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The Battle for Syria

A special programme on the war Syria. As the battle for Aleppo rages, what could end the fighting?


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It's the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands

:00:00.:00:00.

of ordinary Syrians, sent millions fleeing the country,

:00:07.:00:08.

and confounded Western foreign policy but is the fight for Aleppo

:00:09.:00:11.

The regime is using gas bombs and cluster bombs on civilians.

:00:12.:00:19.

Aleppo, Syria's biggest city is constantly under attack.

:00:20.:00:26.

Today there are reports that a barrel bomb killed

:00:27.:00:29.

18 civilians in the opposition-held area.

:00:30.:00:32.

This young doctor who went back to the city, tells

:00:33.:00:35.

We're devoting the whole programme tonight to analyse the latest news

:00:36.:00:57.

We'll be hearing live from an aid worker in Aleppo,

:00:58.:01:02.

a former advisor to President Obama, a spokeswoman for the Syrian

:01:03.:01:05.

opposition, and a doctor who's just returned from the Syrian border.

:01:06.:01:19.

Might the battle for Aleppo be the catalyst for the resolution

:01:20.:01:23.

It's where Assad, supported by the Russians, is trying

:01:24.:01:30.

to strangle the opposition fighters and bring the population

:01:31.:01:34.

The city has faced constant attack in the five years of the civil war,

:01:35.:01:37.

but the rebels, disparate and shifting groups,

:01:38.:01:39.

are now acting together, battling back against the month-long

:01:40.:01:41.

siege which has starved parts of the city of food, fuel

:01:42.:01:45.

electricity, water and medical supplies.

:01:46.:01:50.

President Obama this week criticised Russia's support of the regime's

:01:51.:01:53.

attacks against opposition forces and sieges of cities such as Aleppo

:01:54.:01:57.

and he accused Russia of failing to take steps

:01:58.:02:00.

But at the same time he has announced that the US administration

:02:01.:02:07.

is exploring expanded military cooperation with Russia

:02:08.:02:09.

to try to defeat IS - although he said he wasn't confident

:02:10.:02:14.

So when the scorecard on Obama's presidency is tallied up,

:02:15.:02:21.

as far as foreign policy is concerned will Syria stand out

:02:22.:02:24.

as the issue which will attract the most trenchant criticism?

:02:25.:02:28.

The question is, will this final throw of the dice

:02:29.:02:30.

redeem what is seen by some as a fainthearted response

:02:31.:02:33.

We'll be examining that tonight, but first here's our diplomatic

:02:34.:02:38.

As they prepare for battle, mujahedin anti-government fighters

:02:39.:02:56.

get stirred into action by their commander.

:02:57.:02:59.

He tells them about martyrdom and the dancing girls that

:03:00.:03:02.

After prayers, the fighters jump to their feet with

:03:03.:03:18.

They were thrown against Assad forces positions as part of a key

:03:19.:03:26.

struggle in the long, vicious Syrian war, one

:03:27.:03:33.

that the wider world watches with seeming powerlessness.

:03:34.:03:36.

People are just a new as to what is going on in Syria right now.

:03:37.:03:39.

Thousands of civilians are being killed every day,

:03:40.:03:42.

they are bombarded by Russian air force, bombarded

:03:43.:03:44.

The regime is using gas bombs and cluster bombs on civilians.

:03:45.:03:58.

It's a horrible catastrophe and I feel that we have been

:03:59.:04:01.

watching this for five or six years now, isn't the outcry that should be

:04:02.:04:04.

accompanying really, these disastrous attacks

:04:05.:04:05.

Government forces and militia have fought throughout June to close

:04:06.:04:11.

off the Costello Road, the last route in and out

:04:12.:04:13.

Faced with strangulation, rebel groups five days ago

:04:14.:04:22.

launched a counteroffensive, attempting to break the siege.

:04:23.:04:25.

They attacked in the south-west of the city where government lines

:04:26.:04:32.

are thin, starting with an assault on the Hikma military school.

:04:33.:04:36.

