civilian population. Turkey has largely closed its borders. Where are these people to go?

LOUBNA MRIE: Thank you so much for having me. But before I answer this question, I think it’s very important to explain to your audience why the situation in Idlib today is pretty difficult and unique at the same time. Idlib is the only Syrian province today that is outside the government control and not safeguarded by a foreign power, such as the U.S. or Turkey, which kind of puts — again, as I mentioned before, kind of puts Idlib in a difficult situation. In the past years, most of the rebel-held areas that have fallen back under the Syrian government control, so many people who have been living in these rebel-held areas, especially those who feared the persecution of the Syrian government, have fled to Idlib, adding more than 400,000 to the pre-existing population of 3 million. So, here we are talking about 3,400,000 civilians who are stuck in Idlib today. As you mentioned, Nermeen, the borders have been closed. People are on the borders sleeping under olive trees, some people sleeping in their cars. And there is no place to go. I mean, in eastern Ghouta — you guys were talking with Yassin about eastern Ghouta — when eastern Ghouta happened, people knew that, OK, there might be a solution for these people to flee, which is Idlib. But, sadly, today there is no other Idlib for these civilians to flee to.

The situation is horrible. And I was talking to one of my good friends on New Year’s Eve just to make sure that he’s OK and he’s safe. And he sadly mentioned that he has been sleeping with his wife and his 7-years-old daughter in the car on the Turkish borders. And he told me he cannot think of any solution. He has been active against the Syrian government since 2012. And for him to leave — to live in a city or to live under the Syrian government control is not really possible. And honestly, he just ended the conversation saying that he’s considering committing suicide. That’s unsure. The situation is horrible. And no one knows what’s going to happen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Loubna, very quickly, before we conclude, has the Erdogan government, has Turkey said anything about allowing at least some people from Idlib to come into Turkey to seek refuge?

LOUBNA MRIE: Honestly, if you guys have been following the news recently, like, Turkey made it clear that they don’t want any Syrian refugees anymore in Turkey. We have seen reports of deportations, mass deportations of Syrians being sent back to Syria and to Idlib. And I don’t see — I don’t think Turkey might welcome any Syrian refugees. People have been dying on the borders trying to cross to Turkey to seek refuge.

I don’t know if I can just add one point, if I have time, just to add one point. You guys were mentioning the HTS and how the Syrian government is saying that they are only in Idlib to attack radical groups and HTS. I just want to say that just —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what HTS is, Loubna.

LOUBNA MRIE: Oh, it’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. It’s one of the radical groups today in Idlib, which the Syrian government has been using as a justification to attack civilians in Idlib. I just want to say that, as I mentioned earlier, there is more than 3,400,000 civilians in Idlib. And to use HTS as a justification to attack 3 million civilians is really similar to the logic that Israel uses, and Israel and its supporters use, to justify their attacks on Gaza. I think we should never justify attacks just because there is one radical group, to attack all civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Loubna Mrie, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Syrian writer, photographer, activist, who worked in Idlib from 2012 to ’14 for Reuters, currently writing —

LOUBNA MRIE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — her first book, about the war in Syria. And we also want to thank Yassin al-Haj Saleh, speaking to us from Turkey.

When we come back, we go to India, where protests against the new anti-Muslim citizenship law continue despite the government crackdown that’s killed at least 27 people. Stay with us.

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