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  March 6, 2018

As Eastern Ghouta Besieged, What is the Answer for Syria?

The Syrian government has a license to kill in Eastern Ghouta, and the world is failing to act, says Yasser Munif of Emerson University. But is intervention the answer, and what is to be done about the right-wing militants trying to topple Assad?
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Yasser Munif Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. An international aid convoy has entered the besieged Syrian suburb of Eastern Ghouta for the first time in nearly a month. Aid groups say the Syrian government has confiscated a large portion of the vital supplies intended for the area's trapped civilians. Ghouta has been under siege since 2013 and under intense bombardment since the Syrian and Russian government launched an air campaign to retake it from militants last month. The UN says the air campaign has killed scores of civilians and could amount to war crimes.

SPEAKER: The recent death toll in Eastern Ghouta has reportedly been among the highest registered in the past seven years of conflict. People living in what was once an ordinary suburb, human beings who share the rights and hopes of all of us here are trapped and battered by bombs and deprived of every human right , above all, the right to life. The perpetrators of these crimes must know that they are being identified, that dossiers are being built up with a view to their prosecution and that they will be held accountable for what they have done.

AARON MATÉ: Eastern Ghouta is controlled by several right wing militant groups, mainly the Army of Islam and al-Rahman Corps. They have shelled the Syrian capital of Damascus killing civilians in markets, buildings and schools. Joining me is Yasser Munif, assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. He is among the signatories of a recent open letter calling for global action on Syria.

Welcome, Professor Munif. Let's start with what's happening in Eastern Ghouta, your assessment of what's going on there and what you want to see happen.

YASSER MUNIF: Thank you for having me. So, Ghouta has been besieged since 2012 and the situation has been worsening since 2017. There were two main entry points to Ghouta in 2017 and both of them were shut down. There was a...crossing and then there were a number of tunnels, but the Syrian government shut down all these entry or crossings in early 2017. The situation has been worsening since then. There is a very high malnutrition state among the children. Around 20% of the children are malnourished and the Syrian government or the Syrian regime has been bombarding the hospitals, and emergency centers and worsening the situation even more, and has been preventing the UN and Red Cross convoys from entering the region for the most part. And even when allowed, there are bans on medications and medical devices and supplies, and so on. It's a terrible situation and the Syrian government has a license to kill and there is no pressure to prevent the atrocity from happening right now.

AARON MATÉ: So, you took part in this open letter calling for action, global action. It mentions the doctrine of responsibility to protect. This idea that the global community has a responsibility to protect besieged civilians who are under attack by governments. What do you want to see happen? How can pressure be put on the regime?

YASSER MUNIF: So, unfortunately, most Syrians and myself included, don't have any illusions about the so-called international community and the UN and the Security Council. I think they've had many, many opportunities to put an end to what's happening in Syria. I'm opposed to military intervention and no fly zones, but they had many tools in their hand that they could have used in the past, including military ban and pressure on the countries that are supporting the Syrian regime, including Russia and Iran, but they haven't acted so far.

For the most part, people don't have any illusion that this time it will be any different. We have seen what happened in Aleppo and what happened in Hama, and I think the same scenario is going to repeat itself now in Ghouta. People are desperate to end that kind of violence against the civilian population, but at the same time, they've lost any hope that the international community would intervene because they already have no real interest in intervening in Syria, unlike in other countries that have oil or strategic geopolitical positioning. So, it's a call remind people and to push people to act on the grassroots level...possible to denounce the atrocity of the Syrian regime and its allies, the Russians and the Iranians.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, but to what extent, if any, do you also fault the intervention on behalf of the militant groups, like those who are in Ghouta right now, by foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and the US? The Army of Islam, which is the predominant faction that controls Ghouta, that's heavily backed by Saudi Arabia and they've committed atrocities of their own as well. So, do you also oppose that form of intervention?

YASSER MUNIF: Those military groups are right wing, as you mentioned in the introduction, and they don't necessarily care for the interests of the civilian population or support the Syrian Revolution. And they have committed a number of atrocities and killing of civilians. But at the same time, the Syrian regime as crushed the civilian resistance and the popular movement and the secular forces very early on in 2012, 2013, and allowed those right wing fundamentalist, Islamist groups to flourish, and allowed them to take over some regions.