Covered by their own drones, the rebels launched suicide vehicle

:04:37.:04:39.

They followed up with a ground assault, using tanks

:04:40.:04:44.

Nearby, a reporter with one of the militant groups,

:04:45.:04:49.

TRANSLATION: The front of the conquest of the Levant has

:04:50.:05:00.

said two car bombs to the Al Hikma school where they successfully

:05:01.:05:03.

detonated them and destroyed the school.

:05:04.:05:07.

I swear to God, it will be just a few hours before we

:05:08.:05:10.

break the siege imposed on our sisters in Aleppo.

:05:11.:05:14.

But the Syrian army has been fighting back in this area

:05:15.:05:17.

with multiple Russian air strikes being launched to blunt

:05:18.:05:20.

Opposition groups insist their drive to reopen a corridor into the city

:05:21.:05:26.

is making progress, but all the time humanitarian worries grow.

:05:27.:05:39.

For the 300,000 people now trapped in the rebel

:05:40.:05:44.

held centre of the city, there's intense danger

:05:45.:05:46.

It's six medical facilities were all struck in the last week of July.

:05:47.:05:54.

Yesterday, this CCTV camera recorded another incoming missile,

:05:55.:05:57.

just outside the front door of one hospital.

:05:58.:06:03.

The situation on the ground is very dire, not just from the medical

:06:04.:06:06.

facility perspective, but in terms of food,

:06:07.:06:10.

in terms of the fact babies can't get formula, for example.

:06:11.:06:13.

People are being starved and bombed to death.

:06:14.:06:17.

Adding to the emergency, the shortages of medicines and food

:06:18.:06:21.

You have to understand that electricity supplies

:06:22.:06:27.

to the east of Aleppo were cut, so most of the hospitals and most

:06:28.:06:34.

of the bakeries and so on and so forth, they use smaller,

:06:35.:06:36.

So after three days it will mean that all the machinery

:06:37.:06:45.

we have in our hospital, which has already been hits,

:06:46.:06:48.

we have in our hospital, which has already been hit,

:06:49.:06:50.

will also be out of service because we won't have any

:06:51.:06:53.

So they are suffering really, really badly right now and things

:06:54.:06:58.

While all this happens, an international peace plan

:06:59.:07:07.

The Russians have announced the setting up of corridors

:07:08.:07:12.

But the resistance says they will just be used to empty

:07:13.:07:20.

The Russians have created this humanitarian disaster

:07:21.:07:24.

and then they claim to want to have humanitarian corridors.

:07:25.:07:27.

A lot of the international NGOs have come out and condemned the Russian

:07:28.:07:30.

This isn't an attempt to alleviate the situation,

:07:31.:07:38.

it's an attempt to justify annihilating the rest of Aleppo.

:07:39.:07:41.

They'll say we removed people and whoever is left are terrorists.

:07:42.:07:45.

It's pretty transparent and it needs to be condemned out right.

:07:46.:07:49.

Of course, as an active belligerent in this conflict,

:07:50.:07:52.

Russia has its own version of events in the city.

:07:53.:08:01.

Portraying it as decisive battle against the militant Nusra

:08:02.:08:03.

movement, the Russians have also accused them

:08:04.:08:05.

TRANSLATION: A toxic substance was launched at a residential area

:08:06.:08:19.

As a result of this terror attack, seven people have been killed and 23

:08:20.:08:22.

with symptoms of asphyxiation and inhalation burns have been

:08:23.:08:24.

Overlooked by Putin and Assad, the general at least knows

:08:25.:08:29.

there is a deep commitment on his side of the conflict.

:08:30.:08:36.

While Washington has allowed its Syrian opposition allies to be

:08:37.:08:38.

targeted and failed to act to protect the civilian population.

:08:39.:08:44.

Certainly the US and the coalition could make threats to the regime,

:08:45.:08:47.

that if you continue bombing civilians, as you were doing,

:08:48.:08:49.

we will take out some of your planes.

:08:50.:08:52.

That is escalating the war in a way that President Obama doesn't

:08:53.:08:54.

want to do, but I feel it's the only thing that can stop

:08:55.:08:58.

