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Patrick Cockburn and Joseph Daher discuss the escalation of bombing in Syria that has killed 200 people in six days and undermined the peace talks in Geneva

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Airstrikes killed at least 27 people at Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday. The hospital was supported by the Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross. There were children and the last remaining pediatrician in the city among the dead. These recent escalation of bombing has undermined the peace talks in Geneva. Aleppo has become the center of a military escalation. Six days of air strikes and rebel shelling, split between the government forces and rebels, have killed some 200 people, two-thirds of them on the opposition side, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura appealed to the Presidents of the United States and Russia to intervene. With me to discuss the situation is Patrick Cockburn and Joseph Daher. Patrick is the Middle East correspondent for the Independent and Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne in Geneva, Switzerland. Thank you both for joining us today. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. JOSEPH DAHER: Thank you. PERIES: So first of all, let me go to you Patrick. Patrick, explain to us the shelling that’s going on right now. Who’s involved? And why are they doing it at this time, with the risk of the peace talks? COCKBURN: Well, I don’t think the peace talks are something that are likely to stop either side, dropping bombs or shelling. I mean the government is doing what it’s been doing really from the beginning, in 2011, which is dropping bombs on civilian areas to force out the civilian population. And so the rebels are left in areas that are only inhabited by themselves. They’re doing that in Aleppo but they did that it in Homs. I’ve seen in whole areas of ghost areas of just smashed up buildings. North Damascus, same thing. Most of this is bombing in Aleppo, and is very indiscriminate. The opposition are using artillery mortars. They don’t have the same fire power as the government. But the whole of the western side of Aleppo, which is under government control, is being hit according to reports from the area. PERIES: And Joseph, let me ask you, what do you know of what is going on, on the ground, at this time? And what the reaction of the people are, living in Aleppo. DAHER: First of all, Aleppo has been suffering for more than three years, of barrel bombs from the regime planes. It has been nearly on-going. And it is not only about facing army people in the liberated areas of Aleppo. You have at least 300,000 people still living over there, and organizing by themselves, despite the continuous threats from the regime. The bombing of the regime, the barrel bombs, etc. They’ve been continuing living in these areas, providing services to the population. You had municipalities organizing by themselves. Welcoming refugees from other areas [inaud.] because of the bombings. So, it’s not [an] area that’s completely only constituted of Free Syrian Army people. Plus it’s areas that are opposed to Islamist fundamentalist forces such as Daesh and al-Nusra they kicked out from these areas this kind of organization. So, what the regime is also doing is targeting areas that represent the democratic alternative in Syria. And this, the regime has been ongoing in this strategy since the beginning of 2011. So the reaction on the ground is completely to denounce these bombings and to organize the popular resistance on the ground, to resist the way they can to these barrel bombs and attacks, indiscriminate attacks. PERIES: And Patrick, what do you think of what Joseph is saying? Is the government, and I guess the allied Russian forces are, are they targeting democratic forces in this area? COCKBURN: I think they’re just targeting these areas, you know, this is very indiscriminate, you know, it’s bombs being dropped, pretty well anywhere and everywhere. I don’t know how far they’re aimed at any particular facility, you know, but I doubt it, personally. When you look at areas I’ve been in that have been devastated. The objective seems to be to destroy everything. suburbs of Damascus and Homs and elsewhere. So I don’t think that they’re targeting any particular group. It’s generally to drive out the civilian population. PERIES: And Joseph, when you’re saying government forces and the allied Russians are targeting democratic forces, how do we know that? What evidence do we have? DAHER: We have lots of evidence of this issue. For the regime, bombing has been going on since nearly the first years of the revolution, targeting popular forces, and after with the awakening of the Free Syrian Army, targeting [inaud.]