Episode 1 — Syria: The Endgame

News presenter: [00:00:02] Turkish investigators looking for evidence linked to his disappearance.

News presenter: [00:00:06] Certainly is some discomfort on Capitol Hill and that'd be putting it mildly.

News presenter: [00:00:11] Hurricane Michael kills at least-.

[00:00:11] [Mashup of news headlines].

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:24] That. That's the news this week. We know. It's a lot. I'm Imtiaz Tyab and this is The Take by Al Jazeera. We're here to help you make sense of the world one story at a time.

IT: [00:00:37] Every week in this first season, we'll be talking to Al Jazeera journalists from around the world about what they're covering. Sometimes it will be big headline news.

News presenter: [00:00:46] A Saudi delegation arrives in Turkey for talks on the-.

IT: [00:00:49] Sometimes it'll be a story you didn't know you needed to know about.

News presenter: [00:00:52] To eastern Uganda now where a rescue team-.

IT: [00:00:54] And sometimes we're going to argue among ourselves about what it's going to be.

Jasmin Bauomy: [00:00:59] I'm thinking in my head, what is it that we can bring to the table that others can't?

IT: [00:01:03] This is our team of producers just the other week hashing out what we're going to cover in this first episode.

Morgan Waters: [00:01:11] It's arguably the most important country on the continent.

Graelyn Brashear: [00:01:11] I think number one and number two actually-.

IT: [00:01:13] This week it's Syria. The headlines about Syria are talking less and less about waging war and more about ending it.

News presenter: [00:01:28] In Damascus they are also hoping the reopening will be the beginning of the end.

News presenter: [00:01:31] 72 hours is the deadline that has been given before the offensive begins.

News presenter: [00:01:36] The frontline. The delicate deal to prevent more violence in Syria is not-.

[00:01:40] [Mashup of news headlines]

IT: [00:01:42] So is that it? Are we at the endgame? Before coming to host The Take, I was a correspondent for Al Jazeera for over eight years. I've reported from across Pakistan and Afghanistan, Israel Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East including on the war in Syria. It's a story I covered alongside Zeina Khodr. She's one of Al Jazeera's sharpest minds on the conflict and she's been at the heart of our coverage from the very beginning.

Zeina Khodr: [00:02:10] A young boy who was 19 years old, I won't forget him, and he was reporting from the Northern Homs front line and I kept telling him, you know you don't need to go to the front line just be careful.

ZK: [00:02:20] And he said, no well this is our revolution. And he was young, he was excited, he was enthusiastic, he didn't realize what what this all meant. And two or three days later I saw his picture, you know, on Twitter. He was killed.

IT: [00:02:36] He was one of so many. And the numbers are horrifying. 400 thousand people killed according to the U.N. Around half of Syria's population displaced. Five million are in refugee camps in neighboring countries. And a few hundred thousand others have made it as far as Europe and even further. So much misery. Sometimes it's easy to forget how it all began.

ZK: [00:03:05] We were there. We were in Deraa just a week after these protests started and we saw for ourselves how how angry these people were.

IT: [00:03:15] Imagine what was unimaginable just seven years ago. A spark of revolution in a city called Deraa in one of the world's most repressive countries. Men and women, Syrians, broke through the fear barrier and pulled their country into the throes of the Arab Spring. The reaction from Syrian security forces was swift and severe. They killed hundreds of peaceful protesters within weeks. The government was trying to stop an uprising. It failed.

ZK: [00:03:48] There's anger in Syria on Saturday as protesters regroup following a huge crackdown by security forces.

ZK: [00:03:56] This is a country where people used to say you know shut up don't talk. The walls have ears.

IT: [00:04:02] We found some recordings of Zeina's early reporting from Deraa back in 2011. Here she is talking to one of the protesters.

ZK: [00:04:11] Is this a revolution against the regime?

Syrian protestor: [00:04:14] No no.

ZK: [00:04:15] What is it?

Syrian protestor: [00:04:16] Changing some rules. Some unjustified rules only.

ZK: [00:04:21] But after that when I sat with these people in their homes, you know, they said well we couldn't say on camera we want the fall of this whole regime. But we don't dare say that. Do you understand what it is living in Syria?

