The Battle for Syria Newsnight

The Battle for Syria

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It's the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands


of ordinary Syrians, sent millions fleeing the country,


and confounded Western foreign policy but is the fight for Aleppo


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


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


Today there are reports that a barrel bomb killed


18 civilians in the opposition-held area.


This young doctor who went back to the city, tells


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


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


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


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


Might the battle for Aleppo be the catalyst for the resolution


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


to strangle the opposition fighters and bring the population


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


but the rebels, disparate and shifting groups,


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


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


electricity, water and medical supplies.


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


attacks against opposition forces and sieges of cities such as Aleppo


and he accused Russia of failing to take steps


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


is exploring expanded military cooperation with Russia


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


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


as far as foreign policy is concerned will Syria stand out


as the issue which will attract the most trenchant criticism?


The question is, will this final throw of the dice


redeem what is seen by some as a fainthearted response


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


As they prepare for battle, mujahedin anti-government fighters


get stirred into action by their commander.


He tells them about martyrdom and the dancing girls that


After prayers, the fighters jump to their feet with


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


struggle in the long, vicious Syrian war, one


that the wider world watches with seeming powerlessness.


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


Thousands of civilians are being killed every day,


they are bombarded by Russian air force, bombarded


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


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


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


accompanying really, these disastrous attacks


Government forces and militia have fought throughout June to close


off the Costello Road, the last route in and out


Faced with strangulation, rebel groups five days ago


launched a counteroffensive, attempting to break the siege.


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


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


Covered by their own drones, the rebels launched suicide vehicle


They followed up with a ground assault, using tanks


Nearby, a reporter with one of the militant groups,


TRANSLATION: The front of the conquest of the Levant has


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


detonated them and destroyed the school.


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


break the siege imposed on our sisters in Aleppo.


But the Syrian army has been fighting back in this area


with multiple Russian air strikes being launched to blunt


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


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


For the 300,000 people now trapped in the rebel


held centre of the city, there's intense danger


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


Yesterday, this CCTV camera recorded another incoming missile,


just outside the front door of one hospital.


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


facility perspective, but in terms of food,


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


People are being starved and bombed to death.


Adding to the emergency, the shortages of medicines and food


You have to understand that electricity supplies


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


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


So after three days it will mean that all the machinery


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


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


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


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


While all this happens, an international peace plan


The Russians have announced the setting up of corridors


But the resistance says they will just be used to empty


The Russians have created this humanitarian disaster


and then they claim to want to have humanitarian corridors.


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


This isn't an attempt to alleviate the situation,


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


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


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


Of course, as an active belligerent in this conflict,


Russia has its own version of events in the city.


Portraying it as decisive battle against the militant Nusra


movement, the Russians have also accused them


TRANSLATION: A toxic substance was launched at a residential area


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


with symptoms of asphyxiation and inhalation burns have been


Overlooked by Putin and Assad, the general at least knows


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


While Washington has allowed its Syrian opposition allies to be


targeted and failed to act to protect the civilian population.


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


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


we will take out some of your planes.


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


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


Might it be something Hillary Clinton might do if elected?


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


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


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


Spearheading the latest Aleppo offensive, the Nusra Front renamed


and trying to distance itself from Al-Qaeda.


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


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


The Americans hardly want to take action that benefits this group


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


Joining us live from Aleppo via Skype is Ismail Alabdullah,


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


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


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


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


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


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


rebel groups are acting together, the opposition groups are acting


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


is Bassma Kodmani, Spokesperson for the Syrian Opposition High


Negotiations Committee. It represents moderate opposition to


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


we are looking at cooperation between the United States and


Russia, we would like to have a justification from the


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


committed without responding to that and without offering any alternative


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


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


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


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


explore further military cooperation with Russia instead. What would you


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


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


right attitude and unfortunately, everyone is telling us there is


nothing to expect from this Administration, you will have to


wait for the next administration. Hillary Clinton may be more


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


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


from this administration is one strike, very limited military


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


international community. Instead the leverage that people are hoping to


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


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


tonight. Shortly before coming on air,


I spoke to Philip Gordon, who was Special Assistant


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


on Syria more many years. George Bush faced dreadful vitriol


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


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


living with the Iraq intervention and it weighs heavily on President


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


consequences. If the head of that next administration is Hillary


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


government of moderate Syrians that would govern democratically and work


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


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


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


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


any particular regime, it is the conflict that is radicalising


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


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


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


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


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


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


to loosen Assad's grip. There are almost daily


reports of air attacks, either by barrel bombs from Regime


helicopters, or strikes Today ten people are reported to


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


under fire themselves is enormous. According to the organisation


Physicians for Human Rights last week was the deadliest for hospitals


in the Eastern part of the city, five were bombed


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


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


who has worked as a surgeon in Aleppo over the course


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Europe should take control. The ministers from all the governments


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


to Brazil, Newsnight is offering its own unique take


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


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


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


this programme. But even Thought For The Day


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


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


attempts to unlock the secrets of the creative brain,


exploring the relationship between art and the unconscious,


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


novelist Eimear McBride, The programme contains


strong language. Where does a unique


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


paintings move us when others don't?


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