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”Inside Syria” author Reese Erlich says widespread propaganda combined with a lack of independent reporting makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of the reality on the ground in Aleppo

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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In news from Syria, after what was called one of the most intense bombardments in the five-year-long conflict, and widespread reports of civilian deaths, the battle for Aleppo appears to be over. An agreement has been reportedly reached between the rebel forces in Eastern Aleppo and the Syrian government, with the growing humanitarian catastrophe there, hastening negotiations which were brokered by Russia and Turkey. Well, now joining us to discuss this is Reese Erlich. He’s a foreign correspondent, author of Inside Syria: The Back Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, which has just been released in paperback, and Reese is on a national book tour promoting that book. He’s reported from Syria six times and has visited all the surrounding countries. Thanks so much for joining us. We wanted to get your thoughts on this latest news. The Russian Ambassador to the UN announcing that this deal has been struck, the US saying that they have signs of a ceasefire, the Russian Ambassador saying that the rebels would evacuate Aleppo and civilians would be unharmed, and this comes despite Western and UN accusations of the intentional killings of civilians in Aleppo. There have been widespread reports of that. Can you give us your reaction to this latest news? REESE ERLICH: Well, we’ll have to see whether the ceasefire and allowing the rebels to leave and the civilians to be unharmed actually plays out. There’s a lot of reason to believe that that may not happen, particularly men of military age seeking to leave are probably going to be taken by the Assad forces and one side will charge that they’ve been kidnapped and are being mistreated and the Assad government is going to argue that, well, they have to find… sort out the private fighting men or rebels from the civilian population. So I think we’re going to see a period of real tumult in Aleppo and, quite possibly, human rights violations continuing. JAISAL NOOR: You’ve been to Syria eight times. Is there any way to really know what’s going on in a place like Aleppo, because there are so many conflicting reports. REESE ERLICH: Yeah, it is difficult. So far, there have been no independent reporters allowed in. It’s been too dangerous, for one thing. Hopefully, in the days ahead there will be an ability to get some independent reporters in there. The New York Times and other mainstream media have been relying on both handouts from the rebel groups and from the US government, as well as whatever contacts they can reach by phone or by Skype. And there’s been clearly a lot of propaganda on both sides. The rebel side has misled people with a lot of false accusations. The only people that seem to die on the rebel side are civilians. And they downplay the fact that they have been hitting them pretty hard militarily. The Assad forces, they lie and put out their own propaganda claiming that they’re being very careful in their bombing. They’re not hurting civilians. That it’s all lies from the other side. One of the more clever uses by the rebels, apparently, false Twitter messages from a supposed seven-year-old girl tweeting about her experiences — and that was swallowed whole by a lot of US media. There are now serious questions about whether that seven-year-old really exists, or whether it was a propaganda effort. So, all sides are trying to influence international public opinion through propaganda and fake news. JAISAL NOOR: Talk about what the fall of Aleppo means for the Kurds and for the armed opposition overall across Syria. Is this going to be an end to the conflict, or is it just going to continue? REESE ERLICH: Well, it’s not going to be an end to the conflict. It’s a pretty serious blow to the opposition to Assad. Aleppo was the largest city by population in Syria before the war. It’s a commercial center. The rebels have held it for four years despite previous onslaughts, and the fact that they were driven out is very significant from a military standpoint. But, at the same time, you know, the Islamic State retook the city of Palmyra in the east of the country, which had been seized by the Assad government. So, and the fighting around Raqqa, where the Islamic State is headquartered, is intensifying. So the war is by no means over. One of the more interesting developments has been with the growth of the Syrian forces fighting in Rojava, the northern region of Syria. The PYD or the Democratic Union Party, is their secular party, considers itself on the left, is involved in promoting women’s rights and women’s equality and leadership — they have a women’s militia — and more recently they’ve helped initiate Arab militia groups. That is, they’re not of Kurdish origin, and they’re fighting in around Raqqa, and they were fighting in Aleppo. There’s a Kurdish enclave in Aleppo itself, and a lot of civilians