“It’s Hard to Believe, But Syria’s War Is Getting Worse”: World Powers Clash as Civilian Deaths Soar
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 U.S.-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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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.