Remarks in Geneva on the Situation in Syria

 
Roy Gutman
 
Syria's in the news and turns out to be the central theme of our discussions. Clearly, there's one reason: Paris came under attack from the Islamic State two weeks ago. President Hollande, having failed to prevent the attacks, had to do something, and decides to start bombing the Islamic State in Syria, Britain may follow suit.  Hollande is trying to cut a bigger figure, so he attempted to come up with a plan that will involve Russia being on the same side.  Meanwhle,  Russian warplanes cross into Turkey.  Turkey shoots one down.  Cooperation with Russia was always a highly dubious proposition, but now it's out of the question.  I gather a Russian warplane has crossed into Israel as well. Meanwhile, turkey is also bombing in Syria. The US, an ally of Turkey, is routinely bombing the Islamic State.  Russia says it is bombing the Islamic State but isn't.  The government of Syria doesn't even pretend to bomb the Islamic State.  It only bombs Syrian civilians. The potential for further collisions among all those countries, is considerable, because these countries are pursuing different and to a growing degree contradictory aims.
 
I flew here last night from Washington. The entire focus in the US and well beyond is on the Islamic State in Syria. A year and a half after it captured Mosul, their capital is still in Raqqa, Syria. No one knows how to oust them. This is the daily news that gets dispensed to the public. And all I can say is that it really is, at least for me, and I trust for you a world class distraction.
 
Eliminating the Islamic State from the scene is doable, but it requires partners on the ground to take over the vacated territory.  This is where the real problems begin. The US prefers the Kurds, the YPG, which is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK group, labeled terrorists by Turkey, the EU and US.  One problem - not for Washington but for everyone else -- is they collaborate with the Assad regime, which makes them anathema to almost all Arab groups. A second problem is that the YPG, the People's Protection Units, have their own national goals, which are not the same as US and western goals: this is to create a Kurdish state on Syria territory.  A third problem is that as the Kurds, with American backing, take new territory, they tend to clear Arabs, claiming they are all collaborators with IS.  Now, to make things still more complex, there is a fair chance that Russia, in retaliation against Turkey, will throw its support behind the PKK/YPG Kurds. But Turkey has publicly threatened that if the Kurds attempt to complete the belt of their territories in northern Syria, by closing the 100 km gap between Jarablus and Afrin, Turkey will intervene militarily to prevent it.  So the confrontation between Turkey and Russia has only just begun.
 
Finally, Kurds in Aleppo, in apparent collaboration with the Syrian regime, Russia  and iran are attempting to break through rebel lines in order to open a resupply route to their own pocket, Afrin, in northern Syria and to Nobel and Zahra, two Shiite towns near Afrin.
 
So are the Kurds really a feasible partner? I think hardly so.  I think this collaboration will lead to more chaos, indeed a future Arab-Kurdish war, with Turkey on the side of the Arabs, and it's hardly going to be a positive outcome for the Kurds. That fighting has already begun.
 
This is in many ways a distraction.  And so is the bombings by US military of the Isalmic State, one of the few things the US government does announce daily.  Here's what happened today: three airstikes using bombers and drones: Near Dayr Az Zawr, one strike destroyed an ISIL excavator and three ISIL bulldozers and damaged an additional ISIL bulldozer.
 
Near Al Hawl, two strikes struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL checkpoint and an wounded an ISIL fighter.
 
Here's what people are not looking at which I think should be the main focus.
 
What we should be concerned about is the country and the regime that allowed the Islamic state to set up shop in the first place, that tolerated them, and that instead of trying to expel them is trying to kill, weaken and expel its own citizens.  And we should be concerned by the main enabling foreign actors, Iran and Russia. 
 
Let's start with the civilian death toll, based on data collected by the Syrian Network for Human rights.  Through August 2015, the number of civilian deaths in the onflict was 187,000.  This is civilians only.    Of them 246 were caused by the U.S. led coalition. One tenth of one per cent.  Deaths by Nusra. Two tenths of a percent 342.  By Kurdish forces, 362, or two tenths of a percent.
 
