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Syrian security forces round up thousands of civilians and Turkey calls for an immediate end to the bloodshed. Growing concern over the crackdown in Syria.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief, Al-Arabiya News Channel
- Selcuk Unal Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mr Selcuk Unal
- Arwa Damon international correspondent for CNN based in Beirut, Lebanon.
- Mona Yacoubian special adviser, Center for Conflict Analysis Prevention, U.S. Institute of Peace
- Robert Malley Middle East and North Africa program director, International Crisis Group
- “Both sides, the government as well as the opposition, saw Ramadan as almost a decisive month in terms of the qualitative pressure from the opposition against the regime. And the regime realizes that it is under tremendous regional, as well as international, pressure, ” Hisham Melham said of the political situation in Syria.
- “Then there’s also been the emergence of some incredibly disturbing videos, notably this one clip that shows a little girl. She’s 2 1/2 years old, and she’s been shot. She’s lying on the pavement. Her little white T-shirt is just covered in blood. And activists were telling us, residents of that area were telling us that she’d been trying to flee with her family following a call by the Syrian security forces, telling residents to get out,” Arwa Damon said.
- “The longer this confrontation continues between the regime and the opposition, two things we can talk about with certainty — that it will be more violent, and ugly sectarianism will rear its head. We’ve seen this in the past,” Melham said.
- “The things that we – that the U.S. and others could do most effectively is not so much sanctions, but is to try to put together the form of reassurance in terms of what the political future, the economic future, the sectarian future of Syria will be. They look at the region, as Hisham says, there’s not much reason for optimism. If you look at Lebanon, if you look at Iraq, even if you look at Egypt today, those are not reasons for hoping that the future is going to be as bright as one would like it to be. ” Robert Malley said.
- “I think it’s very hard to see how this regime continues to rule given where we are today. That said — and, you know, he’s lost its basic support domestically and internationally. His last card is violence, and that’s a card you could only use for so long. On the other hand, if you look at what’s happening to the Arab Spring, if that’s what you want to call it, since Egypt and Tunisia, there’s not a single case where a regime has fallen,” Robert Malley said.
Read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A senior Palestinian official described the military offensive in Syrian port city of Latakia as a crime against humanity. Turkey has joined a growing chorus of nations demanding an end to the Assad regime's crackdown on a five-month-old uprising. But instead, the Syrian government has escalated its offensive.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the situation in Syria: Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel, Mona Yacoubian of the Center for Conflict Analysis Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group. We do invite your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Do join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning.
MS. MONA YACOUBIANGood morning.
MR. ROBERT MALLEYGood morning, Diane.
REHMHisham Melhem, what is -- if you can put a word to it, what is the reasoning behind President Assad escalating the crackdown during Ramadan?
MELHEMBoth sides, the government as well as the opposition, saw Ramadan as almost a decisive month in terms of the qualitative pressure from the opposition against the regime. And the regime realizes that it is under tremendous regional, as well as international, pressure.
MELHEMAnd the escalated campaign now, which is covering major cities throughout the country, is seen as a desperate attempt to snuff out the uprising before the Turks and the Americans and other take tougher position against a regime that is losing its narrow base to begin with. And we're at a time when we're beginning to see cracks even within the military.
REHMAnd joining us now to talk about one of the nations, who -- which has spoken out is the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal. Good morning to you, sir.
MR. SELCUK UNALGood morning to all your listeners, ma'am.
REHMCan you tell me, what is Turkey's stance regarding Syria and President Assad's crackdown?
UNALWell, from the very beginning, we have been advising the Syrian administration to implement reforms and to implement those reforms immediately and as soon as possible. These are, of course, political reforms. And we're also advising in strong terms that their people's (word?) for more transparency, accountability. And democracy should be heard and should be approached by peaceful means.
UNALBut we understand that the Syrian administration is carrying on military...
UNAL...assaults in response to those requests.
REHMIndeed, Syria has actually escalated its crackdown since the foreign minister's visit, the Turkish foreign minister's visit, to Syria. I understand that was a seven-hour meeting. What steps is Turkey actually prepared to take besides vocalizing its opposition?
UNALWell, in that seven-hour-long meeting, we have asked them to pull the military units from the cities and from stop attacking the civilians. In the -- and also give free access to the international press. In the first day, they pulled from Hama. In second day, they allowed our ambassador to visit Hama and then also allowed (word?) international press to visit Hama. But then afterwards we saw, unfortunately, that the escalation continues.