IT: [00:04:32] What started as a popular uprising quickly turned into an all out war.

ZK: [00:04:43] We saw many stages. It passed through many phases. First you had protest action and then you saw people taking up arms.

ZK: [00:04:53] The plumber, the teacher. It wasn't just army defectors at the end. People were taking up arms they said to defend themselves and to protect the people when they took to the streets. And then we saw the next phase of the conflict when foreign fighters started to pour in.

ZK: [00:05:09] In Aleppo in 2012 inside the city, I saw the foreign fighters for myself. And I said to the Syrians, this is not going to bode well for your revolution. And they said, well look if everyone in the world abandoned us we are going to accept help from anyone. We are being slaughtered here.

ZK: [00:05:28] But these foreign fighters clearly had another objective and we saw that through time. We saw how at one point they started to take territory. They started to control roads. They started to take up arms against the Syrians who were calling for a civil state.

IT: [00:05:46] The disintegration of the opposition, ISIL's rise and fall, the meddling of outside powers. There have been so many phases of the war. Too many to mention. But the biggest game changer? That would be Russia.

IT: [00:06:06] The Russian air campaign started in 2015. Vladimir Putin's support quickly turned the war in favor of Bashar al-Assad. Assad went from having lost nearly everything, to gaining back one province after the next. Soon rebels were on the run. And just this past summer they lost the town where it all began. Deraa.

ZK: [00:06:31] And I remember the day when Deraa city when the rebels in Deraa city itself said okay fine those of us who refused to reconcile with the government we're going to lay down our arms and leave. The Syrian government made it a point really to broadcast live images of the flag hoisting ceremony that day right next to the mosque where it all started.

ZK: [00:07:00] And when you saw that flag being hoisted, the Syrian flag, and they removed the Syrian opposition flag, it really symbolized the end of the revolution.

IT: [00:07:10] To sum it up, we're at the end.

ZK: [00:07:13] Yes the current map is unlikely to change for some time.

IT: [00:07:21] Let's talk about that map. Assad has control over most of the major cities and usable land. Turkey controls a big section of north western Syria. They call it the Euphrates Shield zone. Turkey is threatening to push east into the Kurdish held territory which includes several oil fields. The Turks and the Kurds are longtime adversaries, but as the Kurds were also key in the battle against ISIL, they're still being backed by the U.S. military.

IT: [00:07:52] The few pockets of ISIL that remain are out in the eastern desert next to Iraq. Then there's Idlib. Which is in the news a lot these days. It's a province just south of Turkey's area of control. It's home to millions of people including hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Many of them supporters of the opposition.

ZK: [00:08:17] These people are considered terrorists by the Syrian government simply because they engaged in opposition activities. A medic, someone who treated the wounded, is considered a terrorist because he would have treated a rebel fighter. All these people who are forced to leave from rebel controlled areas, which were recently recaptured by the government, they were bussed to Idlib. So these people have nowhere to go. The border is closed. Turkey is not allowing them in. These people are really fearful for their future.

IT: [00:08:49] Describe the kind of numbers of people who are there and I suppose even the factions who have kind of been pushed into this area.

ZK: [00:08:57] About 3 million people. It's hard to say how many fighters. Some estimates say tens of thousands of fighters, 10 thousand of which are, according to the United Nations, foreigners. So you have foreign fighters, members of radical groups, people who have links to Al-Qaeda, some people have even fought in Afghanistan, they're there. And then of course you have the so-called moderate rebels, the Syrians, who belong to the so-called Free Syrian Army Alliance who are now allied with Turkey.

ZK: [00:09:29] So you have all these people in Idlib and the government was threatening an offensive. Of course now that is no longer, it's not going to happen at least for the near future after you know an agreement between Russia and Turkey. You know both countries have a lot of interests here not to anger each other. I mean they have common interests now to find a solution and that's why they came up with this demilitarised zone deal.

IT: [00:09:56] Even a few weeks ago, a lot of attention focused on Idlib. Many were worried this showdown would end in a bloodbath. This is Paulo Sergio Pinheiro who leads a major U.N. Commission on Syria sounding the alarm.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro: [00:10:10] You are fighting ten thousand armed people. Terrorists. And the three million population will be the price to fight. Of course you don't have anything against fighting against terrorists, but something has to be done to protect the rights of the three million people and one million children.

