Aleppo, Syria, has lately been the focus of much world attention, with some people even hearing in it the first rumblings of WW3. It is not really possible to sort out the wheat from the chaff in the torrents of information and opinions pouring daily through every conceivable communication channel, without asking the locals for their insights.
Dr. Nabil Antaki is one of the brave hearts that chose to remain in Aleppo despite the tragic loss of his brother, killed by 'rebels', to care for the war-wounded, mostly without charging a fee. He is also a member of a small, homegrown Christian charity - ‘Aleppo’s Blue Marists’- which provides housing, food, educational and recreational activities to Syrians of all denominations who are displaced within their own country. He was therefore uniquely placed to walk me through the maze and shed light on what is really going on in Aleppo.
1- Nabil, first of all, I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to me about the situation in Syria. I am going to start right off the bat with the burning topic of the day. There is much talk these days among world leaders about the need to impose a no-fly zone over Aleppo. What do you think of that idea?
I disagree with it. A no-fly zone would mainly benefit armed groups such as Daech [ISIS] and Al-Nosra, and leave the city and its inhabitants exposed to their attacks.
2- Humanitarian organizations, however, insist that such a flying ban is needed to bring relief to beleaguered civilians. Is it not your opinion? What do you think, in this regard, of reports by Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, describing Aleppo’s devastation, allegedly caused by the Syrian Army barrel bombing?
My issue with Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières - MSF] is that their reports are biased. They only report on the suffering in one part of town, the part held by rebels, never in the part under government control. Large hospitals in the western part of Aleppo were destroyed by terrorists, yet never mentioned by Doctors Without Borders. For example, in December 2013, the destruction of Al-Kindi hospital by shelling, then arson, at the hands of Al-Nusra Front, never made headlines in the corporate media. The focus is on the destruction of hospitals allegedly located in the rebel zone and whose numbers fluctuate according to the needs of the propaganda war, or which only exist in MSF's imagination. Likewise, casualties among civilians living in the western district of Aleppo have never interested those NGOs.
But first, let me explain for the benefit of your readers…Aleppo is divided into two parts. The eastern part with 250,000 inhabitants at most, is in the hands of ‘rebels’/ terrorist armed groups, who keep them hostage, while the western part with 1.5 to 2 million ihabitants, is under the control of the Syrian state.
In western Aleppo, we are bombarded daily by the 'rebels' and many hospitals have been destroyed, burned down or damaged by them without anybody mentioning it. To understand the situation, one also has to know that Doctors Without Borders is a totally misguided NGO that sided as of 2011 with armed groups the likes of Al-Nosra. Several of these large NGOs like Doctors Without Borders or the White Helmets are sponsored and financed by EU governments. They illegally enter Syria and then only go to areas where the ‘rebels’ have embedded themselves. Meanwhile, you have more than 8 million Syrians who have fled towards areas under the Assad government’s
control -- because Syrians in their vast majority remained attached to their government and regrouped in provinces under its protection -- and they are attacked by those 'rebels' daily without receiving any attention, as I said. It is therefore important to stress that by acting on Syrian soil without the agreement of the government and in total violation of Syrian sovereignty, Doctors without Borders are, in the eyes of the Syrian people, complicit in the terror committed by those armed groups.
However, things are happily starting to change -- perhaps under the pressure of public opinion? For a fortnight or so, those same journalists who had so far only interviewed ‘rebel’ sources such as MSF or the SOHR [the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] - have been flooding me with phone calls. Could they be trying to distance themselves from the disinformation of the past?
Now, regarding the so-called ‘barrel bombs’ -- which, by the way, are nothing more and nothing less than cheaper, more rudimentary bombs -- I am not in a position to assert that bombs fired by the Syrian army at ‘rebel’ positions in eastern Aleppo have never inadvertently hit a hospital, but even if they have, it was certainly not intentional. After all, we are in a war situation. The US and allies have themselves often missed their targets and caused ‘collateral’ damage, even with their supposedly highly sophisticated, ‘precision’ weapons, haven’t they?
3- Why, in your opinion, do the Western media tend to believe sources that you deem unreliable?
