A senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that “nobody is starving in Darayya,” even as U.N. officials said they hoped the government would allow a food convoy — the first in four years — to reach the besieged Damascus suburb in the next few days.
“Darayya is the food basket of Damascus,” providing fresh fruit and vegetables for the rest of Syria, said presidential political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. She spoke to reporters in Washington from the Syrian capital via Skype.
Shaaban cautioned journalists and other outsiders not to “take things at face value” that they are told about Syria. She said that the Syrian people were “not very happy with the humanitarian assistance” they had received, because they did not like foreign items such as “tinned food and macaroni” and found outside aid humiliating.
In a recorded speech and a live question-and-answer session, Shaaban praised Russia’s support for Assad in Syria’s long-running civil war and said that what was known in the West as the “moderate opposition” was made up of terrorists. U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey who support them, she said, are also the principal backers of the Islamic State.
Some of the reporters present were from media outlets in those countries and opposition-linked organizations. Exchanges with Shaaban verged on shouting matches as she held her ground and accused the international media of posing questions about blocked aid deliveries and government attacks on civilians “from a completely distorted perspective.”
She said a “false narrative [was] circulated all over the world, particularly in Western countries, about events in Syria,” and she asked why the United States would not “join hands” with Russia against the Islamic State.
While Shaaban offered familiar government views, the opportunity to directly question a senior Assad official was a rare one. The Treasury Department in 2011 sanctioned her under an executive order that prohibits financial or other dealings with senior officials of the Syrian government. Asked whether Shaaban’s Skype appearance violated the sanctions, Treasury issued a statement declining to comment.
William C. McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, which provided the venue for the event but did not sponsor it, said the club had been contacted by Treasury, which inquired about Shaaban’s participation but raised no objections.
Shaaban, who speaks fluent English, said she was last in the United States in 2005, when she was a government minister. She said that her understanding of the sanctions was only that her U.S. assets would be frozen — she said she didn’t have any — but that she had no desire to visit this country.
The event was sponsored by the Global Alliance for Terminating ISIS/Al-Qaeda, a two-year-old Florida-based organization registered as an educational nonprofit group dedicated to fighting terrorism. Ahmad Maki Kubba, an Iraqi American who is the group’s president, said he did not endorse the Syrian government but wanted to provide a platform for all views.
Kubba said his own group wanted to “break the status quo” of U.S. cooperation with regional powers — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — that he said were “doing business with ISIS.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State. He congratulated President Obama on refusing to call the militants “Islamic extremists,” as Donald Trump and other Republican leaders have demanded, and instead labeling them “thugs and thieves and terrorists.”
U.N. officials managing the humanitarian aid program in Syria held their own news conference Thursday in Geneva. Operating under a months-old agreement forged by Russia and the Obama administration, international organizations have been trying to deliver food and medical supplies to more than a half-million Syrians who have been cut off by the fighting, some of them for years.
Most of the 19 areas the United Nations has designated as in critical need are rebel-held zones surrounded by government forces, which have denied humanitarian access. Last month, Washington, Moscow and other international actors pledged to begin airdrops of supplies to the areas if aid did not get through by June 1.
That resulted in aid convoys reaching several areas on Wednesday, including five vehicles carrying medical supplies and some baby formula — but no food — to Darayya. Senior U.N. adviser Jan Egeland said in Geneva that there had been a “misunderstanding” about the first supplies to Darayya and that he hoped that “a full convoy” would reach the city “very soon, but it may not happen already tomorrow.”
In the meantime, he said, “we have added one more besieged area to our list,” the city of al-Waer in Homs province. It has “75,000 people and it is possibly the place with the worst nutritional situation of all the besieged areas,” which altogether have 592,000 people, Egeland said.
Egeland and Ramzy E. Ramzy, the deputy U.N. special envoy to Syria, said that planning for the promised airdrops and the dangerous helicopter landings required in populated areas had not been completed. But, Egeland said, “I think everybody agrees that to go by land with 100 tons in a few trucks is better than a few tons by helicopter.”
While he was “optimistic” that more convoys could be arranged, he said, “I have no guarantees of anything, and I was also optimistic before May,” which he called “a very bad month.”
“In the May plan, we basically got a quarter of what we asked for” approved by the government, Egeland said. “So the signal was very bad. Now, the signal is — and we need to get it in writing — that we will get a much better approval package to start with. Darayya, we were turned back the last time with the exact same convoy” that entered the city on Wednesday. “Darayya is very symbolic and important for both sides.”
Shaaban said that airdrops were being discussed with the United Nations, but “this is not something of importance to the Syrian government.”
Asked about an opposition proposal for a nationwide truce in the civil war during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts Sunday, Shaaban implied a religious reason for the proposal, saying the opposition “are all Islamists.” The government, she said, “wants to fight day and night” to win the war.
Shaaban was also asked about Austin Tice, a U.S. citizen and freelance journalist for The Washington Post and other outlets who disappeared in Syria in 2012 and has been rumored to be in government hands. “Austin Tice came to the terrorist area and the Syrian government knows nothing about him,” she said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.