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“It’s Hard to Believe, but Syria’s War Is Getting Worse”: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar

Yazan al-Saadi and Anne Barnard discuss more.

Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amid a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched in Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from where the drone was launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPGfighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive. All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. For more, we speak with Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent articles are titled “Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet” and “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.” And we speak with Syrian-Canadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the ongoing war in Syria.Tensions across northern Syria are escalating sharply amidst a series of clashes between external and internal powers, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government. On Saturday, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone that had entered Israel’s airspace after being launched from Syria. Israel then mounted an attack on an Iranian command center in Syria, from where the drone was launched. One of the Israeli F-16 military jets was then downed by a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Saturday’s event marks the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s. It is also believed to be the first time Israel has carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. On Tuesday, the Syrian government warned Israel it would face “more surprises” if it launches future attacks inside Syria. Meanwhile, also in northern Syria on Saturday, a Turkish Army helicopter was shot down by US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters near the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, where Turkey has launched a bombing and ground offensive.

All this comes as the United Nations is warning of soaring levels of civilian casualties in Syria. This is U.N. high commissioner for human rights spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell.

ELIZABETH THROSSELL: This has been a week of soaring violence and bloodshed in Syria — more than a thousand civilian casualties in six days. We’ve received reports that at least 277 civilians have been killed; 230 of these people were killed in airstrikes by the Syrian government and their allies. In addition, 812 people were injured.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in the last week alone.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Anne Barnard is The New York Timesbureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, her recent articles headlined “Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet” and “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.” In Kuwait, we’re joined by the Syrian-Candadian researcher Yazan al-Saadi.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Anne, let’s begin with you. Your article, “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse,” you begin by saying, “Half a dozen newborns, blinking and arching their backs, were carried from a burning hospital hit by airstrikes. A bombed apartment house collapsed, burying families. Medics doused patients with water after a suspected chlorine attack, one of five in Syria since the start of the year. That was just a fraction of the violence this week in northern Syria,” you write. So, first let’s talk about what you found on the ground — you were just recently there [sic] — and then this global set of countries that continue to pummel Syria.

ANNE BARNARD: Well, thank you so much, first of all, for being interested in this subject. That’s very important that it continues to be talked about. I have to correct one thing, which is that I was not in Syria since about one year ago. And the reason for that is I’m constantly applying for visas, but the Syrian government does not — it’s quite unpredictable and quite restrictive about when it grants visas to foreign journalists. And once you’re there, you can’t operate entirely freely anyway. So, just to know, we have covered the recent events from here in Beirut and through a very extensive network of contacts on all sides inside Syria.

But, yes, it’s been an unbelievable week. And the thing that you really need to know to put this in even more perspective is that, yes, there’s been a spike in deaths and in civilian casualties. There was a period of — I think just from last week, from Monday to Friday, there were 230 people killed, civilians, mostly civilians, and a thousand casualties. So, that’s a lot, but, actually, over the last — most of the last seven years, there’s all — those kinds of death tolls are happening all the time, maybe at a slower pace, but in these places, civilians are under attack constantly, and hospitals are under attack. And, you know, there’s very difficult problems in getting humanitarian aid access. And it’s happening in many places in Syria, by many sides. But the Syrian government’s attempts to take back rebel-held areas have been particularly characterized lately by an intensified bombing campaign that has taken a very heavy toll on civilians, who are already tired, malnourished, maybe displaced already several times. Some of them are stuck behind siege boundaries. So, it’s really been a tough week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Anne, most of the media attention in the United States have focused on the war against ISIS, and once the declaration that ISIS — the ISIS — or most of the ISIS enclaves had been defeated, the attention has largely dropped from the US media. What has happened — since the so-called defeat of ISIS, how has the war in Syria transformed?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, you’re exactly right. The US focus has tended to be on ISISwithin a framework of the so-called war on terror. But the war in Syria did not begin with ISIS and is not going to end with ISIS. First of all, I think it’s probably a mistaken “mission accomplished” moment to claim that ISIS has actually been defeated, because many fighters have gone underground, and their ideology, of course, is continuing to assert itself in some places.