. And for example [inaud.], that was occupied since 2013, October by Daesh, was not targeted like other areas of Syria, where you had democratic popular forces. Because the regime, since the beginning only want one alternative that is Daesh, to present itself as the protector and moderate of Syria to the western countries. And we’ve seen a similar thing happening, occurring, with the Russian intervention. A military intervention that started a while ago, but particularly speaking in October 2015, most of the targets of the Russian bombing, eighty percent according to the, for example, the [inaud.] democratic center, which is within Syria, and also [other] analysts. In the first few months of the Russian bombing, most of the targets were not Daesh, or [inaud.] al-Nusra, but Free Syrian Army forces, civilians, bombing hospitals, bombing civilian infrastructure that is much needed in the liberated areas. This is a clear strategy to alienate any kind of popular alternative democratic resistance within Syria. This is very clear, from both the Syrian dictatorship, Russia, Iran and other allies of the Assad regime, such as Hezbollah. PERIES: And Patrick, what do you make of what he’s saying? You’re saying this is indiscriminate bombing, but obviously forces know where hospitals are. COCKBURN: Well I don’t know that they do really. I think that indiscriminate bombing is indiscriminate. But, I think that the opposition has always held that the Damascus government and the Russians have never attacked Islamic State, but I don’t see how you can maintain that they attacked and recaptured Palmyra. They attacked west of Aleppo to the big air base at Aquyrus ? there. So they certainly are fighting Islamic State. They’re also fighting pretty well all the rest of the armed opposition, whether it’s al-Nusra, whether it’s other sections of it, whether it’s the Free Syrian Army. I think they’re attacking them all. So, is it in their political interests for the opposition to be portrayed as being purely jihadi [inaud.] organizations, extreme Sunhi organizations, like Islamic State or al-Nusra? Yes it is, obviously in political interests as it should be so. But it’s also true on the ground that the armed opposition is dominated by, most of it is Islamic State or al-Nusra, with some other organizations as well, who are outside these two groups. PERIES: So what we know thus far is the humanitarian crisis is escalating. Let’s look at what chairman of the United Nations humanitarian task force Jan Egeland had to say. JAN EGELAND: As a humanitarian worker, and as chair of this task force of the ISSG on humanitarian access, I could not, in any way express how high the stakes are for the next hours and days. The stakes are so incredibly high because so many civilian lives are at stake. So many humanitarian health workers and relief workers are being bombed, killed, maimed at the moment, that the whole lifeline to millions of people is now also at stake. PERIES: So gentleman, in addition to the escalating humanitarian condition on the ground, the peace talks are also falling apart. The UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has appealed to [the Presidents] of the United States and Russia to intervene. First, let me go to you Patrick. What kind of intervention is he looking for here? COCKBURN: Well, the leverage of the U.S. and Russia is over their allies. The Russians over the Assad government, and hence over the Syrian army in order to stop this escalation in bombing. The U.S. influence over opposition formations, that and over countries that support them, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and so forth. So I think he’s looking in that direction, but it’s not at all clear that these outside powers quite have the influence to force the de-escalation of the fighting at this stage. PERIES: And Joseph, describe to us why the peace talks have now fallen apart in Geneva, and what could bring them back to the table. DAHER: First of all, it’s the continuation of the war of the Assad regime against the same people that stopped the peace talks to continue. We must be clear, the opposition withdrew from the peace talks because the situation on the ground was worsening. And you can see it; 200 people dead in the past six days in Aleppo. This is only in Aleppo. If you speak about other areas of Syria, the truce in many aspects has been completely broken, and most of the time by regime forces. Just as the declaration of official statement from the Russian state that it was withdrawing from Syria was completely untrue. It was a diplomatic move, to satisfy the framework of the peace talk in Geneva. And we’ve seen that Russian soldiers are still on the ground, that’s what, 5000. We’ve seen that Russian bombing is continuously continuing. So, any kind, we’re not witnessing at all any kind of pressure from Russia toward the Assad regime dictatorship to push into the negotiation on the opposite. And this has been going on since the beginning between Russia and [the] Assad regime. It’s to continue the war until the opposition is completely dead. PERIES: And Patrick, what do you make of what Joseph is saying? Because there was a withdrawal and many announcements made about that withdrawal of Russia. Why are they assisting in the air strikes now? COCKBURN: Well, you know it was always a partial withdrawal. And since their main force there is obviously the Russian air force, planes can, even if they have withdrawn they can come back from Russia very fast. So that was always incomplete. I doubt, do the Russians, the question is, do the Russians want to give a blank check to Assad to try to win the war? I doubt it very much. How far can they influence his actions? I would have thought quite a lot. So as the UN was saying, this is a crucial moment when we see if this cease fire can be revived. What was behind the cease fire, what made different from what happened previously in Syria, is that it was backed by the superpowers, and we count Russia as a superpower in the region at the moment. Are they capable of maintaining this cease fire in real terms, or not? And that’s why it is such a crucial moment. PERIES: All right, Patrick Cockburn, Joseph Daher. Thank you both for joining us today, and hope to have you both back. I think this issue is not going to go away any time soon. COCKBURN: Thank you. DAHER: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.