Might it be something Hillary Clinton might do if elected?

:08:59.:09:03.

I think she would she would take a more aggressive stance.

:09:04.:09:06.

The question is, where will the country be by the time she takes

:09:07.:09:09.

The longer this conflict drags out, the worse the situation gets

:09:10.:09:18.

Spearheading the latest Aleppo offensive, the Nusra Front renamed

:09:19.:09:23.

and trying to distance itself from Al-Qaeda.

:09:24.:09:27.

But still an enemy of the US, as well as in Russia

:09:28.:09:33.

But still an enemy of the US, as well as Russia

:09:34.:09:36.

The Americans hardly want to take action that benefits this group

:09:37.:09:41.

and that's just one aspect of Syria's awful complexity.

:09:42.:09:50.

Joining us live from Aleppo via Skype is Ismail Alabdullah,

:09:51.:09:55.

who works for the White Helmet civil defence organisation in the city.

:09:56.:10:00.

What is happening all around you tonight? We have bombing on

:10:01.:10:15.

civilians in Aleppo every night. All kinds of bombs, the mortars,

:10:16.:10:19.

missiles and rockets. This is happening every day. Every day we

:10:20.:10:25.

have civilians killed by air strikes. Just yesterday we had 20

:10:26.:10:36.

people killed by air strikes. Is there a feeling this weekend, as the

:10:37.:10:40.

rebel groups are acting together, the opposition groups are acting

:10:41.:10:43.

together, is there a feeling something is changing this weekend?

:10:44.:10:51.

The people in Aleppo city are hoping in a few days the siege will be

:10:52.:10:57.

broken and this is what the people are hoping. We don't care about who

:10:58.:11:07.

is trying to break the siege, most of the people now living in Aleppo

:11:08.:11:17.

city, they need help. They are scared of what is going on and in a

:11:18.:11:26.

few days... If they don't receive any food, they fear about their

:11:27.:11:37.

lives, and what will happen in other parts of Syria. People have died of

:11:38.:11:48.

starvation. They just care about breaking the siege and getting out

:11:49.:11:55.

of Aleppo city. One final question, what do you want the West to do

:11:56.:12:02.

right now? What we want, as civilians, as people, just help us

:12:03.:12:07.

in this situation. We have bombing on the city every day. We just want

:12:08.:12:17.

the siege to be broken and receive something for these people. Thank

:12:18.:12:18.

you very much for joining us. Joining me now from Paris

:12:19.:12:21.

is Bassma Kodmani, Spokesperson for the Syrian Opposition High

:12:22.:12:24.

Negotiations Committee. It represents moderate opposition to

:12:25.:12:35.

the Assad regime. Is it a feeling this is a critical moment for the

:12:36.:12:43.

whole of Syria? It is critical certainly for peace process, for a

:12:44.:12:49.

negotiation process. Because we were expecting a of hostilities to be

:12:50.:12:55.

restored and enforced by the United States and Russia and forcing the

:12:56.:12:59.

regime to comply with it, in order for us to go back to Geneva. Instead

:13:00.:13:05.

we had a massive air campaign, both from the regime and from Russia.

:13:06.:13:11.

Indiscriminate bombing which amounts to war crimes for Russia. Russia is

:13:12.:13:15.

currently committing war crimes in Syria. We don't hear it enough. If

:13:16.:13:21.

we are looking at cooperation between the United States and

:13:22.:13:26.

Russia, we would like to have a justification from the

:13:27.:13:30.