But since then, what the relative defeat of ISIS has unleashed is the ability of the Syrian government and its allies — Russia and Iran — to turn their attention fully back to fighting the rebels, who have already been on the run. And it’s very complicated, because there are different patches of areas around the country that are not connected to each other, that are controlled by different rebel groups, Islamist groups, some Qaeda-linked groups. These are not even contiguous patches of territory. So you’re talking about many wars within a war. But what’s happened is that now the government is able to focus on those battles. And, you know, in a sense, the rest of the world cares less about that than they cared about ISIS, because they saw ISIS as a threat to themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the beginning of this conversation, we talked about just what happened among the major countries that are bombing Syria — again, Israel shooting down what it says is an Iranian drone, then attacking what it called the command-and-control center in Syria for the drone. Then one of the Israeli F-16 military jets were downed by the Syrian government anti-aircraft missile. Saturday’s event marking the first Israeli jet shot down since the 1980s, also believed to be the first time Israel carried out an attack in Syria on a site where Iranian troops were present. Can you talk about the significance of all of this?

ANNE BARNARD: Yes. This brings us to the second consequence of the end of the main part of the territorial fight against Islamic State. Many different international powers, as well as the Syrian government and some of its rival — some of its opponents within Syria, were all against each other, in a way, but united against the Islamic State. And they launched competing campaigns to defeat the Islamic State, racing one another to take its territory.

Once Islamic State was largely driven out of territory in Syria, those different combatants are finding that their conflicting interests are coming to the fore again. So, you see now Turkey going against Syrian Kurdish groups. You see even clashes — even confrontations between Turkey and the United States over the United States’ backing for Kurds, Kurdish militias that Turkey sees as terrorists and that the United States sees as its best ally in Syria. There’s a big question — the United States has upset both allies and enemies by saying that it wants to now remain in the areas that were taken by the US-backed militias in the northeast of Syria. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria throughout the war, with relative impunity. This is the first time that the Syrian government has managed to shoot down a jet. You also have Syria’s allies — Russia and Iran — which have differing views about how exactly the future of Syria should be laid out.

And I’m probably forgetting to mention somebody, but all of these — I fear that we may be getting to a phase in the Syrian war where all the foreign interveners are turning it into an arena to fight amongst each other, really regardless of what Syrians want or the effect on Syrians. And, unfortunately, that could go on for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion, where we’ll also be joined, in addition to Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, by Yazan al-Saadi, the Syrian-Canadian researcher. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: “Uncle John” by Pearls Before Swine. The band’s founder, Tom Rapp, died on Sunday at the age of 70. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we return now to Syria. The United Nations is warning that civilians are being killed and wounded at a rapid pace amidst an escalation in the Syrian government bombing against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. At least 200 civilians have been reportedly killed in the last week alone.

We’re joined now by Yazan al-Saadi, a Syrian-Canadian writer, researcher. And still with us is Anne Barnard, from The New York Times, bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Her recent article is titled “It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Even Worse.”

Anne, I wanted to begin again with you to ask you about the role of Hezbollah, because, obviously, Hezbollah was widely involved in the fighting in Syria, has undoubtedly grown stronger as a result. And could you talk about its role, particularly, in the conflict, and the concerns of Israel over the growth of Hezbollah?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, Hezbollah entered the war overtly and in a sort of — in the manner of an expeditionary force in 2013. And that was a big surprise, because this is a group that was founded to fight Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, not to go and help put down uprisings in other countries. But nonetheless, because of their close alliance with Damascus and Tehran, Hezbollah entered the war, first in areas that made sense, in a way, for it in a local — in a local sense, because they first focused on areas near the Lebanese border, on the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab near Damascus, which is particularly revered by Shiites. But gradually their role expanded. They were a much more effective pound-for-pound force than the Syrian military, and they ended up helping out in battles steadily spreading across the country. Nobody imagined a few years ago that Hezbollah would end up fighting in Aleppo, near the Iraqi border, in northern Syria, all the way in southern Syria.