IT: [00:10:35] Why did you from the very beginning not think that we were going to see this major military offensive, and instead see what we're seeing now which is essentially Russia and Turkey trying to figure out a path forward which won't see that?

ZK: [00:10:51] Because it was very simple. It's not in the interest of Russia, it's not in the interest of Turkey, it's not in the interest of Iran for the military offensive to have, to have taken place. First of all recapturing Idlib is not going to change the course of the war. Assad has won. Assad has won it. It controls the major urban centers and when I say, okay it won the war but it hasn't won the peace, of course. But you know recapturing Idlib is not going to change anything. What Russia wants now is to legitimize and to cement Bashar al-Assad's hold on power. Launching a wide scale attack on Idlib, it's going to harm these efforts more than anything else.

ZK: [00:11:31] Right now Russia, Iran and Turkey have more in common than anything else. They are facing a, quote, a U.S. embargo. So they need to work together. And for Russia, it needs Turkey on its side as well as Iran because Turkey is a lifeline for Iran because of the U.S. sanctions. So these three countries have more to benefit by avoiding a bloodbath in Idlib which really doesn't have that much strategic importance in terms of changing the balance of power on the ground.

IT: [00:12:09] Explain that thought to me that you just had, which is Assad has won the war but not the peace.

ZK: [00:12:17] Winning the peace is going to be so much more difficult because the international community wants a U.N. led political process to bring about credible elections. And up to now the West is saying unless that happens you're not getting any money for reconstruction, we're not going to recognize your legitimacy. And that's what they need. I mean the regime backers Russia and Iran they cannot afford to pay for the reconstruction of Syria.

IT: [00:12:44] And Syria needs to be rebuilt. For the 20 million who still live there, and for the 5 million or so scattered around the world, most of them as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There they have few rights and even fewer prospects. Many are in camps. I've reported from a lot of these camps. Some are better than others but none are where anyone really wants to live. Still of the refugees Zeina and I have spoken to over the years, as hard as their lives may be, most can't see themselves going back. Not with Assad still in power.

ZK: [00:13:25] Many of them you know when you talk to them they say first of all we have nowhere to return to. Our homes have been destroyed. Our towns and villages have been destroyed. There's no jobs, there's no infrastructure, there's no school for our children. If we go there, we won't receive any aid. And of course there are those who are worried about being forcibly conscripted to the army. Fathers for example say if I have, if I'm forced to join the army, who's going to take care of my family? And of course there are those who simply are too afraid. They feel that if they return they will be detained there are no security guarantees.

IT: [00:13:58] You still also speak to people who are inside Syria. What are they telling you?

ZK: [00:14:04] Well it really depends. Of course there are some people who say you know we're just glad this whole war is over. We just you know want to continue with our lives. We have to accept the fact that, you know, that Bashar al-Assad is still in power. It really depends who you speak to. But overall, a lot of people really are disappointed that they sacrificed so much and at the end nothing really, nothing really has changed.

ZK: [00:14:35] They really have little faith in the fact that, you know, the government will carry out reforms even if they talk about amending or reforming the constitution. There will be little tangible change. Seven years people have sacrificed so much. But these civilians, these people who had hope and who have since lost all hope, they were pawns in a political game where countries really were more concerned about furthering their own interests at the expense of the people.

IT: [00:15:11] Zeina Khodr. Thank you.

ZK: [00:15:12] Thank you Imtiaz.

IT: [00:15:13] That's it from us this week on The Take. We're following a bunch of stories for next week. Brazil is in the middle of a wild presidential election. Iran is bracing itself for even more U.S. sanctions. And we're looking at the latest on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In the meantime we want to hear from you. There's a link in the show description of this episode. It'll take you to a survey where you can tell us what you liked, what you didn't like, and what you want to hear on this show. We're making it for you and we really want your input.

IT: [00:16:03] Morgan Waters and Jasmin Bauomy produced this episode. They had production help from Kyana Moghadam, Jordan Marie Bailey and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The sound designer was Ian Coss, Graelyn Brashear is the show's lead producer. Special thanks to Zeina Khodr and Ali Abbas in Beirut. We'll be back next week.