The United Nations General Assembly has approved a resolution to establish an independent body to investigate what happened to more than 130,000 people who went missing during the conflict in Syria over the last 12 years. The Syrian government opposed the resolution, along with Russia, China, Belarus, North Korea, Cuba and Iran. “This is one of the most painful chapters in the Syrian crisis,” says Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president and CEO of the medical nonprofit MedGlobal, as well as a former medical school classmate of President Bashar al-Assad.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to Syria. Humanitarian groups Wednesday urged the United Nations Security Council to extend Syria’s cross-border aid mechanism for another year in order to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to more than 4 million people in northwest Syria after 12 years of war. The mechanism was established in 2014 to enable the U.N. and other humanitarian groups to provide aid to opposition-held areas in Syria without the authorization of the Syrian government. Doctors Without Borders reports the number of authorized crossing points is now down from four to one, even after an earthquake devastated parts of Syria in February and the need is enormous.
Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly has approved a resolution to establish an independent body to investigate what happened to more than 130,000 people who’ve gone missing during the conflict in Syria and to, quote, “provide adequate support to victims, survivors and the families of those missing.” The government, the Syrian government, opposed the resolution, along with Russia, China, Belarus, North Korea, Cuba and Iran.
This comes as ITV News reports that in the days leading up to the failed mutiny by Wagner Group in Russia, Syrian officials were in talks to increase the number of Wagner fighters in Syria and make Syria its biggest base as part of a lucrative deal with President Bashar al-Assad.
In a minute, we’re going to look at a new BBC documentary investigating Assad’s role in producing the highly addictive amphetamine known as Captagon and how this is impacting his relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries. But we begin with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president and CEO of the medical nonprofit MedGlobal, which provides healthcare in disaster regions, including Syria. He was also a classmate of Bashar al-Assad in medical school. Yes, the president of Syria is also a doctor.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Zaher Sahloul. Start off with talking about the 120,000 people it’s estimated are missing in the 12 years of this conflict, Doctor.
DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Thank you, Amy, for having me.
And this is one of the most painful chapters in the Syrian crisis. As you mentioned, 120,000 people are, at least, missing in the last 12 years, most of them, according to human rights organizations, by the Assad regime, about 85% of them. One of them is a dentist and also the chess champion in Syria. Her name is Dr. Rania al-Abbasi, who disappeared in 2013 by the Assad regime intelligence in the prison with her six children. One of them was 1.5, one year and a half, and the oldest was 13 years old. She’s still disappeared, and no one knows where is she. But she’s one of tens of thousands of women and children and men who were disappeared by the Assad regime, and their families do not know any information about them.
Some of the family members got to know that their loved ones have died under torture by looking at the pictures of the Caesar files, which, as you remember, this is a person who smuggled about 30,000 pictures of people who died under torture by the Assad regime. And some family members discovered that their loved ones died because of torture. So, hopefully, this will allow the families of the loved ones, who their loved ones, sons, children, sisters and fathers have disappeared, to have one source of information about their family members and, hopefully, have a closure for this painful chapter.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Sahloul, how is this mechanism, this institution, likely to work? What tools will people have to find these disappeared people? I mean, I suppose the assumption is they’re either in the prison system or have been killed.
DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: When I was young, growing in Syria, my uncle, who was in high school, also was forcefully disappeared, or, actually, he was detained by the father, the father of current president, Hafez al-Assad. And I remember my grandmother’s going every week to the local authorities, the intelligence authorities, trying to find some information about him. And every week she comes back humiliated and not knowing what’s going on with him. He stayed in the Palmyra prison for 12 years, and then suddenly he appeared.
So, many of the family members do not know any information about their loved ones. They go from place to place. They contact human rights organizations, different ones. So, this new entity, hopefully, will allow more coordinations between the different human rights organizations that collect information about the families and the victims. It should have representations of the victims, the survivors of torture, and also the families, so their voice can be heard. And so, that way, you have one stop for everyone who lost someone, who has someone disappeared in the prisons of Assad — and also other entities who are in Syria. You have also opposition groups and SDF who also detained and forcefully disappeared other victims.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Sahloul, could you talk about — you’ve gone to Syria multiple times to assist in providing medical assistance. You were there just earlier this year after the earthquake. Could you describe the conditions in Syria now? Reportedly, 90%, up to 90%, of Syrians are now living in poverty.
DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: It’s devastating. It’s painful for me, because I grew up in Syria and then came to the United States, am practicing physician. Every time I go there, I see the deterioration of the condition and the level of disparity and also the number of displaced people. I was inside Idlib, northwest of Syria, providing some training on new technology that helps physicians to treat trauma patients. But I was in the middle of large IDP camp that has 500,000 people. Everywhere you see around, you see tents. There is 1.5 million people who live in tents in Idlib. Half of the population, 4 million, that you mentioned in your report, are displaced from cities like Homs and Damascus and Aleppo. And they cannot imagine going back to their cities with the Assad regime still in control. And the economic situation is horrible. The children are everywhere you look in the camp. But there is not enough schooling. Education is one of the most hit sectors in the economy there, in many parts of Syria. Also healthcare is one of the worst hit, according to the WHO. Half of the hospitals have been attacked by the Assad regime and by Russia.
You mentioned in your previous piece about the Russian attacks on Chechnya. We believe, in Syria, that because what happens in Syria, you have now the war in Ukraine. There is a direct link between what happened in Syria, where the Russians used illegal weapons. They trained their army. They used, according to them, 300 new weapons in Syria. They targeted hospitals and civilian buildings, like what they did today in Lviv, and now they’re doing it in Ukraine, because the world did not pay attention to what they were doing in Syria.