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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
In Syria today, more of the same: artillery pummeling parts of homs, the city that has already endured weeks of bombardment. Reports of seven more people killed there today in the shelling. Against that violent backdrop, the Syrian government is set to announce the results of its referendum on a new draft constitution. That vote yesterday was ridiculed by critics of the government inside and outside Syria as a sham and a farce. But the opposition is divided, and a meeting between western and Arab leaders in Tunisia on Friday, the so-called “Friends of Syria”, ended with little prospect of changing the situation on the ground. As the bloodshed in Syria continues hopes of a quick resolution to the conflict are fading.
- David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant including Syria at the Pentagon.
- Kim Ghattas State Department correspondent for the BBC.
- Marc Lynch Director, Institute for Middle East studies, George Washington University and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, also writes for Foreign Policy Magazine
- Radwan Ziadeh Spokesman for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We've seen almost a year of protests and bloodshed in Syria, but, despite early predictions of a quick end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, he remains entrenched in power. Joining me to discuss the remaining options on Syria: Marc Lynch of George Washington University, Kim Ghattas of the BBC and David Schenker of the Washington Institute. Good morning to all of you.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood morning.
MS. KIM GHATTASGood morning.
GJELTENAnd you can join us. We'll be taking your calls and comments throughout the hour. Call us on 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us an email at email@example.com, or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Kim, breaking news, the Syrian Interior Ministry has announced that the referendum that they carried out yesterday on a draft constitution, a new constitution, was approved by a margin of almost 90 percent, 89.4 percent. Not a big surprise, was it?
GHATTASNo, not a big surprise. Although, if you look at past results of referendums in Syria, you would've expected them to put forward a number closer to 99 percent, so perhaps President Assad is trying to show that, in his own way, this is a credible result because it's not the usual 99 percent. But, obviously, a lot of people in Syria don't believe the result. It's unclear how the turnout could have been as high as the authorities say it was.
GHATTASFifty-seven percent. Now, the Russians have already come forward and said that the referendum was a great step towards democracy. That's their perspective, of course, and I'm sure we'll hear a lot of comments from the United States and other friends of Syria, which were gathered in Tunisia last week who say that, you know, this does not reflect the will of the people.
GJELTENWell, David, remind us what this referendum, the draft constitution actually proposed.
SCHENKERWell, it was some minor revisions in the former constitution, which included elements of political pluralism, political party system, rights of citizenship -- which, of course, the Kurds never had -- right of assembly, strike. They outlawed torture, no arrests without charge. I mean, there is a couple of sort of human rights standard things that you'd see in any type of constitution, but, of course, it has no credibility.
SCHENKERNobody on the ground believes that any of these things will be implemented. And that's why, I think, we understand that it was really a sham that there was no turnout and that, you know, this is not going to change anything.
GJELTENOK, let's say it was a sham. Let's say that these figures that the government announced are really ridiculous. On the other hand, we cannot discount the reality, right, Marc, that the Bashar al-Assad regime still has some support in Syria, some significant support. I mean, this uprising would not be a year old if there weren't some support for the regime.
MR. MARC LYNCHYeah, I mean, I think that's something which it's too easy for us to overlook, that there's a lot of Syrians who still -- either they support the Assad regime because they benefit from it, and a lot more are just afraid of the future. And they're not ready to leap into the unknown yet. And I think that, you know, we look at what's been happening and the uprising and the suffering of the people, and we assume that, well, everyone must want Assad gone. But, you know, when you talk to Syrians, there's a lot of fear out there. They remember Iraq. They remember Libya.
MR. MARC LYNCHAnd they're afraid of the future, especially those parts of the Syrian population that have been tied to the Assad regime. So it's going to take a lot of reassurance before people like that are willing to take a leap into the unknown.
GJELTENAnd, Kim, it's not only the Syrians who are afraid of the future. It's Syria's neighbors. It's international players. You were just with Secretary Clinton and other foreign leaders at the so-called Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia. And I get the feeling that there wasn't a lot of consensus there on what should be done about the situation in Syria.
GHATTASThere was a consensus on the minimum that could be done: agree that violence had to halt, agree that humanitarian aid had to be sent into the country, agree that the Syrian National Council was a credible -- one of the credible representatives of the Syrian people. But, as Marc pointed out, there were division -- there are divisions not only within Syria about what is best for the country and how the country should move forward, but there also divisions within the international community and within the Arab world about what are the choices there to end the violence.