Islamic State:  eight tenths of a percent 1543.   Rebel forces known as the free Syrian army, 1.3 per cent. 2493.  By the regime 96.3 per cent. 179,291. This is before Russia's intervention. On top of that there are at least 100,000 fighters, either rebels or government forces. 
 
Now a characteristic of the government assaults is that they are directed at the destruction of its own population.  This isn't only a question of barrel bombing of civilians, which now goes on not just in Aleppo, but is the predominant means of attack throughout Syria.  There are routine attacks on marketplaces, schools, hospitals and mosques.  At least 1,300 mosques have been destroyed by the Assad regime. Hospitals. Between March 2011, when the conflict in Syria began, and October 2015, PHR has documented the deaths of 686 medical personnel and 329 attacks on medical facilities across Syria - over 95% by Syrian government force, according to PHR.  In August alone, form Aug 7-10, in Idlib province the government bombed 9 medical facilities.  And three others were hit that month. 
 
This is no fluke.  In Aleppo alone, in the past htree years, there ere 45 attacks on health care facilities, more than two-thirds of the hospitals re no longer functioning androghly 95 per cent of the doctors have fled, been detained or killed.  The figures, again, are from PHR.
 
A second thing no one is focusing on Russia's role, which began by Sept 30. In October, according to PHR, there were 16 attacks on medical facilities last month, 10 by Russian forces, five by either Russian or Syrian forces. 
 
PHR calls these "war crimes and crimes against humanity," that "the international community has failed to stop."
 
But that's only a small element of what Russia is doing. In the guise of attacking "terrorists" and the Islamic State, Russia in fact is following the Syrian government playbook and bombing civilians.
 
According to the UN, which is citing local humanitarian organizations as its source, Russian and Syrian regime bombing  displaced at least 90,000 civilians from south of Aleppo in the second week of November, on top of 120,000 forced from their homes or temporary housing in Idlib since Sept. 30.
 
There's also been a ground assault, which almost no one has reported.
I will read from a dispatch I wrote during the meting of the G20. 
Syrian ground forces, joined by hundreds of Iranian backed fighters, captured Al Hader, a key opposition-held town on Nov 12, and then captured three other towns, sending thousands of families in flight in ever vehicle available, donkey carts or on foot.
 
In Reyhanli, a Turkish border town close to Aleppo, volunteers who ferry wounded Syrians to Turkish hospitals reported 30 to 40 civilians, up to 100, arriving daily for the past weeks with shrapnel wounds or lost limbs following Russian and Syrian airstrikes. 
 
Prior to Thursday's capture of Hader and nearby villages, many had fled from Khan Toman, a town of  more than 10,000, which was filled with displaced civilians already displaced from Aleppo or other towns in the region.
 
"Most people die in Syria, but at least 10 a day die after they are taken to Turkish hospitals," Yusuf al Halabie, 50, a volunteer, told a McClatchy reporter Thursday. Arriving refugees reported that the Russian air force was targeting water tanks, electricity stations and other basic services.
 
The only international leader who even mentioned this was Donald Tusk, no one mentioned it. He warned the Russian operations should be directed at IS, not at the moderate opposiotin, because what Russia was doing would "only result (in) a new wave of refugees. And we have some signals that in fact it's started.'' But he was wrong.
 
And the reason he was wrong is that the borders are closed in all directions. No one is accepting Syrian refugees any longer, even Turkey, which has 2.5 million officially but probably as many as 3 million altogether. To quote from a Swiss film title, which also sums up the policy of Switzerland toward Jews and other would be refugees during World War II, "Das Boot is Voll." 
 