Administration, how it explains co-operation with war crimes being

:13:31.:13:39.

committed without responding to that and without offering any alternative

:13:40.:13:43.

to what is going on. What is at stake is the city of Aleppo, the

:13:44.:13:48.

life of civilians. Before anything else, what we are seeing, for the

:13:49.:13:55.

sixth year, failure to protect any civilians in Syria. Can I ask you,

:13:56.:14:02.

you are very critical of America's, President Obama's decision to

:14:03.:14:06.

explore further military cooperation with Russia instead. What would you

:14:07.:14:12.

like to see from President Obama? The least we can say is his policy

:14:13.:14:18.

hasn't worked. Remaining with the same line is definitely not the

:14:19.:14:25.

right attitude and unfortunately, everyone is telling us there is

:14:26.:14:29.

nothing to expect from this Administration, you will have to

:14:30.:14:34.

wait for the next administration. Hillary Clinton may be more

:14:35.:14:38.

determined in her policy, but in the meantime, we will have thousands and

:14:39.:14:44.

thousands of people killed in Syria without any reaction. What we expect

:14:45.:14:50.

from this administration is one strike, very limited military

:14:51.:14:57.

action, but simply explains, it means to the regime that a

:14:58.:15:02.

ceasefire, a cessation of hostilities has to be installed, has

:15:03.:15:08.

to be respected and bombing from the air has to stop. That is exactly

:15:09.:15:14.

what we need. Some deterrents, some leveraged from this Administration

:15:15.:15:18.

for air bombing to stop from Russia, as well as from this regime. It is

:15:19.:15:24.

not very complicated, it doesn't require a lot of military action.

:15:25.:15:29.

You're a spokespersons for the moderate opposition groups. In

:15:30.:15:37.

Aleppo, a number of groups have got together in order to try and take on

:15:38.:15:44.

president Assad and break the siege. How difficult is that going to be be

:15:45.:15:49.

if you do succeed in the aftermath when you have made common cause with

:15:50.:15:55.

groups whose tactics you do not agree with? Definitely the groups on

:15:56.:15:59.

the ground do not have the same agenda. What we have tried to do

:16:00.:16:05.

over weeks and weeks is to get a cessation of hostile is the back in

:16:06.:16:08.

place. Because at the moment there are attacks on the opposition, it is

:16:09.:16:13.

obvious that groups are going to lead a counter offensive and we have

:16:14.:16:24.

the radicals who are empowered. The radicals then will be marginalised.

:16:25.:16:29.

None of that has happened. We have not that that commitment from the

:16:30.:16:34.

international community. Instead the leverage that people are hoping to

:16:35.:16:38.

get from the ground is now from radical groups. We do not welcome

:16:39.:16:44.

that, but that is what we see today. Thank you for joining us from Paris

:16:45.:16:46.

tonight. Shortly before coming on air,

:16:47.:17:08.

I spoke to Philip Gordon, who was Special Assistant

:17:09.:17:11.

on the Middle East to the President between 2013 and 2015 and has worked

:17:12.:17:13.

on Syria more many years. George Bush faced dreadful vitriol

:17:14.:17:30.

over the Iraq intervention and it goes on and on. Do you think

:17:31.:17:34.

President Obama will face the same vitriol. It is true we are still

:17:35.:17:40.

living with the Iraq intervention and it weighs heavily on President

:17:41.:17:44.

Obama and many would argue that we overlearned the lessons of Iraq. But

:17:45.:17:49.

the president would say and I think it rights to not forget them either.

:17:50.:17:56.

Even the severe critics of president's alleged inaction aren't

:17:57.:17:59.

really willing to say they would go and do something to Iraq again using

:18:00.:18:04.

major military force. In fact the legacy of Iraq will hang over every

:18:05.:18:12.

aspect of American foreign policy and did, because when the Arab

:18:13.:18:17.

spring happened and it is OK if it happens quickly and the regime falls

:18:18.:18:22.

and you don't have to do much, but when you underestimate what happens

:18:23.:18:27.

with somebody like Assad backed by the Russians, then American is found

:18:28.:18:32.

to be wanting. As tempting as it is now to say Barack Obama has been

:18:33.:18:37.

enactive and we should have a more decisive policy and intervene. But

:18:38.:18:40.

then you have to say how you're going to follow up. What you expect

:18:41.:18:47.

to happen if he does. Do you think with hind sight that had America

:18:48.:18:52.

done more to arm the opposition earlier, we know there was some CIA

:18:53.:18:58.

involvement in weapons and training, had more happened earlier, the

:18:59.:19:01.

