WORLD: Mr. Roth, in his current annual report, states that the Syrian government is responsible for most of the chemical weapons attacks. Do not other groups use these weapons?
Kenneth Roth: In some cases, IS has been charged. The government claimed that the rebels were responsible for attacks with poisonous gas. But in reality most of the chemical weapons were used by the government itself. It was mainly the chlorine gas that was used. And there were several attacks with the nerve sarin agent.
WORLD: It seems that the Syrian government under Assad is in the process of international recognition. The Arab League will resume Syria; The United Arab Emirates want to reopen their embassy in Damascus. How do you rate this development?
Roth: Now it is more important to put pressure on Assad to stop atrocities and not to engage in new ones. Any relationship with the Assad government must begin to guarantee the ceasefire in the rebel territory of Idlib.
Prisons in Syria are basically torture and execution chambers. We do not know how many people there are still. But they must be released.
Assad asks for reconstruction aid for his country. At the same time, it prevents people from returning to their old homes once they have lived in areas where the government has no control – they simply destroy houses.
WORLD: If these conditions are met, can Assad be considered a legitimate sovereign again?
Roth: I do not take a position on who should reunite Syria or who is the legitimate sovereign. What matters is that Assad actually has sovereignty over the country, and from this position he commits atrocities. This must stop, and then the pressure must be put on him.
European governments should ask: what are you doing to prevent a massacre in Idlib? How do you want to make sure refugees can go home? When do you release people from the prisons? Now it's time to face all these things. I hope that European governments seize the opportunity.
WORLD: The Syrian regime and terrorist groups are often accused of atrocities. Do Kurdish groups also violate human rights?
Roth: We have reported on the use of child soldiers by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias, ed), but in general, the SDFs are a rather disciplined force. Their way of fighting is not at all comparable to the Syrian army. Syrian armed forces deliberately bomb residential areas and hospitals. They attack civilians indiscriminately simply because they live in areas not controlled by the government. We do not know this behavior from SDF.
WORLD: His organization seeks the situation of the population in Syria directly in the middle of civil war. How does it work in these conditions?
Kenneth Roth: Above all, we work from our office in Beirut. But we also have direct access to Syria. At the moment it is also possible to get to Idlib, the last rebel territory left. The HTS (the Syrian branch of the terrorist organization Al-Quaida, D. Red.), Which has power there, is threatened by the Syrian armed forces, by Russia and by Iran. That's why she is very interested in reporting on the spot. It's terrible like this group. Naturally, there are always risks for our employees in the combat area.
WORLD: What do you do when your people can not be there?
Roth: Again, you can stay in touch with the people who live there – either by e-mail, phone or WhatsApp. There are many citizens in Syria who talk to us about the situation there. The country remained well connected during the war, which is remarkable. And the Syrians are experts in disseminating information. So we know what's going on, even if it's always our goal to be there.
WORLD: The ceasefire between the Idlib rebels and the regime lasted from September 2018. Does not the Syrian army attack at some point?
Roth: This is the big question. I hope not. Trump's withdrawal from the east of the country is not that crucial. In the northwest, on the other hand, many lives are at stake. The fact that Russian President Putin approved a ceasefire for Idlib in September was a great success.
WORLD: The future of northern Syria is also uncertain: Turkish President Erdogan announced an offensive in mid-December, but the United States is demanding security for the Kurds. Erdogan will invade anyway?
Roth: I'm not sure that Turkey really wants to occupy so much land in the face of the predictable resistance of the Kurds and their allies. We are very concerned about what will happen to people in Kurdish cities if the Turks actually take control. How does Turkey differ between Kurdish officials and the civilian population? There are many questions left. We are closely following the situation, but it is difficult to say what will happen.