Silence has become a pattern. The US government and indeed other western governments, Turkey being the prime exception, have remained silent, not putting the spotlight daily on the catastrophic impact of the Russian intervention. This encourages Russia to carry on with impunity, and to go way over any line into systematic and widespread war crimes, indeed crimes against humanity. The same thing happened in late 2013 and early 2014, when the Assad regime began using barrel bombs in a major way in Aleppo. The US government was pretty much silent; and the Assad regime subsequently expanded the use of barrel bombs to the entire country. 
 
The situation I described two weeks ago is getting worse. Now Russia is not only bombing health care facilities, schools, IDP camps and infrastructure needed for survival, it's also bombing aid convoys and even bakeries.
 
Here are three examples:
11/18  a bread oven that served est. 120,000 people in and around oppostion held town of Atarib in western Aleppo was completely out of commission after a Russian airstrikes. it was largest in the western Aleppo countryside. (This was reported by Syria Direct, an independent we web portal, earlier in the month.
11/26  Russia bombed humanitarian aid delivery trucks entering Syria from Turkey, killing seven drivers
11/29 Russian jets bomb a bakery built by the Turkish aid group IHH in Idlib.   Produced 65,000 loafs a day, serving 40,000 pepole. This was reported today by the Turkish state news agency Anadolu. 
 
Now I want to read you some brief excerpts from UN reports. I'm just going to read the excerpts. I haven't written them up in a story. In fact, I only received them late last night as I was en route to Geneva.  Still they give you the flavor of the Russian intervention.
First from a report on the internal conflict in October.
Government forces carried out airstrikes in various areas of eastern Ghutah\ during the reporting period. The town of Douma was repeatedly hit during the month, including on 29 October, when airstrikes reportedly hit the main field hospital in Duma in Rural Damascus, killing at least 15 civilians and injuring 50 others. On 30 October, several airstrikes on the al-Hal market in Douma, killing 60 civilians and injured 200 more.
 
In Hama and Idlib governorates, ground offensives and aerial bombardments in north-western Hama and southern Idlib resulted in the displacement of some 80,000 people since the start of October.
 
On 15 October, Government forces reportedly dropped barrel bombs on Talbiseh, killing 15 civilians. Three aerial attacks on Talbiseh in Homs governorate were reportedly carried out on 23 October, killing 14 civilians, including six children. Meanwhile, six civilians were killed and 17 injured when Government forces struck Ghanto village on 26 October. Non-State armed opposition group factions issued appeals requesting help to provide humanitarian aid and safe passage to the 400,000 civilians in areas in the northern countryside of Homs.
 
Displacement continued throughout the Syrian Arab Republic in October, with over 145,000 people displaced from various areas in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Rif Damashq, Dayr al-Zawr, Raqqa and Dar'a governorates due to on-going fighting.
 
Here are excerpts from a UN report drafted After the downing of the Russian plane, Russian forces have retaliated with a number of deadly airstrikes in close proximity to the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings. A number of civilian objects were targeted by GoR / GoS air strikes including a public market place in Sarmada town, a bakery north of Azaz city, -- it's not clear if that's the second or third bakery,  a transportation hub on the Azaz - Afrin road and a residential area near al-Qah town, leading to a number of unconfirmed civilian casualties.
 
In conclusion, let me say again, let us not be distracted. IS can be addressed, and is, however fitfully, being addressed.  What is not being addressed, indeed, the silence of U.S. and other powers is glacial, is the continuing attacks on the Syrian civilians by their own government, and now in an ever growing manner, by the government of Russia.
 
And I want to offer a thought I believe I have offered at earlier sessions of GPA net.  This is that in the post-Cold War era, there is a continuing debate about when do issues rise to the level that great powers must treat them as threats to international security. That is, what are the cases where should these powers get involved early, stay active, do everything short of intervention, and if all else fails, intervene. 
 
To my mind these issues can be defined in terms of humanitrian law. It's not only where a situation constitutes a genocide. To my mind, the most important case where great powers must get involved involve massive, systematic and widespread violations of humanitarian law, which are part of the pattern that leads to genocide.  Syria qualifies.
 
 
 

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