outcome might have been different so far? It is easy in retrospect to say

:19:02.:19:07.

as many have, if only the administration had done this or

:19:08.:19:13.

that, provided arms, again we will never know. If you think it through,

:19:14.:19:19.

it is not clear and everyone who has been involved in this has asked the

:19:20.:19:24.

question, I think it's implausible to imagine that a modest amount of

:19:25.:19:28.

support for the opposition would have changed that trajectory. If you

:19:29.:19:32.

were going to do it, you would have to decide essentially to go to war

:19:33.:19:36.

and do whatever it took and we get back to something more like Iraq,

:19:37.:19:40.

where you violently overthrow the government and had to deal with the

:19:41.:19:45.

consequences. If the head of that next administration is Hillary

:19:46.:19:49.

Clinton, that is a woman you have worked with and how does her policy

:19:50.:19:56.

on Syria differ from Barack Obama's? We won't know for sure until January

:19:57.:20:03.

2017. I think, having been in office, having been Secretary of

:20:04.:20:08.

State in the situation room for all of these decisions, she will know

:20:09.:20:13.

that she needs to have a serious and hard-nosed and rigorous assessment

:20:14.:20:17.

of the situation. What do you think would be the best outcome for

:20:18.:20:25.

America in Syria? You know, I think at this point, we are well beyond

:20:26.:20:30.

ideal outcomes, the best outcome would be a transition to a new

:20:31.:20:39.

government of moderate Syrians that would govern democratically and work

:20:40.:20:42.

with the west. That would be an ideal outcome. I think there is very

:20:43.:20:46.

little chance of achieving that goal. We need to understand that.

:20:47.:20:50.

Syria is not going to be put together any time soon. If you could

:20:51.:20:55.

just wind down the conflict, which is what the problem is, more than

:20:56.:21:00.

any particular regime, it is the conflict that is radicalising

:21:01.:21:08.

Muslims and killing people. If could get a ceasefire and prisoners are

:21:09.:21:12.

released and there is local governance, that is far from an

:21:13.:21:16.

ideal outcome, but it would be a heck of a lot better of what we see

:21:17.:21:18.

right now. Thank you. It's estimated that a quarter

:21:19.:21:23.

of a million people are living under siege in opposition held areas

:21:24.:21:26.

of Aleppo, where since the weekend rebel fighters have been trying

:21:27.:21:29.

to loosen Assad's grip. There are almost daily

:21:30.:21:34.

reports of air attacks, either by barrel bombs from Regime

:21:35.:21:36.

helicopters, or strikes Today ten people are reported to

:21:37.:21:38.

have been killed by an air attack. The pressure on hospitals,

:21:39.:21:43.

under fire themselves is enormous. According to the organisation

:21:44.:21:48.

Physicians for Human Rights last week was the deadliest for hospitals

:21:49.:21:50.

in the Eastern part of the city, five were bombed

:21:51.:21:58.

in twenty four hours. This is the story of a young Syrian

:21:59.:22:00.

physician, Dr Hamza al Khaltib. Joining me here is Dr David Knott,

:22:01.:22:03.

who has worked as a surgeon in Aleppo over the course

:22:04.:25:25.

of the civil war. Good evening. You have been trying

:25:26.:25:38.

to get in touch with people you know in hospital in Aleppo. When did you

:25:39.:25:44.

last speak to people? About three weeks ago, I have been contacting

:25:45.:25:50.

them since I came out 12 months ago. Every week we have contacts

:25:51.:25:56.

discussing patients and their wounds and trauma. I'm on what's app

:25:57.:26:02.

telling them what to do. You know now in the last week five hospitals

:26:03.:26:07.

have been attacked and there is more attacks today. What is it like in

:26:08.:26:12.

these hospitals? It is really dreadful. I was there in 2014 when

:26:13.:26:17.

the barrel bombs were starting. We had a hospital that was bombed three

:26:18.:26:22.

times when I was there and the whole place was being barrel bombed by

:26:23.:26:25.