GHATTASAnd there are no good options at the moment. There are really bad scenarios and worse scenarios. And the divisions were really very much on display in Tunis at this conference. You had some Arabs saying, we don't want military intervention. That's not where we're going. You had the Saudis saying, we think it's an excellent idea to arm the rebels.
GHATTASAnd you had the United States trying to figure out, how are we going to help Syria? Now, of course, there are those who believe that the United States is not interested in democracy, that their stated goal of supporting the democratic aspirations of people in the Arab world is not sincere. Fine, but they are trying to figure out how to put an end to the violence. And they are looking around them, and they're not really being able to check the boxes that are required to move forward. The Syrian opposition is not united. The Arab world is not united.
GHATTASThe U.N. Security Council resolutions aren't -- are being vetoed by China and Russia. That all shows that it's very difficult to decide how to move forward.
GJELTENWell, David, one of the ideas that was discussed, along with the option of arming the rebels, as Kim mentioned, was the possible establishment of humanitarian corridors or so-called no-kill zones along the border, where outside powers actually could intervene in some very limited way to protect the populations in those areas. And yet that did not go either. What do you see as the realistic options here?
SCHENKERWell, the Qataris were the lead backers of this humanitarian corridor idea. I think if you get into any option that is other than providing humanitarian support on either the Turkish side of the border or the Jordanian side of the border, that you are, I think, automatically talking about military option. To establish a humanitarian corridor, like people are talking, like, a zone that flows through maybe (word?) and Homs, you're talking about establishing a no-fly zone in that area, no-drive zone.
SCHENKERThere are going to have to be U.S. or NATO or, let's say, Arab airplanes, but maybe you could get five Qatari airplanes doing that, like, in Libya to enforce this. And you're going to be putting foreign troops in harm's way, and people will be killed on the ground. So that is one military option. I think we're kidding ourselves if we say that doesn't count as military option.
SCHENKERAnd then there is the broader range of supporting, well, what's known as the Free Syria Army, which are the group -- increasingly large groups of defectors who are leading the Syrian army, the Assad's forces, and are joining the demonstrators and bringing along with them their weapons and also getting weapons from across the boarder.
GJELTENMarc, no good options. Give us the pros and cons on each of these.
LYNCHI mean, I think, as David said, there's -- and Kim said, there's no good options out there. And I think David's absolutely right that we have to be serious about what it means to establish a safe area, establish humanitarian corridors. To do that, you have to be able to militarily protect it. Otherwise, you're just setting up the international community to fail and giving false hope to Syrian civilians. And so it's very easy for people to throw around ideas about safe areas and humanitarian corridors, but, on the ground, it's going to be messy.
LYNCHAnd it's going to require actually having military superiority in the air and on the ground. And the problem with things like air strikes and things like that where, you know, basically being the air force for the Free Syrian Army, as some people like, is that we're dealing with conflict that's taking place in heavily populated urban areas where we have very limited human intelligence. It's not like Libya where you had clear front lines, and you could police those lines with air strikes from above. You're dealing with a very messy situation where you don't know who you're bombing.
LYNCHYou can't bomb without killing your own people. It's much messier than it sounds on the op-ed pages.
GJELTENAnd, Kim, a big difference, isn't it, in that regard from Libya where, actually, you know, the international community was able to move ahead with a plan?
GHATTASAbsolutely. I think people keep repeating that Syria and Libya are very different, and they are. In Syria, the rebels don't hold territory so far, and the Syrian opposition is still divided, although it is starting to coalesce. But one thing that struck me, because I was on the trip with the secretary of state to Tunis -- I was also with her on the trip mid-March last year in the lead-up to the second U.N. resolution on Libya, which allowed the use of all necessary means to protect civilians.
GHATTASAnd it was interesting to see how the approach on those two trips were similar in terms of trying to determine how to move forward. When she went to Paris a few days before the resolution was voted, she had a few boxes that she wanted to check. She wanted to speak to the French and the British to see what were their real intentions, and were they ready to do the hard work required alongside with the Americans to get this done.
