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International Rescue Committee Chief Discusses The Latest On Aleppo


David Miliband joins us now. He's the head of the International Rescue Committee and a former foreign secretary in Britain. Welcome to the program.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thanks very much.

CORNISH: Now, the International Rescue Committee has teams in Idlib, and this is where many of the people who fled Aleppo are going. And what are you hearing from your people on the ground there?

MILIBAND: We've seen thousands of people - civilians - fleeing, some of them injured in the battle. And they are speaking of real terror because the house-to-house murder that the United Nations talked about - that's what these people have seen and experienced.

CORNISH: And these are reports that militias loyal to Syria's president are going house to house to attack what they believe to be rebel homes?

MILIBAND: That's exactly right. And what we see in numbers that are dozens when it comes to civilian deaths and thousands who have been strong-armed to join the Assad army are really reports that violate all the most fundamental basics of international humanitarian law, never mind the essential elements that would be necessary for peace to be restored in Syria because the way wars are won affects whether or not peace can follow. And so we as an international humanitarian organization are trying to hold people's lives together in frankly some of the worst circumstances that we've ever seen.

CORNISH: You know, fleeing Aleppo doesn't necessarily mean escaping this war, right? Idlib is a rebel-held area. What are your concerns about the fight just moving there?

MILIBAND: Obviously, the great fear is that the tactics that have been used in Aleppo and which tragically seem to be deemed successful by the Syrian government and their Russian and Iranian supporters - that those tactics, which combine, on the one hand, mass bombing from the air, are destroying hospitals and civilian centers. My own organization has had eight of our hospitals destroyed across Syria in bombing raids over the last year.

That bombing from the air is then combined with two other factors that are utterly merciless. One is the siege tactics to prevent food and medical supplies getting in. And then the second is the house-to-house cold-blooded murder that's been reported over the last 72 hours. And so there is enormous fear in Idlib that the - exactly the wrong lesson will be learned from the Aleppo tragedy.

CORNISH: One thing you have said is - you've said that we cannot say we don't know what's happening when the victims themselves are tweeting and sending messages out about the horrors that they face. Do you - are you hearing silence from the international community in the face of those cries?

MILIBAND: Well, I think that there's certainly division in the international community. There's fragmentation of the voice, and there is frankly impotence from the top of the international system because of the division between Russia and its Syrian allies on the one hand and Western countries on the other. And I think it's very important that we're all witnesses to this tragedy. And at the moment, the danger is that we perceived by the Syrian civilians as being utterly enfeebled in helping them.

CORNISH: With this fall of anti-government forces in Aleppo, what are the prospects of getting back to the negotiating table? Is that kind of faded altogether?

MILIBAND: I think it's really important to remember that the end of every war involves some kind of political settlement. And wars are only settled in a durable way when there is a credible and legitimate sharing of power. In Syria, the political dimension has got to come into play. And frankly, the big players are going to be the Russians and the Iranians, and no one yet knows how they're going to play their cards. Are they going to seek to do in Idlib and in the southwest of the country what they've done in Aleppo, or are they now going to sue for peace?

And I think that the stories of the bloodbath that happened in Aleppo can only raise the fear that, far from ending the war, we're going to see sporadic outbreaks of fighting across the country on a continuous basis. And that is dangerous both for Syrians, but frankly also for close allies of the United States next door, like Jordan, and also for Europeans, who are suffering now the waves of refugees are still coming despite the winter months.

CORNISH: David Miliband is the head of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you for speaking with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.