Now, the southern Syria part is the biggest issue, because, of course, there’s always been conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, and tensions there across the Lebanese border, but now Hezbollah is entrenching itself increasingly in areas in the southern part of Syria, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the portion that’s held by the Israelis. So, that’s obviously of big concern to Israel. At the same time, the Syrian government accuses Israel of trying to increase its own buffer zone there, and that’s been a real flashpoint. And that really exploded on Saturday, not as badly as it could have been, though, because it seems to have been contained, for now, to this one incident. There is also, of course, an Iranian presence around. Iranian advisers are deeply involved throughout the war effort on the Syrian government side. So, that’s something that Israel has been trying to counter throughout the conflict, and I think we’re only going to see more tensions around that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to bring you into this conversation. You’re a Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually where Anne is, in Beirut, Lebanon, but right now we’re talking to you in Kuwait. Talk about the situation in Syria, in your country, as you see it.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Wow! All right. It’s absolutely tragic. And it’s — what you’re seeing is all these actors, whether it’s the Syrian regime, the Bashar dictatorship or the armed opposition, or the Putin regime and the Trump regime and the apartheid Zionist regime, all attacking and destroying the Syrian population. What we’re seeing is basically a complete annihilation of the struggle for Syrian self-determination by various communities within the country. You’re seeing a complete devastation of a society. The healthcare system is gone. Half the population are either refugees or amputees. And it’s absolutely devastating.

And what we’re witnessing in Syria — and we need to remember this, as well — is that we’re witnessing the failure of the international mechanisms to hold states accountable. And this is not only exceptional to Syria. We’ve seen this before in places like Iraq, Palestine, Congo, the Central African Republic, and even in Myanmar now with the Rohingya. So, if you want a sound bite, what we’re seeing is the typicalness of power over people. And this is something that is going to continue in various places, whether in Syria or elsewhere, as long as governments and states are allowed to do what they can do. And this can only end if populations and communities around the world start mobilizing and pressuring their own governments to stop these types of actions, to not allow power to dominate over people. And if we don’t do that, we’re just going to see the tragedy of Syria continue for a long time, and you’re going to see other tragedies in other places around the world. That is what’s happening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yazan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Bashar al-Assad. Many of the Western powers were originally calling for regime change to end the civil war, and now that’s dropped off the table for a lot of them, in terms of the ongoing conflict. Could you talk about that, as well?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Yeah, of course. I’m not surprised it dropped off the table, because, let’s be honest, Western governments really don’t care about, you know, dictatorships. In fact, they’re quite a fan. There’s a lot of businesses and interests with dictatorships. And let’s be honest. When these protests happened — and they happened in a context — in 2011, in the region, where you had a large mobilization in different countries, by different people, to pressure change against dictatorships. But Western governments don’t really care. And let’s be — let’s be frank about this. They don’t really care if Bashar stays or not, as long as he plays ball and fits into their interests.

Now, should Bashar go? Yes, obviously. He’s a dictatorship. But it cannot happen through the idea of Western intervention or Western forms of regime change, because we’ve seen what happened in Libya and Iraq. So we need to do something else here. There needs to be an international form of mechanism to hold dictatorships accountable, whoever they are, you know, whether they’re allies to the West or they’re allies to Putin. And this is something — this is a larger question that we really need to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: The escalation in Syria comes as the Pentagon has also indicated it plans to recruit and train thousands of US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria to form a border security force in northern Syria along the border with Turkey. The US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters already control large swaths of northern Syria. The significance of this? We talked, Yazan, earlier about what just happened in the last week. You know, you have the Israeli plane shot down, the Turkish plane shot down, etc.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: So, I mean, this US plan, like all US plans, is going to be disastrous. I mean, it’s all part of, you know, really furthering US military interests and a presence in certain countries around the world. This support for the SDF, which is the armed wing of the PYD, is really not going to be helpful, ultimately, for Kurdish self-determination, in my opinion. And I do believe that the Kurds have every right for self-determination, like every community around the world. What the US are interested is just to have a hand in the geography. But ultimately, like we’ve seen over and over again in history every time the US has a certain plan of backing armed groups, it’s disastrous, whether it’s the Contras in Latin America, the armed groups in Iraq and wherever else. It’s going to be a disaster. And we’re seeing bits of that happening right now, with everyone shooting everyone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to go back to Anne Barnard for a second, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut. All of these governments — all of these foreign governments having their forces and their planes in Syria, could you talk about whether the potential is increasing or decreasing for some kind of a conflict between the outside powers spreading beyond Syria?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, that’s certainly the danger. I mean, and just to build on what Yazan was saying, the reason that the international community, such as it is, has not been able to come to any consensus is the deadlocked Security Council. So, we start from a situation in which Russia and the United States are completely deadlocked, even on issues that seem as basic as human rights. They can’t agree on anything. And so, now they’re each backing a side in Syria which sees itself as fighting an existential battle.