UNALNow, of course, we will -- yesterday, the Turkish foreign minister made a statement that unless the oppressions stop, the dialogue with the Syrian administration, regarding the steps that they have promised us to take, EA reforms would not mean anything. So that's where we're at, at the moment. And they will, of course, continue to monitor the situation very closely. And they will look up to the situation as the situation is ongoing.
REHMHow many Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey since the protests began? And are you considering a buffer zone?
UNALSince the protests began, there were a total of 15,000 Syrian nationals who have entered Turkey. By the time, almost half of them have returned on their own (unintelligible). And at the moment, it's just below 7,000. On the other question, we did not announce any buffer zone or -- of anything of that sort at the moment. So we will continue to monitor the situation.
UNALAnd if there will be other Syrian nationals coming over, of course, we will be welcoming them.
REHMTurkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
REHMAnd joining us now from Beirut, Lebanon, and -- is CNN correspondent Arwa Damon. Good morning to you.
MS. ARWA DAMONGood morning, Diane.
REHMTell me how you are getting your information out of Syria.
DAMONWell, it's incredibly challenging, especially since the Syrian government is not allowing us back into the country, so we do end up relying heavily on the images that we're receiving via various videos that are posted to YouTube, of course, bearing in mind that it always is a caveat, that we have absolutely no way of independently verifying these videos' authenticity.
DAMONWe do, however, try to pair up the story that appears to be unfolding in these YouTube videos with various narrative accounts that we hear from activists, from residents that we're able to reach in various cities and towns inside the country itself.
DAMONSo it's very much trying to put together a patchwork of very different, oftentimes contradictory, information, but really trying to weave it all together in a way that would seem to be the closest thing to what could be the reality of what is unfolding in Syria. But it is very much a situation that is clouded and quite a bit of mystery.
REHMWhat are the videos showing us about what's going on in the port city of Latakia?
DAMONThe most recent videos to emerge have, yes, been emerging out of Latakia, especially from the southern portion of the city, the al-Raml (sp?) neighborhood, that has really borne the brunt of this most recent military crackdown. And the videos have shown anything from a naval vessel that activists claim have been firing on these neighborhoods -- that is, of course, an allegation of the government denies -- to showing smoke rising, lot of intense gunfire, explosions heard in it.
DAMONAnd then there's also been the emergence of some incredibly disturbing videos, notably this one clip that shows a little girl. She's 2 1/2 years old, and she's been shot. She's lying on the pavement. Her little white T-shirt is just covered in blood. And activists were telling us, residents of that area were telling us that she'd been trying to flee with her family following a call by the Syrian security forces, telling residents to get out.
DAMONAnd that was when their vehicle was fired on. Now, we don't know the exact circumstances of her death. We only have that one account to go by. But she most certainly does provide at least one of what have been many images of the ongoing innocent lives lost in this uprising.
REHMNow, on the one hand, you say that Syrian officials are urging or telling people to flee. On the other hand, we understand women and children are being herded into various stadiums and stripped of IDs and mobile phones.
DAMONYou know, the story of the stadium is actually one that is proving to be quite chilling, especially when one tries to piece together what is happening there from outside the country. What activists are telling us is that a number of families, either as they were trying to flee or after they had fled, were herded into the stadium where their IDs were taken off of them, their mobile phones were taken off of them.
DAMONThere have been various reports as to what is actually happening inside that stadium. I think the most disturbing part of it is that the activists who we spoke to said that they were extremely worried. They were imagining horrific things taking place there because they were unable to get through to anyone who was actually in the stadium itself.
DAMONThat being said, we also have the case of the United Nation's refugee agency raising an alarm to the state of Palestinians that were living inside a refugee camp in the same neighborhood. Thousands of them reported to have fled -- their fate, their whereabouts currently unknown. And so, for those looking at the situation from the outside, for the activists, the opposition members on the inside, it really paints an image that they say is absolutely hair-raising.
REHMWhen one thinks about herding people into stadiums, you're absolutely right about the chilling effect that sends. Are they herding people out of the stadiums and into or out of the country? Or are they simply holding them there?
DAMONWe have heard conflicting reports about that. We heard from one organization that, in some cases, women and children were being allowed to leave. Men were being transferred to detention facilities. We heard from others that they were being kept confined inside the stadium itself. And what makes this especially hair-raising and chilling for the Syrian opposition is that they will tell you that they know full well the capabilities of this regime when it comes to complete and total merciless brutality.