Now, it's using them and instrumentalizing them to justify its campaign against this region. I mean, there is no military or geopolitical reason for launching this campaign. The Syrian regime has won the war for the most part, and has been able to crush the Syrian rebellion, or the Syrian uprising, and is only doing this to teach the Syrian people a lesson for the future in case there are any hope for another uprising. And the allies of the Syrian regime are using this as a way to send a message to all the population in the region that there is a very high price to pay if the population of the regime tries to resist or vote against their government.

This is the position of Russia that has been opposed to any kind of popular revolts and perceived those revolts as a conspiracy to undermine the Russian Federation, and the different regions that surrounds Russia, and the same thing with Iran. Iran is very skeptical of, obviously, popular revolts and we've seen how it crushed the popular revolts that happened in 2009 and also, more recently, in December 2017.

AARON MATÉ: Professor Munif, let me ask you-

YASSER MUNIF: The same ...

AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, because I think this gets to the heart of the issue. Is it fair to draw a distinction between that initial popular uprising, in which people were calling for reforms, not even necessarily for regime change, but just for democratic norms to come to their country under a dictatorship, and that was brutally crushed and violently crushed. But can we draw a distinction between that and the proxy war that's followed, in which you have foreign countries with no concern for the actual democratic aspirations of the Syrian people like the US and Saudi Arabia helping to fund right wing groups, jihadists, to come in and overthrow it.

And on this front, is it not fair to say that some of this groups in Ghouta have been shelling Damascus, have been killing civilians? And so, the Syrian regime, while it may have the intent to teach civilians a lesson, is it not also trying to stop militants from firing on Damascus?

YASSER MUNIF: That's true, but the civilian population doesn't have really any say in what happens in Ghouta. Those military groups are obviously not democratic and they don't really care about the public opinion or what the civilians think. At the same time, the population is not happy with the Syrian regime victory because that would mean a low intensity war for years to come. I mean, we have seen how the Syrian regime has tortured and has killed tens of thousands of people and utilized all sorts of weapons against the civilian population.

So, a victory for the Syrian regime is not necessarily something that most of the Syrian population welcomes. And they know that there will be retribution and a vast campaign to punish anyone who was involved in any way in the revolution. So, while people are not supporting those military groups, they are firstly opposed to the Syrian regime and want, or at least an end to the atrocities and the military action in that region.

AARON MATÉ: I guess what I'm pointing to is is there a need for all sides to stop funding the proxy war, whether it's Iran and Russia or whether it's their counterparts who are funding the militants? I mean, Aleppo was the site of a horrible bombardment a few years ago, but now civilians are returning there. A lot of civilians are returning to government areas, and even for those who despise the regime, is it not preferable to them to live under peace rather than in the midst of a proxy war?

YASSER MUNIF: I think that a lot of countries, whether they are against the Syrian regime or for the Syrian regime have an interest in crushing the Syrian Revolution. In the case of Saudi Arabia or even the case of Turkey, they don't want to necessary see a Syrian revolution succeed because that would send a signal, either to the Kurdish population or to the Saudi population that, to emulate what might have happened in Syria. So, that's why we have seen so much violence and so much involvement and interference in what's happening in Syria. No country in the region has an interest in seeing a successful Syrian revolution, and it's obvious that the interference in Syria should have stopped a while ago, but they have supported the most reactionary groups in the opposition and undermined the civilian and the popular resistance for that same reason.

I don't think that a victory of the Syrian regime would necessarily translate into peace in Syria. The Syrian regime has been brutally sanctioning, and killing, and torturing, and imprisoning the Syrian population for decades. I mean, this is not new. The Syrian regime has killed tens of thousands in 1982 and has brutally repressed the left and the social movement and the unions back in the 80s. It will still do so if it succeeds in crushing what remains of the Syrian Revolution.

AARON MATÉ: That's gonna wrap part one of my conversation with Yasser Munif. Join us in part two.


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