had fled there. In most recent developments, the Kurds are at least claiming that some of the Arab militias that were defeated by Assad are joining them or will be joining them. Now, if that actually happens, that’s a very significant development because you no longer then have Assad on the one hand claiming that he’s fighting terrorists — anybody who opposes him were terrorists. On the other hand, you have these extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, for example, who are really engaged in horrific human rights violations in Aleppo. And, if some of the less extremist groups do, in fact, go over to the Kurdish side, that’s going to make the situation much more interesting and much more significant. JAISAL NOOR: Obviously, President-elect Trump is going to be coming into office in just a few weeks. REESE ERLICH: It’s hard to pronounce those words, isn’t it? President Trump. JAISAL NOOR: Exactly. It is. We’re all still getting used to it. But we’ve had some analysts on who have said that pro-regime forces in Syria responded to Trump’s election by escalating its military offensive. What are your thoughts on that? REESE ERLICH: I’ve heard that. It’s not really accurate. First of all, the offensive started well before the election results came out. And secondly, probably the stand that Turkey has taken had much more impact than anything that the elections in the US had. Specifically, Turkey finally decided that they were going to put a stop to the infiltration along the border — and particularly the infiltration from Turkey into Aleppo, of arms and extremist fighters. When they did that, that really had a major impact on the fighting in Aleppo, and the Turkish government has basically decided that the Kurds are a bigger enemy than the Islamic State or Assad. They’re making all kinds of tactical alliances with that in mind. So, in the long run, it’s very dangerous, because having them fight the Kurds. As I just mentioned, the one group that has some kind of popular base that’s not based on religion or ethnicity and reactionary ideas — the one group — the Turkish government has and probably will again attack them. That stand of the Turkish government had a lot more to do with the results in Aleppo than the US elections. JAISAL NOOR: And, as far as what Trump’s policy towards Syria could be, he was accused of having close ties to Russia throughout the election and he’s appointed Tillerson, the former head of Exxon, to be Secretary of State, who has, again, very close ties to Russia. Could this Trump Administration shift the balance of power in the region and what could that mean for the conflict? REESE ERLICH: Well, you know, during the campaign, Trump tried to play this populist card of being anti-war and anti-foreign intervention. He claimed he was the first to immediately oppose the Iraq war when it began, of course which was a lie, and that he can sit down and negotiate some kind of a settlement with Putin. Well, any negotiations have to be premised on having some kind of bargaining chips. And the US is in a very weak position. Why would Putin give up anything, given the current situation on the ground in Syria? So, that could lead to a pulling out of the US troops, which will be a great thing. But I doubt that Trump is going to do that. He’s got all these generals in Secretary of Defense – “Mad Dog” Mattis is a sworn enemy of Iran, and he’s going to sit down in meetings and tell Trump, “Look, Iran and Russians are going to win if we don’t do something, and that’s a disaster for the whole area. We can’t allow US prestige to be ruined, blah, blah, blah, blah. We’ve got to up our military presence in order to have a bargaining chip to negotiate with Putin.” And the US already has 500 troops, they’re now admitting they have combat troops, which they never admitted before, and so I think if anything they’re going to turn to 1,000 troops, 2,000 troops — whatever numbers they need under the guise of fighting terrorism to up the US presence in Syria to combat the Russian influence. Now, when that happens, it’s a disaster for the people of Syria, it’s a disaster for the American people when they see American troops dying, and tens of billions more dollars wasted. That’s my real worry, is that whatever Trump claims, they will end up escalating militarily. JAISAL NOOR: All right, Reese Erlich, thank you so much for joining us. Foreign correspondent, author of Inside Syria: The Back Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. Just released in paperback, and he’s on a national book tour promoting that book and talking about Syria. Thank you so much for joining us. REESE ERLICH: Always a pleasure. JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Reese Erlich is a best-selling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and National Public Radio. He has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Peabody (shared with others). He is the author of several books, and is currently touring across the country promoting his most recent one called: Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire, published in September 2010. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from