GHATTASShe wanted to speak to the Arabs to make sure that not only were they ready to put their money where their mouth was, but also that they would not suddenly turn around and, in public, criticize the United States once the operations started for attacking another Muslim country. And she wanted to look the opposition in the eye. So she met with Mahmoud Jibril, the Libyan opposition leader at the moment, to get a sense of where he was at and what he could -- what sort of vision they presented for Libya.
GHATTASAnd, at the end of the day, she thought the United States and its allies were in a place where this could be done. She went to Tunis. She did the same thing. She spoke to the Arab. She spoke to the Europeans. She met with the Syria National Council. And it looks to me as though she concluded it wasn't jelling. The conditions to move forward were not there.
GHATTASAnd now, it feels to me as though -- although the Americans have made very clear in their private conversations with me and other journalists that they are determined that President Assad needs to go -- they're not trying to -- they're going back to the drawing board and trying to figure out, OK, how are we going to do this? We don't know what this is. It's not going to be a large-scale military intervention the way we had in Libya. It's going to be something smaller. But how do we get there?
SCHENKERYeah. No, I think that there actually is some credibility to the Libya example. There's actually more pressing reasons why the United States should be involved. I mean, Libya was a case where, you know, after one week and 300 dead, the president got on the television and said this is a crisis that demands American humanitarian intervention. We have to protect the Libyan people. And, actually, when we inserted NATO operations, we bombed static targets in Tripoli.
SCHENKERThat enabled the rebels to actually capture Tripoli and take over the country. Syria is actually a strategic interest for the United States. The ultimate disposition there matters for us that would be a regional setback for Iran, et cetera.
GJELTENWell, when we come back, we're going to talk about some of the strategic interests at stake here. We're also going to be speaking with a member of the Syrian opposition, and we're going to take your calls. What do you think about the situation in Syria, and what should be done? Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm today, and we're talking this hour about the situation in Syria. I'm joined here in the studio by Marc Lynch. He's the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He's also the author of a book that will be out next month, "The Arab Uprising." Also with me is Kim Ghattas, State Department correspondent for the BBC, and David Schenker, who is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
GJELTENHe's also a former top policy aide on the Arab countries, including Syria, at the Pentagon. But first, joining us on the phone is Radwan Ziadeh, spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Radwan, are you with us? Good morning. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. RADWAN ZIADEHGood morning.
GJELTENSo I have to ask you first the big concern about the opposition, about the Syrian National Council, is how well you represent all the aspects of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, and we do have to start with the news that yesterday, you had a splintering of your group with some secular and Islamist leaders actually breaking off to form what they call a new patriotic front. What's the significance of that?
ZIADEHIt's still actually the SNC, the broader coalition of the opposition groups who formed, actually, in last October, and they get the support from the people inside Syria and outside Syria. Of course, the SNC is not -- unfortunately, is not a solid organization as should be for different reasons because lack of funding, because, actually, we are coming from different countries. We don't have experience, or we didn't have headquarters to meet to discuss all of these issues. At the same time, (unintelligible) actually to keep the opposition fragmented.
ZIADEHBut I think that the SNC is representative of all the ethnic and different groups within Syria. We have Christian. We have (word?). We have Kurds. We have all different ideological, ethnic, different backgrounds. But the main problem, actually -- the lack of the international support we got. There wasn't actually this issue in Libya because, after almost a month, they got the support. They got recognition from different countries. And this is why the situation -- and all the Libyans, they support the TNC, the Libyan Transitional Council.
ZIADEHBut in Syria, it has been 11 months. We did not get the support. We do not get the international support. That's -- can't rely all the Syrians behind the SNC and this is why always that we got the questions about how -- representing, and also, the (word?) always, actually, the international community repeating not to intervene in Syria to repeat that. The opposition is not united.
GJELTENOK. Excuse me, though, Radwan. Are you saying that the reason that the SNC, the Syrian National Council, is fragmenting is because the international community has not been supportive enough of you? I mean, it would seem that the least that the opposition can do is to work among yourselves to stay united. How can your fragmenting be the consequence of a lack of international support?
ZIADEHNo, we are not fragmented. We are representing all groups in different Syria, but the lack of international support because we did not -- their recognition or any funding support from any other country. We don't actually have a fund to, at least, to facilitate meetings within different groups, within the SNC. And this is why, with the same time, the international community does want -- doesn't want, actually, to intervene and to help the Syrians. And one thing, actually, the opposition (unintelligible) always as excused.