At the same time, this is also very much, for Russia, about restoring its great power status and countering the US in a keystone area of the Middle East. Russia has interests with its port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Tartus, in the western coast of Syria. So, Russia has a lot of interests there. Russia has clearly put more skin in the game than the United States has. And at the same time, the United States has now extended its commitment, perhaps indefinitely, in northeastern Syria, where most of Syria’s oil is.

So, the problem is that even though there is a deconfliction process, which is supposed to prevent their sort of competing air forces from clashing with each other by accident or having any small incident that could escalate, you know, mistakes happen. And even — there’s even a mysterious incident, where more information is still unfolding about it, from last week, when US forces hit a pro-government force, which was initially described to us by a Syrian government source as a pro-government Syrian Shiite militia, but now it’s coming out that many, maybe scores of, Russian contractors were killed. So, the Kremlin is saying, “We don’t know anything about these people. They’re military contractors. They don’t work for us.” This is the Russian version of Blackwater, this company. And so, the idea that there are, you know, large numbers of Russian troops going around Syria, working for who knows who, in the same arena where American troops are, is obviously very risky.

And, you know, that’s not to mention that Turkey, as I mentioned before, and the United States have even — at least Turkey has even threatened to attack an area where US troops are there on the ground with the Kurdish militias that Turkey wants to fight. So you have the prospect of two NATO allies, theoretically, it’s possible, that they could clash. And you have the Israeli-Iran-Hezbollah-Syria nexus that we talked about before.

So, it’s getting more and more dangerous. And, you know, in a world where collective action seems to be impossible, it seems that everybody bet on the idea that Syria was containable, and, you know, we could just let people die and let it stay within the borders of Syria, and some countries even consider that to be within their interests. They felt that, you know, their enemies were killing each other. Well, as we can see, instead we have a massive refugee crisis affecting Europe, a much more massive refugee crisis affecting Syria’s neighbors — Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — and now we have the possibility of hot war between major state powers coming out of this. So, you know, it seems like it’s going to get more dangerous before it calms down.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking January 17th at the Hoover Institution, in which he called Iran a “strategic threat” to the United States and used this alleged threat as justification for keeping US troops in Syria.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Continued threats to the US, from not just ISIS and al-Qaeda, but from others, persist. And this threat I’m referring to is principally Iran. As part of its strategy to create a northern arch, stretching from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking US interests, our allies and personnel in the region. It is spending billions of dollars a year to prop up Assad and wage proxy wars at the expense of supporting its own people. …

US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria. As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, if you can respond to the US secretary of state?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Well, there’s much to respond. I mean, it’s — well, it’s funny. The first thought that comes to mind is that, yeah, well, the US is the strategic threat to everyone in this world, especially for self-determination of communities around the world, so I find his comments quite hilarious. Secondly, let’s be honest. There’s something that Anne said earlier about the US and Russia not agreeing in the Security Council for basic human rights. That’s not surprising, considering that both countries are major violators of human rights. And really, they don’t take human rights seriously.