Syrian helicopters. And the situation is such that it is very

:26:26.:26:29.

difficult to operate, because you're operating on patients that come in

:26:30.:26:37.

with dragmentation -- fragmentation wounds and they're covered in dust.

:26:38.:26:41.

It is a terrible situation. Since you have been there and now with

:26:42.:26:48.

this latest siege, what are the worst shortages in medical supplies.

:26:49.:26:53.

In 2013 we had a lot. 2014 it was worse. Now they can't get anything

:26:54.:27:00.

in at all. The humanitarian cordons don't exist -- corridors don't

:27:01.:27:09.

exist. They can't get in any drugs or pain-relieving drugs. I heard

:27:10.:27:16.

somebody did an amputation using paracetamol. There is dedication, we

:27:17.:27:21.

saw that doctor walking back into Aleppo. The doctors will not leave.

:27:22.:27:27.

They're there and dedicated and they're not going to leave Aleppo at

:27:28.:27:32.

all. Just looking at this from your perspective, what do you think the

:27:33.:27:36.

UK, what do you think the west should be doing now? I feel that

:27:37.:27:41.

the, what's happening is the western Governments should be putting

:27:42.:27:46.

pressure on Russia, they should be putting extreme pressure and we

:27:47.:27:50.

should have a group such as the foreign minister and Europe should

:27:51.:27:54.

be doing something. America has lost it to be honest with you. It is

:27:55.:27:58.

Europe should take control. The ministers from all the governments

:27:59.:28:03.

from France, England, should have, should go to Russia and say we have

:28:04.:28:07.

to stop this now, because you're making the situation much, much

:28:08.:28:13.

worse. What do you fear the consequences could be if it is not

:28:14.:28:21.

reed. -- resolved. Well, it is a world problem now and now is the

:28:22.:28:25.

time to do something. If we don't do something now, a lot of fighter we

:28:26.:28:31.

have seen have gone to the other Jihadist type movements, they will

:28:32.:28:34.

be disgruntled, because the west has not helped them. The people will

:28:35.:28:38.

feel unhappy, because nobody helped them and we can't sit on a situation

:28:39.:28:46.

where we watch 300,000 people slowly annihilated - killed and starved to

:28:47.:28:52.

death. So you feel that people, we know people are starving, if this

:28:53.:28:55.

isn't alleviated, the things you have seen, the people you have seen

:28:56.:28:59.

and talked to, they will starve to death. I had a group of about ten

:29:00.:29:04.

doctors that I was talking to, it went down to three and now I can't

:29:05.:29:07.

get in contact with any of them. I don't know if they're alive or dead.

:29:08.:29:14.

Do you have any concerns about going back to the Turkish border? I don't

:29:15.:29:19.

have any concerns. Because the most important thing is to train the

:29:20.:29:23.

doctors there, to give them the best medical input to help their

:29:24.:29:24.

patients. Thank you very much. Rio 2016 - half-finished, riddled

:29:25.:29:30.

with drugs and a little bit squalid. As the BBC decamps en masse

:29:31.:29:33.

to Brazil, Newsnight is offering its own unique take

:29:34.:29:39.

on the Games, from a I just hope someone's told

:29:40.:29:42.

Stephen Smith he won't be needing Yes, it's true -

:29:43.:29:48.

the Olympic Games are just about to I'm going to be covering them for

:29:49.:29:57.

this programme. But even Thought For The Day

:29:58.:30:02.

are sending ten people. Steven Smith, Throne of Games coming

:30:03.:30:24.

soon to this network. Next on Artsnight, writer Meg Rosoff

:30:25.:30:37.

attempts to unlock the secrets of the creative brain,

:30:38.:30:40.

exploring the relationship between art and the unconscious,

:30:41.:30:42.

with actors Anne-Marie Duff and Denise Gough, award-winning

:30:43.:30:47.

novelist Eimear McBride, The programme contains

:30:48.:30:49.

strong language. Where does a unique

:30:50.:30:57.

artistic voice come from? Why do some books, performances and

:30:58.:31:01.

paintings move us when others don't?

:31:02.:31:07.