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Human Rights Advocate Describes Life For Syrians Under Siege


Over the years that we've covered the war in Syria, NPR's relied heavily on activists, journalists and humanitarians from the region to help bring us the stories from inside the war zone. One of those people is Wissam Tarif. He's in Washington today, and we have invited him into our studios to bring us up to date. Good to see you face-to-face.

WISSAM TARIF: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: You have lately been working on getting airdrops to some of the parts of Syria that have been under siege. People are experiencing starvation, and international groups expressed concern that if these airplanes fly over to drop aid, they could be shot down. Where do things stand?

TARIF: Well, there has been two airdrops - one in Kobani down by the U.S. government almost a year and a half ago, and the Russians surprisingly say that they air-dropped aid in Deir el-Zour a few days ago.

SHAPIRO: Deir el-Zour is another place that's been beset by starvation.

TARIF: Yes, absolutely. The U.N. now tells us that there are 400,000 people in these situations in 15 different spots living under strict siege, people starving. We believe that the numbers are way higher because the U.N. struggles with access. And actually, there are around one million Syrians now living in terrible weather, almost as cold as Washington is today. And people don't have electricity, water, food, fuel for heating. But let me be clear - dropping aid from the sky could be an emergency measure to save lives right now, but that is not a solution. It's not something sustainable.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific story you've heard in the last couple of weeks from somebody who is under siege that really captures how desperate things are right now?

TARIF: Hulut (ph) - a mother, 38 years old - has three kids. She's trapped in Maldamea (ph) - Syrian and Damascus suburbs. One of her daughters died last week because she doesn't have enough food.

SHAPIRO: Do you know how old the daughter was?

TARIF: Less than 2 years. Hulut and her other two kids and around almost a million Syrians are trapped in a similar situation.

SHAPIRO: How do you hear of these stories of people like Hulut this mother who you tell us about?

TARIF: That's what they do. I spend most my time talking to people inside on WhatsApp, over Skype. And it's surprising now they don't have food, but some of them have access to the Internet in our world these days.

SHAPIRO: The next round of U.N.-brokered peace talks is supposed to happen next week. The details are still unclear. You're going to Geneva for those talks. Do you see any hope that the international community can actually get on the same page and work together to end this?

TARIF: There is a political momentum where the Americans and the Russians want all parts of the conflict to sit and talk. This is the third round...

SHAPIRO: The third round of peace talks you mean.

TARIF: Of peace talks. In 2014 in Geneva, we've seen the Russians using tactics to make their position look weak, divided and make the regime look coherent, solid, one front. And just last week, I was in New York at the security council, and when Mr. de Mistura, who's the special envoy of the general secretary of the United Nations working on resolving this conflict was briefing the council. We're all surprised that the Russians asked for three names to be added to the opposition list. And these three names are people very close to the regime. So their tactic is to insert certain people on the position delegation. We all go to Geneva. One of these guys will step out of the door, and one more time we will have headlines that position is divided. They look terrible, and everything collapses.

SHAPIRO: Well, then this suggests that really there is no international cohesion, and the hope for these peace talks really is very slim.

TARIF: Then what we need to focus on is go to Geneva and try to bring the minimal for the Syrians. If it's not peace, then it's changing the world dynamic in the country, lifting the siege on population that is currently starving, to make the conditions for the population, for the Syrians bearable.

SHAPIRO: Wissam Tarif is the Middle East director of Avaaz, a nonprofit advocacy group. He is based in Beirut and joined us today in our studios here in Washington. Thanks very much for coming in and speaking with us.

TARIF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.