Now, this concern by the US about Iran is typical, in terms of the mentality, the warmongering mentality within the US military-political establishment, in terms of their own dominance and their need to dominate the region. At the same time, let’s also not ignore that Iran is a dictatorship, it is a problematic regime, just like every other regime in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Zionist regime and the Saudi regime and others. So, we are all facing this major problem, where we really need to ask ourselves, “What can be done? How can we accept the status quo?” Because the status quo means that our bodies, our communities are going to be paying the price of the blood and devastation, while politics and power reign supreme.

And me, personally, I don’t accept this, and I feel that we need to mobilize, as various communities, to push back against the politics of power, whether it’s the US or Putin or the Iranian regime or the Syrian dictatorship or the Israeli regime and whoever else. That’s the core question here. That’s the core debate. It’s about self-determination. And that’s something that we really need to keep our eye on. And that also means that we need to start creating mechanisms of accountability that forces these regimes to hold — you know, forces these regimes to accept the power of people and the rights of people beyond all.

AMY GOODMAN: Anne, you recently tweeted, “In ’13 much skepticism (I shared it) of bigger US intervention in Syria — b/c Iraq debacle. So US avoided steps to shield civilians (like no-fly zone). Yet 5 yrs on, what it hasn’t avoided is indefinite military commitment in huge chunk of Syria.” If you could expand on that and talk about where you are now, in Beirut, Lebanon? What percentage of Lebanon is now Syrian refugees who have come over the border, not to mention Jordan and other places, and what this means?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, Lebanon is a country of around 4 million people, and there are at least one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees here. So, it’s more than a quarter of the population. And, you know, that’s by far the largest proportion of refugees on Earth. So, Lebanon is bearing a huge brunt, and Turkey and Jordan also have large numbers of refugees. So, obviously, the region is bearing the brunt more than anyone else.

And yeah, I think the US policy, you know, seems a case of neither having your cake nor eating it. They did not take a step, which, of course, there’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the idea of a US intervention, but at the same time it’s not as if they’re not intervening, as Yazan said earlier. They’re intervening in other ways, without really having helped Syrian civilians a lot.

So, you know, and I think Yazan’s point is very good, that — how can there be a mechanism? I mean, if the great — the whole problem is that the great powers — Russia and the United States — and anyone in power, they don’t want themselves to be held accountable, so there is no incentive for those in power to allow the creation of such a mechanism.

And look what happened when Syrian people and people in many other countries in the region tried to speak up and use people power and ask for just some more rights or some reforms in their countries. Almost all of them were defeated by state power in one way or another. So, it’s really a puzzle.

I wonder, Yazan, if you have any, you know, specific ideas about how things can go differently for ordinary people who want to make their voices heard. I mean, you know, we’ve seen a lot of idealistic people try, and, you know, you see the results.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Of course.


YAZAN AL-SAADI: Of course. I mean, yeah.

ANNE BARNARD: I don’t know.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: I mean, people are trying, and they’re still trying ’til this day, and we should continue. I mean, one of the most important things is international solidarities, right? Working between communities, whether it’s the Syrian community, working with communities in the United States, for example — let’s say the Black Lives Matter, because they are facing injustices and tyranny of the state. So I believe in creating ties like that. I believe in creating ties between the BDS movement in Palestine with other pro-rights movements in Bahrain or in the Rohingya. That’s the only way forward, because we’re dealing with an international problem of domination over our communities, wherever we are. What is happening in Syria is a violent, physical manifestation of that. And it’s going to continue in other forms in other places, as long as power is still power. You know?


YAZAN AL-SAADI: And I do think like, like I said earlier, networking and international solidarity, it’s the only way forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi, we want to thank you for being with us, Syrian-Canadian researcher, usually in Beirut, Lebanon, now in Kuwait, and Anne Barnard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to Austin, Texas. As the budget is unveiled, we’re going to look at a particular struggle that’s going on around the country for paid sick leave — the cities that are trying to initiate it and the Koch brothers-backed group that’s fighting it. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Translucent Carriages” by Pearls Before Swine. The band’s founder, Tom Rapp, died Sunday at the age of 70.

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