ZIADEHThere wasn't opposition united in Kosovo. There wasn't actually opposition united in the Kurdish area in Iraq 1991 when the international community involved the safe zone and imposed the limited no-fly zone as we are requesting. This is -- the united opposition always excused being used by the international community not to take the necessary action.
GJELTENOK, Radwan, what -- on what points do you all agree? Is there any consensus around which all the elements of the anti-Assad opposition do agree?
ZIADEHAll of the opposition, they agree, they have the same agenda that Bashar Assad has to step down and start the transition. And the problem -- because we don't have an election to verify, actually, the legitimacy of different groups, this is why we got in the transition (unintelligible) Syria about the question about who's who and who's representing. And this is a natural part, this is normal in different countries in the world.
GJELTENOK. And, Radwan...
ZIADEHSyria became much more difficult, as I said before, the lack of international support, the lack of taking actions.
GJELTENOK. And, Radwan, just to be clear here before we let you go, you are -- as the Syrian National Council, you are calling for international intervention on your behalf. Is that correct?
ZIADEHYes. And we've been repeating that many times and asking that many times, and we said, clearly, that we need a limited no-fly zone. And we need, actually, for designated area, which would be actually a safe zone, a safe haven...
ZIADEH...and along the Syria and Turkish border.
GJELTENOK. Radwan Ziadeh is a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and the executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Thank you for speaking with us this morning, Radwan.
ZIADEHThank you for having me.
GJELTENMarc, you heard Radwan. What is your sense of the opposition? He says that the reason that the opposition is not as united as it should be is basically just 'cause they don't have the opportunity to get together and talk. They don't have an organization. They don't have support. They don't have funds. Does that make sense to you?
LYNCHWell, I think it's a little deeper than that. The Syrian National Council is made up primarily of people in exile, in the diaspora, and their connections to people on the ground are relatively limited. There's a number of different competing groups that are trying to represent and speak for the Syrian people on the inside and the outside. And, as the conflict has grown more violent, the Free Syrian Army that we were talking about earlier increasingly seems to be driving the political debate on the street level.
LYNCHAnd the relations between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Congress are very tenuous at best. I think that the international community would like to see something like the Libyan example repeat itself, but it just hasn't happened. And I think that the more that this turns to violence and civil war, the more that people start funneling weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the worse this is going to get.
GJELTENAnd, Kim Ghattas, did you find in your travels with Secretary Clinton and others that this was an issue that the international players are focused on, the sort of the problems with the opposition?
GHATTASAbsolutely. And it isn't necessarily so much the lack of unity within the opposition groups in exile because, as Radwan said, you know, this is democracy. Not everybody agrees on everything, but everybody agrees that Bashar Assad has to go. What is frustrating American officials, those that I've spoken to, is that, as Marc was pointing out, the links between the SNC, the opposition groups abroad and the inside, aren't that strong.
GHATTASAnd there is a sense amongst the American -- within the American administration -- excuse me -- that that is essential, that the opposition abroad has to be able to represent those inside better. And they also have to be able to put forward a coherent, pragmatic and inclusive vision of a post-Assad Syria. The Americans don't want to do it for the Syrian opposition. They want the Syrian opposition to come to the U.S. and to other friends of Syria and say, this is what we envisage.
GHATTASAnd, so far, from my understanding, that hasn't happened. And that is intensely frustrating for American officials.
GJELTENDavid Schenker, before the break, you mentioned how high the strategic stakes are in Syria, higher, arguably, by a significant amount than they were in Libya. Sort of go through some of the sort of strategic risks that are in play here.
SCHENKERListen, I mean, this has been a regime, the Assad regime, that has undermined for the past 10 years every single U.S. policy interest in the region, whether it comes to the peace process between Israel and Palestinians by supporting Hamas, destabilizing Lebanon, supporting Hezbollah, being a 30-year strategic partner with Iran, killing in between hundreds and thousands of Americans in Iraq by being responsible for sending in all the Jihadis. They are the destabilizing force in the region.