DAMONAnd so they will say that, that they fear the worst -- the worst, of course, being that some sort of a mass execution is going to be taking place. Of course, there's absolutely no evidence that that is, in fact, the case. And the Syrian government continues to maintain that it is simply targeting these armed terrorists gangs, that its main aim is to try to protect and preserve the population.
DAMONBut when it comes to the opposition, when it comes to a lot of the global leaders, the international community that's peering into Syria, watching and listening to these conflicting and contradictory narratives, the government's version of events becomes increasingly difficult.
REHMArwa Damon of CNN, thank you so much.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here in the studio, Mona Yacoubian of the Center for Conflict Analysis Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, Hisham Melhem. He's Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya News Channel. And throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850.
REHMOne of the first emails we've received is from Tommy in Raleigh, N.C., who says, "Why hasn't President Obama done anything to stop the attacks on civilians in Syria?" Yesterday, we heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talk about the fact that they are stating, day after day, that this violence has got to stop. But they haven't gone so far, Mona, as to say Assad needs to go.
YACOUBIANI think this is a very explicit decision by the Obama administration to not put itself in a position where it's unable to follow its words with action. And so they are seeking, I think, behind the scenes, multilateral support for action. Now, again, I think there's also the Libya syndrome. And it's very clear that there will not be military intervention in Syria.
YACOUBIANSo I think the administration is weighing its words very, very carefully, and I think, rather than putting the emphasis on public statements, it's focusing more behind the scenes.
REHMWhat are the protesters demanding, Robert Malley?
MALLEYI think at this point -- and it may have been true from the beginning. But I think it's certainly true today. They're demanding the fall of the regime, the end of the Assad regime, and there's no doubt about that anymore. There was some talk at the beginning about reform. The kinds of reform they were asking for probably were of the type that could not have been consistent with the survival of the regime.
MALLEYBut, today, given particularly what we've heard today, but even what we've been hearing now for months, there's no way that the people who are on the streets are going to accept to live in a country that is ruled by this family.
REHMAnd, Hisham Melhem, what about Turkey's comments? Will they have any weight or import?
MELHEMOf all the regional powers, Turkey has the most influence in Syria. In the last 10 years, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey has invested a great deal of his time and effort and energy in helping Bashar al-Assad and in projecting Bashar al-Assad to the world and selling Bashar al-Assad to the Europeans and to the United States as "a reformer" and a potential peacemaker with the Israelis.
MELHEMErdogan did mediate between the Israelis under Ehud Olmert and Bashar al-Assad. And according to the American sources -- not the Turks, nor the Israelis or the Syrians -- the Turks did a very good job, professional job. Erdogan invested financially. Erdogan's whole approach -- what we call in the Arab world now the return of the new Ottomans to the Middle East -- was through the Syrian Gate.
MELHEMHe signed economic treaties with Syria. In fact, there was, in 2010, an economic agreement between -- among Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The Turks promulgated something called zero-problem with the neighbors. That is, you know, we don't want to have any problems with all our neighbors. Now, that policy of zero problems with the neighbors is in tatters. Erdogan is a very stubborn man.
MELHEMHe's a very proud man. And it's -- he finds it very difficult to admit that all his investment in Bashar al-Assad has failed. But the Turks are doing a wonderful job in helping the Syrian refugees. And, by the way, the Turks have a very good record in that because they helped the refugees from Iraq in the past, too. At this stage, the United States is still coordinating its approach to Syria with Turkey.
MELHEMAnd I think there was a time when the Americans were following the Turks. And I think Mona's point is well-taken up to a certain point. The United States should not follow Turkey. The United States should coordinate with Turkey, but should also lead, but the Turks, definitely, because of geography, because of history, because of politics, because of personal relationship with the Assad regime.
MELHEMIn fact, the foreign minister of Turkey, he himself said that he visited Syria 60 times in the last eight, nine years. So they have influence. And I think what they've been saying -- they've been saying, these are barbaric tactics. You gave, you know, the Bashar administration many warnings. Now, these warnings are ringing hollow. They have to act. Otherwise, they will really lose credibility.
REHMRobert Malley, this morning we read in the newspapers that Syria is reaching out around the world to try to tamp down this dissident stance. In other words, it's not just using brutality within Syria, but reaching out to other parts of the world.
MALLEYWell, certainly, I think Syria is concerned about what has become as this course of condemnation. At the same time, I think we have to be quite clear-eyed about the fact that international condemnation, pressure from outside could have an impact, but only so far. This is a regime, at this point, that is fighting for its survival and, as we hear, will do everything to survive, even if it's at the cost of its alliances, even if it's at the cost of sanctions, even if it's at the cost of all its international relations.