Journalists who speak to locals always focus on the humanitarian aspects and shun the rest. Nevertheless, we have been trying to get the truth out. In all my writings, I make clear that we are constantly bombarded by rebel armed groups with mortars, rockets and gas cylinders filled with explosives and nails.
Ever since 2011, Syrians have known that what was taking place on their soil was not a revolution to bring more democracy and respect for human rights, or less corruption. They knew from the start that the ‘Arab Spring’ was another name for Condoleezza Rice’s ‘Constructive Chaos’ or for the Bush Administration’s ‘New Middle East,’ and that the so-called ‘Spring’ was a misnomer that would either lead to the destruction of Syria, or to its falling under an Islamic State’s rule. Unfortunately, these two projects may well be on the way to succeeding.
Now, to return to your specific question about why Western media coverage is so unbalanced, one reason is that journalists tend to rely heavily on a single source of information, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights -- actually a one-man show. Despite its credible name, it is in fact a disinformation outlet financed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
To give you another example, the ‘White Helmets’ -- which the Western press portrays as selfless rescuers of civilians, worthy of a Nobel Prize nomination -- well, they are certainly no angels. They are actually affiliated to Al-Nosra, which, I remind you, is another name for Al-Qaeda, and this is amply documented. Many of their ‘rescue’ operations are staged affairs meant to manipulate public opinion into endorsing a given agenda, be it a bombing campaign, troops on the ground, additional waves of refugees or a no-fly zone.
Think of it, why don’t they ever ‘rescue’ civilians in the western part of Aleppo, by far the most populated? Their exclusive presence in the ‘rebel’-held, much smaller eastern part of town, is yet more proof of their cooperation with Al-Nosra.
4- Why aren’t local Christians more vocal? Wouldn’t their testimonials contribute to a better understanding of their situation and, more generally, that of Syrians?
You are right when you say that we generally tend to put the emphasis on the experiential aspect of our tragedy, and refrain from being too analytical. We do this for several reasons:
First, to have a chance to be heard. Western public opinion has been so misinformed that political statements which go against the grain of conventional thinking will simply not be heard, understood or taken into account. So, we use the suffering of Aleppans and Syrians as an entry point, and then work our way up to deliver the message that the armed ‘rebel’ groups are the ones responsible for that suffering.
How many Western good friends have I not lost in the early days of the events in Syria because I was trying to speak the truth! Their reaction was invariably: ‘You guys in the Middle-East, see conspiracies everywhere’! So I adjusted my methodology -- I no longer speak of a plot or preordained plan but instead, I lay out the facts. I describe the devastation, the deaths, the pain, and then I throw a comment in the mix that all of this did not originate ‘spontaneously’ or grow organically; and this kind of talk gets accepted.
Second, it is a credibility thing, because Christians have often been accused of unconditional support of Assad in return for his protection. And Assad, conversely, of protecting Christians to remain in power. This, of course, is ludicrous. Christians used to represent 8% of the total population, much less now that they have been driven out of their homeland and mainly into neighboring Lebanon. How could they possibly affect Assad’s popularity ratings in any meaningful way? As a matter of fact, large numbers of Sunni Muslims are behind Assad and, conversely, not all Christians are big fans of him. The truth of the matter is that the Syrian state was and is still a secular state protecting all faiths and minorities. But if the world didn’t want to hear it, would it have made a difference if Christians had engaged in blaming and shaming?
Last but not least, people are afraid for their lives and are therefore reluctant to get too political and designate culprits for their misfortunes. Those who chose to remain are trying to get on with their lives as best they can, and they pray that God may inspire world leaders to desist from their evil plans.
But keeping a low profile does not mean that we have to remain idle. As a matter of fact, I’ve sent an joint appeal to Pope Francis in May 2015, together with Aleppo’s Marist Brothers, imploring him to use his moral authority and undeniable prestige to bring pressure to bear on world leaders, so that they would stop arming and financing armed groups, fight ISIS in a meaningful way and stem the influx of terrorists through Syria’s northern border with Turkey. We told him we trusted that he, alone, could do something to stop the destruction of our beautiful country, stop the killings of hundreds of thousands of human beings and allow Syrian Christians to remain in or return to their homeland.