SCHENKERIf the Assad regime falls, it will likely be, almost certainly, a Sunni Muslim regime. Now, we don't know what that's going to look like. It may very well be eventually a Muslim Brotherhood regime, but I would argue that will be better for the United States and better for the region. Not only would they stop perpetrating terrorist acts against their neighbors, but they would probably sever the relationship, the strategic relationship with Iran. And relations with Hezbollah would not be that good either.
SCHENKERSo I think all those are in the positive category. You know, the real fear is that this is going to degenerate, as my colleagues say, too, to a civil war or to lawlessness where you have an opportunity for al-Qaida to get a foothold. We're not seeing that yet, but, I think, the longer this goes on, the more possibility that this type of negative outcome will ensue. And that's why I'd make the argument that we should be supporting the Free Syria Army right now to a great extent, both with lethal material and non-lethal material.
GJELTENBecause time is not on our side.
SCHENKEROh, that's right. I think the longer this goes on, the worse it looks, and the harder it's going to be to put this all together. What's more is, when this is all over -- if it ever ends -- we're going to want to have a relationship with the Free Syria Army. We're going to -- which is going to be -- hopefully, if we arm it -- a more unified, cohesive, disciplined organization. And if we have an insight into that, this won't be Libya where you have 300 militias that dominate the country, where the government can't get a hold on it.
GJELTENMm hmm. Marc Lynch, what do you see as the strategic issues at play here?
LYNCHWell, I think that David raises -- makes the points very effectively. But one thing is that we generally assume that two things go together, which actually might not. I think that we can actually do something about hurting Iran or even helping to bring down Bashar al-Assad much more easily, actually, than we can do what most of us are talking about, which is trying to protect Syrian civilians and bring about a transition to some kind of functioning, more democratic post-Assad Syria.
LYNCHAnd so if all you want to do is weaken an Iranian partner, I mean, we can do that. And funneling weapons into the country and supporting the Free Syrian Army will probably make things much more difficult for Bashar al-Assad. But at the same time, I fear that that's going to make it less likely that we're going to be able to have a peaceful, stable, institutionalized Syria after the fall of the Assad regime. And I think that's the horns of the dilemma. We assume that the two things go together, but I'm not sure that they do.
GJELTENBut what about this prospect that the time -- that the longer this situation goes on in Syria, the more dangerous it becomes, which adds an element of urgency here?
LYNCHNo, I think that's an excellent point. And it's one that we're really worried about because I think that the more militarized it gets, the more likely you're going to see people funneling weapons in, whether we want them to or not. And the more that the spiral of violence continues, the less likely that those who currently support the Assad regime are going to feel comfortable with the transition. But at the same time, what we've been trying to do to push the urgency of a transition still hasn't been working. The Assad regime still appears to believe that it can survive.
GJELTENMarc Lynch of George Washington University. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Kim Ghattas, there's a point you wanted to make.
GHATTASYes. I think that one country that hasn't been mentioned so far in this debate is Russia. And Russia's behavior is key in this because they have also their own strategic interests in the region. They're a long-time ally and backer of Syria, which was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. And they don't want to necessarily lose that foothold they have on the Mediterranean. They may be betting on the wrong horse, as the Americans keep saying, but perhaps not. Perhaps they have the ability to keep President Assad in power.
GHATTASAnd then you are looking at a long-term, protracted conflict, a conflict that the United States and the -- and Russia would be fighting through proxies in Syria. And that is a real concern. And so my sense, from speaking to American officials -- and I also interviewed the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday. It feels like a week ago. We were in Rabat just yesterday. But I interviewed her, and she expressed a concern about this turning into a long-term conflict that is very difficult to deal with for civilians on the ground.
GHATTASIt is also a scenario that is not pleasant for the international community. And so I think that what the Obama administration is trying to figure out now is how to move forward without making things worse in the long term and without ending up in a proxy war with the Russians and the Iranians in Syria. The Russians are going through an election. Vladimir Putin has his agenda. We'll have to see how he feels once he locks in that victory, which we assume he's going to get.
GJELTENAnd that's coming right up. I'd like to go to the phones now. First, we have Louai (sp?), who's calling from Potomac, Md. Good morning Louai. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LOUAIThank you for taking my call.
GJELTENYou're so welcome.
LOUAII'm curious about how much Iran is involved in Syria.