MALLEYSo, yes, I think people would feel better if there was a more consistent international position. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that that's going to have any impact on the behavior of the regime.
REHMWhat about Syrian clerics, Mona? What role have they played?
YACOUBIANWell, it's really interesting. I mean, the traditional Sunni clerical establishment that's allied with the regime has largely toed the line. But we are getting early new reports that there may actually be some divisions in that. There are some who are now preaching in the mosques against this brutal repression that was so chillingly described by Arwa Damon.
YACOUBIANI think it's still early days, but it's very important to watch because if the Sunni clerical establishment begins to use the power in the mosque, in places like Damascus and Aleppo, which have yet to see massive demonstrations, if they use that to mobilize, that could really be an important tipping point.
REHMWhat about the possibility of sectarian violence, Hisham?
MELHEMThis is the most worrisome, you know, factor here. The longer this confrontation continues between the regime and the opposition, two things we can talk about with certainty -- that it will be more violent, and ugly sectarianism will rear its head. We've seen this in the past.
MELHEMIn fact, from 1978 till 1982, there was a -- what we call a low-intensity civil strife in Syria, which culminated in the horrendous bloodletting orgy of violence in Hama, where at least 10,000 people were killed in the span of two or three weeks when, you know, heavy artillery was used against whole neighborhoods in Hama, hence the symbolic significance of Hama and why the American Amb. Robert Ford visited Hama a few weeks ago.
MELHEMSectarianism is a factor, and I think it is very crucial for the United States, for the international community, for the Turks, for the Arab states, as well as the opposition, to make it clear, to speak out against sectarianism, to say, we will never tolerate any communal retribution or revenge or settling of scores because one of the reasons sectarianism is ugly now is that the regime is trying to play the sectarian card.
MELHEMThe regime is trying to assure or tell or scare the minorities in Syria. And keep in mind, Syria is a human mosaic. Yes, the majority are Arabs and Muslims. But there are significant non-Arab minorities, like the Kurds, and there are significant religious minorities like the more than 2 million Christians in Syria. Then you have the Druze and the Ismailis, not to mention the Alawis, who are almost 12 percent of the population.
MELHEMSo the regime is scaring the Alawis -- of course, its base -- and the Druze, and particularly the Christians. And one of the reasons you don't have mass demonstrations in Aleppo and Damascus is where you have a Sunni establishment, the merchant class, which used to -- which benefited in the past from the regime because they said, we will not get involved in politics if you allow us to involve only in the economic domain, and because you have presence of the Christian minority in those two cities.
MELHEMSo the Christians watch Iraq, and they see what happened to the Christian community in Iraq, the revenge and the killings, burning of churches. They watched Egypt with trepidation because, also, you have a strong 10, 11 million Copts in Egypt. And yet they cannot even protect their property and their lives and their churches. And I think, you know, people should keep that in mind. This is the most worrisome thing, that is, you know, the threat of sectarianism.
REHMWhen the opposition speaks out, are they asking for foreign military intervention, Robert Malley?
MALLEYNo, no, they're not. And I think they're wise not to because foreign intervention in the region has a very bad name. And you only have to look at the case of Iraq to understand that. I want to come back to Hisham's point, which, I think, is absolutely critical. What's keeping the regime today still in place -- one of the key things that's keeping it in place is that many Syrians fear the alternative.
MALLEYThey fear the unknown. They fear chaos. They fear sectarian strike -- strife. They fear witch hunt, as happened in Iraq, against all the former Baathists. There are many former Baathists -- current Baathists in Syria. So the real challenge for the opposition and for others in the world is to reassure those who, today, don't like the regime -- it's hard really to like what they're doing -- but are extremely worried by what might come next.
MALLEYAnd the things that we -- that the U.S. and others could do most effectively is not so much sanctions, but is to try to put together the form of reassurance in terms of what the political future, the economic future, the sectarian future of Syria will be. They look at the region, as Hisham say, there's not much reason for optimism. If you look at Lebanon, if you look at Iraq, even if you look at Egypt today, those are not reasons for hoping that the future is going to be as bright as one would like it to be.
REHMMona, is there any economic pressure that the world community could put on Syria that would bring at least a pause, an end to this violence?
YACOUBIANI don't know about an end to the violence, but there's been increasing talk about the need for sanctions on Syria's oil and gas. This is a very important part of the Syrian economy. It, I think, account for maybe 25 to 30, 35 percent of Syria's GDP. It's an important source of revenue for the regime. And we are seeing that there's increasing talk, particularly in Europe, perhaps freezing the assets of the Syrian oil company. Ninety-five percent of Syria's oil and gas exports go to Europe.
