A top spokeswoman for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that there was no starvation in besieged parts of Syria while remotely participating in a Washington D.C. press conference on Thursday.
The event, hosted at the National Press Club by a group that seeks to pressure the United States to ally with Syria against the Islamic State, ended up focusing on the Assad regime’s various human rights violations. Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, a close confident of Assad’s who was sanctioned by the Department of the Treasury in 2011, spent much of her time on the panel refuting reports of humanitarian crises and dodging questions about the regime’s well-documented abuses.
The rebel-held city of Daraya, which has been under a tight government siege since 2012, is actually “producing peas and beans and food and wild berries, and that is enough for the entire city. It is very fertile land, and nobody is starving in Daraya,” said Shaaban via Skype.
Some 8,000 people are currently living in Daraya—formerly a bustling Damascus suburb of 80,000—without access to running water and electricity. A group called Women of Daraya warned in April that the city has a severe food shortage, with some residents eating “soups made purely of spices in order to stave off hunger.”
Although a Red Cross convoy reached the city on Wednesday for the first time since the siege began, it carried no food. Reports from surrounding towns under government siege, including Madaya, document widespread starvation.
— ICRC Syria (@ICRC_sy) June 1, 2016
Sitting in a bright office decorated with a Syrian flag and a framed map of Israel and the Palestinian territories, depicted as a single ‘Palestine’, Shaaban spent over an hour dismissing charges that the Assad regime or its allies drop barrel bombs on civilians targets; enforce a “surrender or starve” policy in rebel-held areas; coordinate with and buy oil from Assad’s supposed arch-rival, the Islamic State; disproportionally target non-ISIS rebel forces; or bear any responsibility for the brutal five-year civil war that has left over 250,000 dead and millions displaced.
“We have lived here for tens of thousands of years without any ethnic or sectarian problems. It is only Western agenda that is creating these problems among our people,” she claimed.
“You kill innocent people,” one audience member shouted at her, but Shaaban insisted that the regime was only fighting terrorists.
“Honestly, I don’t want to give up on the idea of a free press, but you are forcing me to do so because I am amazed at how the questions are coming from a completely distorted perspective,” she said. (Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria 177th out of 179 countries in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index, a drop from its position of 173rd out of 178 in 2010).
While seemingly dismayed at the turn the panel discussion has taken, Shaaban assured the audience that the regime’s cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah, and its “Russian friends” was excellent—though she objected to the use of the word “regime,” saying that the Syrian government was like any other.
Her fellow guest speaker, Bassam al-Hussaini, the Iraqi government’s liaison to the coalition of Iran-backed Shi’a militias currently fighting ISIS in Iraq, similarly sought to challenge what he claimed were popular Western misconceptions.
“A lot of people think [the Popular Mobilization Forces are] backed up by Iranian help, that’s not true,” said al-Hussaini. “These are not Shi’a militia, these are Iraqis fighting to free the cities of Iraq.” (Several groups under the banner of the PMF, including Saraya al-Khorasani, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba, openly have ties to Iran.)
He also addressed reports of the forces’ human rights abuses by saying that every group has its bad apples.
Ahmad Maki Kubba, the head of the Global Alliance for Terminating al-Qaeda and ISIS (GAFTA), which sponsored the event, claimed that he holds no bias towards the Syrian regime and that his group was created with the intention of forming an inclusive international coalition against ISIS. But on its website, GAFTA claims that the “true coalition” against ISIS is comprised of “The United States of America, Russia, Iran, Iraq, The Kurdish Peshmerga, The Syrian Arab Army of President Bashar al Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” It also asserts that its “forensic investigations concerning the power of ISIS” led it to conclude that four countries act as the terrorist group’s sponsors: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel.
“These nations should be held accountable for their involvement in state-sponsored terrorism, and crimes against humanity,” GAFTA charges.
Unsurprisingly, it further alleges that one of the barriers restricting the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda is “the influence of the most powerful lobby in the US, which is AIPAC, the American-Israeli lobby.” It also characterizes Iran-backed Houthis as “the best group” in Yemen and calls the nuclear deal with Iran “a great victory.”
Some have argued that GAFTA’s efforts to give a sanctioned Syrian regime official a platform address Western audiences may undercut international efforts to stop the bloodshed in the region.
“She is regularly the one who speaks for the regime,” Joseph Bahout, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Huffington Post. “She’s been propagandizing, denying the use of chemical weapons, denying massacres.”
“I’m sorry to be blunt, but this is the classical, usual bullshit used every time someone is trying to open a channel with the regime,” he added. “If you want to negotiate with the regime, there are proper channels in Geneva,” a reference to UN-backed peace negotiations.
The National Press Club also faced some criticism for its decision to host an event featuring a sanctioned Syrian official.
— Omri Ceren (@cerenomri) June 1, 2016
“Obviously, this is the United States and the National Press Club can host any guest it wants,” Evan Barrett, deputy director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Tower. “However, that they chose to provide a platform to a sanctioned war criminal with ties to terrorist organizations is curious and disappointing.”