GJELTENWell, Iran is pretty deeply involved in Syria, aren't they, David Schenker?
SCHENKERYeah. Iran is very concerned about where this is headed. And we understand, from a number of sources, that there are Iranians present on the ground in Syria, not so much going out there and shooting civilians, but, rather, providing technical support to the Assad regime and helping them to track down through (word?) phones and to triangulate and cut off Internet and really help track down the leaders of the opposition. They had great experience themselves in 2009 when they crushed their own significant rebellion.
SCHENKERAnd I think, you know, that's sort of the degree of support we're seeing right now. There may be financial support that comes that may be critical as the Assad regime runs down its huge amount of reserves that it had, which is now, you know, getting to the 10 billion or less, reportedly. They need -- may need some cash influx. They're also helping in terms of smuggling oil outside of Syria that we've seen, but we may be able to put a halt to that.
GJELTENAnd -- well, how much of a strategic setback for Iran would the fall of the Assad regime be there for? I mean, you're talking about a regime in Tehran, which is already under tremendous pressure.
SCHENKERYeah. I think it's going to be their first strategic setback since 1979.
SCHENKERThis is their gateway to the Med, and this is their primary, you know, let's say, point of communication line to Hezbollah. You know, all of Hezbollah's weapons have traditionally been shipped from Tehran to Damascus, put on lorries and driven over into the Bekaa Valley to Hezbollah. With Assad gone, Iran is going to have to find another route, and the international community can more effectively curtail that if it goes by sea.
GJELTENMarc Lynch, another big important player here is Hamas and Hezbollah. Now, we just saw an announcement from -- we've seen announcements, variety of announcements, from Hamas that really suggest a distancing between themselves and Syria. What's the significance of that?
LYNCHWell, you know, the last decade was shaped by this idea of a resistance bloc, you know, standing up to Israel and the United States. And, I think, with Hamas leaving Damascus, you've seen the resistance idea really falling apart. And, unfortunately, that's pushing it in the direction of a sectarian conflict, which, in many ways, is dangerous for the entire region, the idea that only the Shia are standing together against the Sunni majority.
GJELTENOK. But -- we're going to come back to that in a minute, Kim. I want to take a short break first. We're going to be talking more about Hamas and Hezbollah. We're going to go back to the phones. There are a lot of callers with their own concerns and questions about the situation in Syria. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. Excuse me. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And we're talking about Syria with Marc Lynch here in the studio. He's director of Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University and the author of a new book, "The Arab Uprising," which will come out next month. Also, Kim Ghattas, State Department correspondent for the BBC, and David Schenker, who's director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and, before that, a top Syria expert at the Pentagon.
GJELTENBefore we go to the calls, I want to read a couple of tweets and emails from listener. One listener tweets us, "Irrespective of all the obstacles mentioned on the situation in Syria, 10,000 lives are enough for the world to intervene." But a listener on our website, on the other hand, writes, "As an American-Syrian physician who's closely followed the situation in Syria and who supported the peaceful demonstrations in Syria," he says, he's now finding himself withdrawing his support and becoming more sympathetic to the government position.
GJELTENAnd the reason for that, he says, is that he sees jihadists arriving from everywhere to acclaim Syria as a new Islamist state. So, clearly, there are two sides to this situation. I'd like to go now to the -- to our callers. Joining us first from Fall River, Mass., is Katelyn. Katelyn, thanks for calling. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KATELYNHi. How are you?
GJELTENI'm good. How are you?
KATELYNI'm doing well. I just had a quick question for your guests. Which do you think is worse, not intervening in Syria or fighting a proxy war with the Russians that could go on for a very long time? Knowing that Obama has traditionally taken a more peaceful stance, how do you think he would react? Which do you think is worse? Thank you very much for taking my call.
GJELTENOK. Well, Marc Lynch, she mentions a proxy war with Russia. In fact, if there were an all-out war with international forces involved, it would be a much broader proxy war than that. There would be a lot of players involved, right?
LYNCHI mean, what you risk is that Syria is going to become like Lebanon in the 1980s or, for that matter, Iraq in the last decade where every player in the region finds a point of entry, arming their own militia, settling their own scores against one another. It could get far, far uglier than we can even -- that we've even been talking about to this point. And I think that that's the race against time, that we've all been talking about for the last hour, is the fear that, if things get really out of control, Syria becomes a vortex, drawing everybody in.