YACOUBIANSo this could, in fact, make a significant dent or at least add to pressure. And, again, I don't think in the short term it's going to change things. But I really think we're talking now about a medium-term proposition of pressuring this regime and isolating it diplomatically.
REHMRob, you're not in favor.
MALLEYNo. I -- you know, I'm a skeptic when it comes to sanctions in general. I think targeted sanctions that look at individuals who've been engaged in repression, who've been engaged in corruption, sends a signal that we know what you're doing, and if you -- if anyone else does that, we'll target you as well. But the kind of general sanctions that people are talking about are going to hurt society more than they're going to hurt the regime.
MALLEYJust look even in the region. Every case where there's been sanctions, the regimes have found ways to circumvent them. The people have suffered. It's going to weaken the society that we now want to strengthen. It's going to weaken Syria for the future, and it's going to be much harder to rebuild Syria.
MALLEYAnd it's going to give an argument, however marginally effective it will be for the regime to see. You see it's the West that's trying to bring Syria down back on its knees. We need to stand together against this plot. I think we have better things to do.
REHMMona, I gather you and Rob have different views on this.
YACOUBIANI would differ a bit on that. I do think it's important. I think Rob's points are well taken. But I, actually, think, first, given the corruption in Syria, it's not as though the society has really benefited directly from these oil and gas revenues.
YACOUBIANAlso, more importantly, I think the very desperate situation the country finds itself in is one in which we've heard opposition leaders, both inside Syria and outside, calling for these sanctions and saying the Syrian people are willing to undertake that sacrifice in the name of putting an end to this regime.
REHMMona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about the military? Do they speak with one voice, Hisham?
MELHEMThe Syrian military, unfortunately, does not have the traditions of the Egyptian military or the Tunisian military that is not being used against the people. The Syrian military has a lousy history of oppression against the Syrian people. Arab militaries, in general, have done the dirty job of their regimes. They've done it in Iraq under Saddam. They've done it in Yemen. They've done it in Algeria.
MELHEMThey've done it in Sudan. They've done it in Jordan -- everywhere. The Egyptian case and the Tunisian case are somewhat different. So you don't have a professional Syrian military that could do to Assad what the Egyptian military and the Tunisian military did to Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. In essence, it's the Egyptian military and the Tunisian military that pushed the dictator out, run them out of dodge.
MELHEMThis is not going to happen in Syria. What is likely to happen is the breakdown of the military, is a defection, an implosion. There are units, major units that are controlled by Alawi officers, Alawi -- the Alawites are the minority that President Assad and all the Syrian officials belong to.
MELHEMThese are these tip of the spear, and one of them is lead by Maher al-Assad, who is a thug, who happens to be the brother of Bashar al-Assad. History repeats itself in many ugly ways. In 1982, it was the enforcer of Hafez al-Assad -- his name was Rifaat al-Assad, who's his brother, who destroyed Hama. Today, the enforcer for Bashar al-Assad is his younger brother Maher al-Assad.
YACOUBIANYou know, I would largely agree with Hisham, although I do think the recent replacement of the minister of defense who is -- who was an Alawite and who was then later found dead in his apartment could...
MELHEMNo, he's not dead. He's not dead.
YACOUBIANOkay. That was the initial news reporting was that...
MELHEMNo, no. No, no. He's not dead. He actually appeared on Syrian television.
YACOUBIANOkay. Well, nonetheless, his replacement could potentially signal that there is some disaffection, even among senior Alawite generals. So, again, I would largely agree with Hisham, but it's something worth watching over time. As the repressive tactics that the regime uses become increasingly egregious, does this, in fact, provoke some deeper dissention within the military?
YACOUBIANAnd are there divisions between the very narrowly defined circle of the regime and senior Alawite officers in the army?
REHMIt would seem that that would be the only hope for ending this terrible siege.
MALLEYYou know what? It's one of the paradoxes of minority regimes and minority-controlled regimes, that they often are overthrown by their own minority.
MALLEYThe majority, we know that they're against them. But the minority has developed a security apparatus. The question here is whether there'll be enough Alawites in high levels, in high-level security levels who are going to say, are we sacrificing our future for the benefit, not of our community, but of two, three families, or one family, that has tried to monopolize both economic and political assets?
MALLEYThat's the question. And I think Alawites, at some point, may say, we don't want to put our entire community in jeopardy because of these people. We're going to go back to our villages, seek protection there and let Assad and his people fend for themselves.
