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Shelling Of Rebel-Held East Ghouta Violates 'Every Conceivable Norm' In Syrian War, Aid Leader Says09:49

David Milliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a British Labour Party politician. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
David Milliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a British Labour Party politician. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

The situation in eastern Ghouta in Syria is dire. The United Nations says hundreds have been killed by government airstrikes there this month, and hospitals have been overwhelmed by the carnage.

"The secretary general of the United Nations yesterday said it was the modern definition of hell," David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, tells Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti. "And I think that is the right description, because human life is not just hanging by a thread, it's being lost."

One of the five hospitals the IRC supports in the area was bombed Wednesday, Miliband (@DMiliband) says.

"We literally have doctors having to reuse syringes," he says. "We have credible reports of starving children, and of course there is death and destruction from the air of an absolutely abhorrent kind."

Interview Highlights

On Syrian government and Russian-supported airstrikes in Ghouta

"Obviously, the conflict in Syria has become more complicated over the last six or seven years, since it began as a rather basic demand for accountable government and respect for individual freedom in Dara'a in 2011, with people writing graffiti on walls. It's now a much more complicated conflict. But the essential problem at its heart — namely that the combatants to the conflict are paying no heed at all to the basics of human life or international humanitarian law — has become worse and worse, from chemical weapons to now this mass bombardment, not just in Ghouta, where there's a siege, but in the northwest of the country, 400,000 people displaced from their homes by bombing in the last two and a half weeks. So any hope that 2017 was gonna see the end of the Syrian war I think is being dashed. 2018 is on track to be a bloodier year than even last year."

On the International Rescue Committee's efforts there

"We support five hospitals out of 19 in the area. I mean the doctors and nurses who remain are extraordinary people, and now they have very little choice but to stay, because they're sealed off. We know there are 700 to 800 people in desperate need of evacuation, because they've got illnesses and diseases that need more or less immediate treatment if they are to survive. We also know that the basic primary care infrastructure, the basic care — the dialysis machines that are needed for kidney patients, the basic support for diabetics — is being lost. We get supplies into there, we support the doctors and the nurses running the five hospitals that we support. But we are in a mission there to just keep hope, keep life going."

"Any hope that 2017 was gonna see the end of the Syrian war I think is being dashed. 2018 is on track to be a bloodier year than even last year."

David Miliband

On the severity of the humanitarian crisis

"It's the violation of every conceivable norm. And I'm afraid there's no shame on the part of the Iranian or Russian backers of the Assad regime. They trot out this line that they're taking on terrorists. There's very little accountability. So I want to know, who are the people who ordered the bombing of the hospital that we run? And there's no accountability for that. Obviously the trauma for the west of Afghanistan and Iraq means that there is enormous political caution in Western countries about getting involved in a conflict like that in Syria. But that means that there's free reign for people who are dissolving the very basics of humanity."

On what's preventing the international community from applying more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government

"There's a simple answer to that, which is the Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council, is blocking Security Council action. We know Sweden and Kuwait, who are two temporary members, two-year members of the U.N. Security Council, have got a resolution down being discussed at the moment to call for a 30-day halt in the fighting and in the bombing, and that is being blocked by the Russians. We'll see whether or not the Chinese support them, or whether the Chinese abstain. This follows a record of 12 or 15 similar vetoes that the Russians have applied. Now the real test of diplomacy, of course, is not just to pass resolutions, it's what you do when resolutions are blocked? Where is the political pressure? Where is the shame? Which is a word that I've used before. Where is the linkage of actions on the Syria front to other questions where Russia or Iran have interests in the wider international system?

"I talk about a crisis of diplomacy, because we know that the State Department is massively understrength when it comes to the deployment of ambassadors. We know that the Trump administration has said it wants to cut by 30 percent the number of diplomats, but also the amount of humanitarian aid. That retreat of the U.S. is absolutely fundamental to understanding the kind of remit and impunity that exist for other actors in the international system at the moment, because when Western countries withdraw, for all of our own faults — not to say we're perfect at all — but when we withdraw, it leaves room for very bad actors to fill the void."

This article was originally published on February 22, 2018.

This segment aired on February 22, 2018.


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