LYNCHAnd, you know, at one level you could say, well, the United States would be well-served to not be having its troops or anyone else in the middle of all of that. But the reality is that nobody in the world is going to be able to ignore or avoid a Syria which is collapsing into this kind of proxy warfare.
GJELTENDavid, what's the bottom line here? What -- in your view, as someone who has followed Syria for a long time, what option makes the most sense?
SCHENKERIt's that I think that we should be providing the Free Syria Army with the ability to defend itself, defend the Syrian people better, to help them establish a better command structure, to provide them with secure communications, with some ammunition, some RPGs, anti-tank weapons. You know, the purpose is not to have the Free Syrian Army march under flag into Damascus. That's not going to happen anytime soon. They don't have tanks, and they're not going to be able to do this.
SCHENKERBut, I think, what you can do is level the playing field a little bit. Degrade regime capabilities, encourage more defections, deplete supplies of the regime and bankrupt them. I think, you know, over time, this is the goal, and, you know, it's not going to happen overnight. And it's not a pretty scenario. But to stand on the sidelines as the Russians arm the Syrians to the teeth in the face of almost the entire international consensus with the people of Syria, I don't think we can stand by and do that.
GJELTENOK. Let's go now to Amar, (sp?) who is calling us from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Thanks for calling, Amar. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
AMARGood morning. Thanks for taking my call. It's a comment and a question.
AMARI believe that the Syrian people are stuck between a greedy, corrupted, close-minded government and a selfish, short-sighted opposition. The main issue for the -- for many now is how to save the Syrian (word?). It's politics. So why the opposition refuse to sit and negotiate with the Syrian regime in Moscow lately? Thank you.
GJELTENAll right. Kim, do you have an answer to that? We, unfortunately, don't have Radwan on the phone anymore to answer that question, so you're going to have to do it on his behalf.
GHATTASI can't speak on behalf of the Syrian opposition, but my observations are that, very often, unfortunately, people on the ground get stuck between governments and opposition and militias. You know, I grew up in Lebanon during the Civil War for 15 years, and we faced a lot of the same problems. And it is really disheartening to see that in the 21st century, what we went through in the '80s is happening again or could possibly be happening again next door in Syria.
GHATTASAnd I think that is the frustration that I sense from American officials, is that they are frustrated by the lack of unity and cohesion from the opposition that they're basically not getting their act together. The cavalry isn't coming until this Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition can get it together. Basically, this is the message that I'm hearing from American officials. And I just want to go back to the point that Marc was making about Hamas switching sides.
GJELTENMm hmm. That's an important issue.
GHATTASI think that, ironically, that gives the Obama administration some pause because they support the opposition. But if, suddenly, they are supporting the opposition alongside Hamas and possibly al-Qaida, which are both on the terrorist list organization in the United States, that gives you a bit of pause. It gives you food for thought. It doesn't mean that this administration thinks, OK, well, we're going to step back and not get involved anymore.
GHATTASI think there is still a very clear determination that President Assad needs to go. But it, again, takes us back to the point of how do we do this in a thoughtful way that doesn't make things worse for everybody.
GJELTENWell, that's an important point to consider that this is not happening in a vacuum. It's happening in the context of what -- of the Arab uprising that Marc Lynch has written a book about, all the realignments that have taken place in the region. And David is on the phone from Chiefland, Fla. And, David, I think you have a point to make along this same line. Is that right?
DAVIDYeah. Thanks for taking my call.
DAVIDMy concern is I have kids that are military age. A couple of nephews are in the military. And I -- my question is, where is the proof that this Arab Spring has anything to do with democracy when we see what's going on in Egypt and Libya a total backlash? They have kidnapped our people. And they were supposed to be having an Arab Spring, a more friendly democratic government. This is what the American public got sold, so this is not what's happening. That's my question.
GJELTENWell -- right. And, in fact, you know, democracy -- this has clearly has been a democratic uprising. On the other hand, it certainly has changed the strategic lineup in the region, hasn't it, Marc? And you've just written a book on the Arab uprising.