REHMHow important do you believe it would be for President Obama to call for Assad to step down?
MALLEYI don't think it's critical. I think what Secretary Clinton said yesterday was accurate when she said, so if President Obama says it, then what? It's not as if people are going to be surprised. I think the message is pretty clear. I think -- the other thing she said, which is true, is if it were a coordinated statement by President Obama, Prime Minister Erdogan, other Arab leaders, European leaders, then it takes a greater significance.
MALLEYThere's more clarity. And as I said earlier, this is a story that's going to unfold in Syria as a result of Syrian actions, not of foreigners.
REHMRobert Malley of the International Crisis Group. When we come back, we'll open the phones for your questions, comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Omar in Portland, Ore. Good morning. You're on the air.
OMARYeah, hi. I have comment and question. Why you're covering Syria and Libya, but you don't cover Bahrain? Bahrain is invaded by Saudi army and United Arab Emirates, and they have mercenaries from Syria-backed Iran, in Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan. And they've been killing people in Bahrain, about 5,000. They have been, like, fired from jobs by the government.
OMARThey have over 1,000 persons in jail, tortured by the government. And some people died in the jail from torture, and men and women and children being killed, the youngest like six months and the oldest about 15 years old.
REHMAll right, sir, thanks for calling. Robert Malley.
MALLEYWell, I mean, I think there is an issue here -- not so much about your show. I think what's happening in Syria certainly is deserving of a full hour. But, you know, you have countries like Bahrain that are now condemning the repression in Syria, which takes a little bit of gall, given what's happened in Bahrain. And you have countries like Iran that are condemning what's happening in Bahrain.
MALLEYSo there is -- each country is looking at its own interest, and each one is looking at it through its own prism.
REHMOne question that keeps coming up, who's paying for this? Where is the money coming from? Some people have speculated Iran is offering funds to Assad. Is that how you see it, Mona?
YACOUBIANThat's hard to know. I think that that information, it certainly -- there's been speculation, but, frankly, the status of Syrian finances is opaque, to say the least. That's, again, I think, where questions that relate to attempting to strangle the economy somewhat, the oil and gas in particular, I think, become relevant again.
YACOUBIANThere is some question as to how long Syria's foreign exchange reserves will last. And, again, I think no one really knows for sure what it is that's financing it.
MELHEMAbsolutely. Absolutely correct. The Iranians are helping the Syrians. If the Syrian regime falls, Iran will be dealt a serious strategic setback. Syria is the only major Arab country that supported Iran. And the Syrian-Iranian relationship from the days of Khomeini and Hafez Assad from 1979 has been extremely solid, and it's very important.
MELHEMThat's why a change in regime in Damascus, and if you have a much better representative regime in Damascus, the whole region will change. And, in fact, the Syrian uprising would be more important than the Egyptian uprising because it will have reverberations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
REHMWhat about Bahrain? And what about our caller's comments, that thousands are in prison, that the regime there is equally bad as that of Syria?
MELHEMThe regime is bad. I'm not sure it's equally bad with Syria. Even in despotism, there is a hierarchy. Even in despotism, there is a hierarchy. Saddam Hussein occupied a special place. This fellow in Damascus occupies a special place, Libya, the same thing. Ben Ali did not do the massacres that Saddam did. So, I mean, you know, they're all autocrats. They are all autocrats.
MELHEMThey are all -- or many of them are despots, but there is a difference. In Bahrain, you have less than 50 people who were killed. It's awful. This is a regime that they systematically discriminate against the majority Shia of the country. You have 30 percent. And the caller is correct. They are hiring mercenaries from faraway Pakistan just because they are Sunnis, to use them to crack down on the majority Shia population that are asking, peacefully, asking peacefully, for their full rights as citizens.
MELHEMAnd so when we talk about Syria, it doesn't mean that we're excusing the brutality of Bahrain or of other states. I start from the premise that all Arab regimes are autocratic. But some of them are worse, and some of them are truly despotic.
REHMAll right. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for joining us.
RACHELHi. I was wondering, are there any actual Christians that are -- that have joined the protests there? Is -- you know, is it as sectarian as it's been called?
MALLEYThere certainly are Christians that have joined the protest. But at the same time, the Christian community is both divided and anxious and worried, again, for the reasons we mentioned earlier. They're minority. They look at what's happening in the region where Christians are suffering. And that's one of the less-covered stories of the last several years, is how the Christian communities in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Iraq and elsewhere have really suffered.
