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The Humanitarian Impact Of Airstrikes


We're going to turn now to David Miliband who's president of the International Rescue Committee and, of course, former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. He joins us from New York. Mr. Miliband, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: You have not - ever seem to have any doubts that Bashar al-Assad has attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons and have been outspoken against its government and its foreign backers, to use your phrase. But are you concerned about some of the humanitarian consequences of expanded military action against the regime?

MILIBAND: Of course is the answer to that. The International Rescue Committee has a thousand staff inside Syria. We are concerned about them and for the many hundreds of thousands of Syrians who we serve. And really, there are two questions, I think, that arise from the limited strikes last night. One is whether they will deter further chemical weapons use. And if I heard the Pentagon briefing rightly, they talked about sarin and the R&D facilities. What's not clear is whether or not the use of chlorine, which has been reported as being used last weekend, is going to be deterred. Chlorine, obviously, is widely available. The second question is whether there is a broader game plan on the part of the coalition that struck last night - to use political, diplomatic, economic means to stop the slaughter of Syrian civilians that has cost 500,000 lives and driven five million refugees out of the country.

SIMON: How would you like to see the West aid Syria?

MILIBAND: I think that the diplomatic offensive that I'm talking about has a number of elements. First, start with the straightforward things. The neighboring states, like Jordan, which is the second closest ally of the U.S. in the Middle East - it's harboring 650,000 refugees - states like that need help. Secondly, more Syrians were killed in the chemical weapons attack last weekend than have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees in this fiscal year - since October the 1. The U.S. has a long, proud tradition of refugee resettlement which is being abandoned by the current administration, and that seems, to me, to be a severe setback. But obviously, the toughest questions are inside Syria. And my perspective about the drive for a political settlement is that the power that was deployed last night needs to be allied with real pain to those who are supporting the Assad regime to drive them to the negotiating table. And that pain can take economic and political form. I'm leading a humanitarian organization, so I'm not in a position to advocate or comment on particular military options. But it seems to me it's the lack of a political strategy that has bedeviled the West over the last seven years of the Syria conflict.

SIMON: You mean Russia and Iran to be blunt about it, don't you?

MILIBAND: Absolutely. The Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime has been absolutely critical. And I do want to point out to your listeners that although the fight in eastern Ghouta seems to have been concluded, in northwest Syria - in Idlib province, there are about 2.6, 2.7 million people there now. They're awaiting their fate. In the southwest of the country, where the IRC supports medical aid to about 360,000 civilians around Daraa - which is obviously where the civilian - where the civil war started seven years ago - there's also opposition control, including some ISIS pockets. And so I fear very much that your opening question to me, which is whether or not the fate of Syrian civilians is now safer, is very much up in the air because both the Assad regime and its backers still believe they have work to do. And Syrian civilians are going to be on the receiving end of that.

SIMON: In the half a minute we have left, I've been struck by something you once wrote about Syria. You said history teaches that when there is a vacuum in international affairs, it's filled by malign actors. Is that's what's happened here?

MILIBAND: Yes. I think that what's happened is that in the first three years of the conflict, the fear of getting embroiled in a civil war led to the complete neglect of the rights of Syrian civilians. They were subjugated to appalling attack from their own government. And that is a vacuum that hasn't just been filled by the Assad regime and Russia. It's obviously been filled by ISIS and Daesh. And the breaching of the norms - in respect to human rights - over the last seven years have plumbed depths into the international system. And it's very hard to unplumb (ph) them. That's the job of diplomacy that, I think, is now imperative.

SIMON: David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, thanks so much for being with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEERNT'S "LOCKED IN A BASEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.