MALLEYSo the Christian community has been one of the constituencies on which the regime has been counting on to remain in power, even as number of intellectuals. And others in the Christian community are joining the protests.
REHMHere's an email from North Dallas. Ellis wants to know, "Would Bashar Assad provoke a war or incident with Israel to take the heat off and unite the country behind him?"
MELHEMIt is too late. Everybody will see that as a transparent act. His army cannot even -- I mean, they are -- the Syrian army is having serious logistical problem moving from one area to another. Syria is not the size of Egypt, obviously, but it's not a tiny country. So we have the Syrian army moving units from Deir ez-Zor in the east to Latakia in the west to Daraa in the south to Jisr al-Shugour in the north. It's a tough act.
MELHEMAnd -- but the regime did try to explore the Palestinian issue during the commemoration of the division of -- partition of Palestine. They sent demonstrators. They bused them to Golan. And they created an incident in which the Israelis, who are usually trigger-happy, shot and killed a number of them. But, yeah, this is an awful regime that is not...
REHMWe'll get some backfire on that phrase, trigger-happy, Hisham. What's your opinion, Rob?
MALLEYI think Hisham is right when it comes to Syria. What I wonder about -- and I've been wondering for some time -- is given how important Syria is not just to Iran but to Hezbollah, the Lebanese group, might you see at some point, when they fear that the regime is about to fall, that they might try to do something because so much is at stake in terms of the strategic balance in the country.
MALLEYI'm not sure what that would be. I think it would be extremely risky for Hezbollah because it would be the brunt of very massive retaliation by Israel. But if it sees that everything is at stake, everything is at play, the Syrians are known for playing different cards.
REHMYou never know.
MALLEYYou never know.
REHMAll right. To a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Leah.
LEAHYeah, good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question and a comment, both. And I'll first ask my comment and then -- I mean, I'll, first, talk about my comment and then my question. My comment is that a whole -- with all of the good intention and -- that you all have, how would you strategically -- can prevent Israeli's intervention?
LEAHLike what's happening, according to Seymour Hersh, from the very beginning after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled, Israelis started training commandos in a Kurdish area. And those commandos were the ones started this sectarian war by exploding the mosques in both sides. And they initiated the sectarian war.
LEAHAnd nobody is talking in the media, but Seymour Hersh had documented this. And we all know that Seymour Hersh is a wonderful Jewish reporter. So he couldn't be lying about this. And this sectarian war...
MELHEMBut he could exaggerate, as usual.
LEAHPlease let me finish. This sectarian war destroyed so many Iraqi people. At the same time, all these lands in Iraq are purchased by Israelis and not...
REHMHold on now. Leah, we're really not talking about Iraq and not talking about Israel this morning. We are talking about the violence in Syria. Perhaps you can save your comment to a program when we are discussing what's happening between Israel and its neighbor.
MELHEMYou know, if I can say something, Diane, this is really, you know, playing into the hands of these regimes. Every problem in the Arab world, these regimes, they always accuse the Israelis and the Zionists, and then the Americans. Every problem, this is what they've been doing forever. That's what the Syrian regime has done. That's what other Arab regimes have done.
MELHEMEvery problem, whether it's from Iraq to Southern Sudan, the Israelis and the Zionists, and behind them, of course, the Americans, are responsible for it. Nobody wants to take responsibility. These are, as Rob and I and everybody was saying, what is happening in Syria is a Syrian drama in which the actors are the Syrian people, and they are going to determine this. This regime exploited the conflict with Israel.
MELHEMAnd in the name of struggling against the Israelis and the Zionists, you know, they've been struggling against their own people and repressing -- you know, repressing their own people.
REHMAnd that's this question from Tatcher who wants to know what percentage of the Syrian population supports the Assad regime. Mona.
YACOUBIANI think that's very, very difficult to say. I mean, it's clear, as I said earlier, that the two major cities in Syria -- Damascus and Aleppo -- have not seen widespread demonstrations that we've seen in places, like Hama and Deir ez-Zor. We've also talked about the minority populations who are very much, I think, in a difficult spot with respect to what the future might hold in a post-Assad Syria.
YACOUBIANWe also have seen the Sunni business elite remain somewhat on the fence. And so all of this points to the fact that there's still -- I don't know if I'd say significant -- but there is a proportion of the Syrian population that is either on the fence or actively supporting that regime.
REHMOn the fence or actively supporting. All right. On that note, to Augustine in Fort Worth, Texas. Good morning to you.
AUGUSTINEGood morning, Diane.
AUGUSTINEI have -- I noticed that this is a position where Lebanon have a very permanent place in the international arena, you know, the opportunity to be on the driving seat of the Security Council. Also, Turkey, since they didn't allow the United States to land when we're in Iraq, I think it's a good example of a democracy that happens to be Muslim.
AUGUSTINEAnd if they have to implement a regional solution, you know, where Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan -- you know, Jordan is pretty (word?) -- and control Iran's influence by just setting some basic boundaries, you know, to that regime, then they can negotiate a peaceful exit for the Assad family to be seeking comfortable retirement in -- I don't know -- in Turkey or in Iran even, an assurance that there's not going to be persecution, and then make a transition project where the region itself comes up with the guidelines.
AUGUSTINEAnd that would pacify people and allow them to find their own way of government. Because, in my opinion, each and every one of those nations, unless they do something negotiated, they're going to wind up in a civil war, just like Iran, just like Afghanistan, now Syria and maybe even Egypt and Tunisia, but...
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. Mona.
YACOUBIANOh, I think the caller is probably referring to the fact that Lebanon will assume the presidency of the U.N. Security Council in September. But Lebanon has really had a very difficult time in playing a key role in Syria. Syria's much smaller next door neighbor has lived in the shadow of and under a Syrian hegemony for a period of 30 years. So the Lebanese, I think, are not well-placed to play any sort of role in any kind of negotiation.
YACOUBIANBut, I guess, I would disagree even with the contention. I just, unfortunately, don't see the possibility for a negotiated exit for the Assad family. Unfortunately, I think they are involved in a fight to the death.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Hisham, how is the instability in Syria affecting Hamas?
MELHEMOh, Hamas has found itself in a very awkward position yesterday and the day before, when the Syrians are attacking the Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia, when the spokesperson for Hamas said, we are not aware of such attack. At the same time, the Palestinian authority was denouncing the Syrian regime. Hamas would lose if Bashar al-Assad goes. And that's why a change -- a political change in Damascus will have a repercussion throughout the region because it will affect Hezbollah, Hezbollah's standing in Lebanon.
MELHEMIt will hurt -- it will deal Iran a major strategic setback. Iran today, for all intents and purposes, has become a Mediterranean power for the first time since the Greek-Persian wars. Thermopylae, remember those battles? So, because of it's influence in Syria, because of it's sponsorship of Hezbollah and Lebanon, it's because of support for Hamas, if the regime changes in Damascus, he will have a completely re-drawn political map in the Eastern Mediterranean.
REHMAnd final question to all of you. Do you expect Assad to hang on? And if so, for how long?
MELHEMTo hang or to be hanged?
MALLEYI think it's very hard to see how this regime continues to rule given where we are today. That said -- and, you know, he's lost its basic support domestically and internationally. His last card is violence, and that's a card you could only use for so long. On the other hand, if you look at what's happening to the Arab Spring, if that's what you want to call it, since Egypt and Tunisia, there's not a single case where a regime has fallen.
MALLEYThe case that is closest is Libya because you have NATO intervention. I think rulers has -- have learned one lesson: you don't give up. You fight till the end. Because you start showing any weakness, and you're gone. And that's why this tragedy may continue for longer than objective conditions would seem to suggest.
YACOUBIANI would agree with that. I mean, I think, essentially, you know, the regime could hang on for the short to medium term. But its longevity, I think, is not at all assured. My own sense is that the two sort of key cornerstones that buttress this regime and its hold on power, fear at home and geostrategic significance in the region. Both of those have been fatally damaged, and so I think in the long term, I think, we will likely see the end of this regime.
MELHEMDiane, dictators like Bashar al-Assad and Gadhafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh, all of these people, they have no retirement plans. The only transition they believe in is the transition from the presidential palace to the cemetery as leaders, dying as leaders. This is -- the regime will fight till the end. And remember what Gadhafi said, we will fight till the last man, till the last bullet?
MELHEMAnd I think Bashar will do the same, and that's the unfortunate reality. There is no way you can negotiate with this regime. In Egypt, at least the president said, I'm not going to run again. In Tunisia, the president said, this is my last term. If Assad is asked before, as Robert was saying, when they began calling for reform, Assad was not going to say, this is my last term. And so this is an existential war between a regime against his own people.
MELHEMAnd he can prolong his rule. He can turn Syria into the North Korea of the Levant. But in the end, he will be overthrown, and his end will be violent.
REHMHisham Melhem, he is Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel, Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group. Thank you all so much.
MALLEYThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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