LYNCHYeah. I mean, the Arab uprisings, hopefully, will eventually result in democracy. But, right now, they're a fundamental challenge to the political status quo. They're overthrowing decades of authoritarian leaders, and they're really struggling to try and come up with something better. But I think on balance, this is something which the United States has wanted for a very long time, to see a more democratic Middle East, which is more responsive to its own people.
LYNCHIt's going to take time to have a -- to get through that transition, and it's going to be tough. But I think over the long term, we're going to be much better off for it once we get through that transition. But when you look at something like the Syrian uprising, compare that to Egypt, it turned violent much more quickly largely because that was the regime's choice. They decided to try and crush it with an iron fist. And it did not start out as the al-Qaida and jihadists and that sort of thing.
LYNCHBut now, as you get this vacuum in the country and the violence, it does create the kinds of openings for them just, again, as we saw in Iraq, where you didn't originally have a strong al-Qaida presence, but the year-in, who's quite strong, and again, this is what we're looking at as things go badly.
GHATTASYes. Interestingly enough, I agree with Marc, that the longer the stakes, the more there is a vacuum that can be filled by all these different players, small groups or regional players. You know, I reported from Syria and from Lebanon extensively before I came to Washington, and it's interesting to see that, actually, these jihadist groups are, in a way, a creation of the Syrian authorities themselves. I mean, these are groups that they have used around the region to cause havoc in Lebanon or, of course, more importantly in Iraq.
GHATTASIt's their own creation, and then they unleash them to make life difficult for others at the risk of the destroying the country. But if this is what it takes for President Assad to retain power, he is willing to play that game. And the question is, is the United States, the U.K., France and other countries that are the part of the friends of Syria, are they able or willing to play, if you will, as dirty a game as him?
GJELTENWow. David Schenker, I'm curious about your views, going back to this issue of Hamas breaking its ties with the Assad regime. The broader context there is the rise of Islamism as a force in Egypt and Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood are finally emerging as a real player. And it appears that Hamas is now looking more to its Islamists allies in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere and therefore doesn't perhaps need Syria or Iran. How significant a development would that be?
SCHENKERWell, as I think, that Hamas is just pragmatic. It stood by Assad as long as it could. But it becomes unseemly for a Sunni Muslim organization to be standing by this extensively Shiite, if not heterodox Alawite regime, while it's slaughtering Sunni Muslims. They had to go, and what they want is to have a place where they can have a safe landing on the boarder of Israel, whether that be Egypt -- they can't go to -- really, Lebanon, I don't think -- but Egypt or Jordan. And Jordan is not taking them, so they had to go.
SCHENKERBut the issue of Islamism, I think, is really important. If you look at what's happening in Syria right now, you have about 43 battalions or so of the opposition Free Syria Army. And that's, you know, basically about 9,000 people. Only two units that we can tell so far, two battalions, are Islamist. So right now, all you've got, you know, time on -- basically, the structure of this is looking good. It's not looking Islamist. It's -- we don't know what's going to happen in the future, but as I said, the longer this goes on, the more chance it's going to turn.
GJELTENOf course, that's a big concern, isn't it, of those people who are skeptical about army in the opposition? On the other hand, it's often used. It's clearly used as an excuse in the case of Syria. It's often used by people who don't want the outsiders to intervene.
SCHENKERYeah. It's long been, you know, the devil you know.
GJELTENLet's go now to Monier, (sp?) who's calling us from Houston, Texas. Good morning, Monier. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MONIERGood morning, Tom. Thank you a lot for taking my call. Look, I was an officer in the Syrian army, and I...
GJELTENYou're an officer in the Syrian army?
MONIERYes, sir. And I left Syria a while back. The first things I can tell you, for David, we should arm the opposition. My friend (unintelligible) we have had all the weapons made in U.S. capture in Syria and France, made in Israel, made in Germany. We have 49 Turkish military officer that was trained by the Mossad captured in Syria. We just captured 11 French, including a colonel. We have Libyan. We have the British. My friends, all -- first of all, everybody is trying to shut down Syria.
MONIERAnd I'll tell you what. My cousin was killed by the Muslim Brotherhood -- he's a doctor. He was a professor -- just because he's Alawite. Muslim Brotherhood, they are terrible, and nobody wants them. The Syrian people changed heart when they start capturing those foreign fighters. So what they get? $3,000 a month to kill anybody. That's to (unintelligible) finished. They're still you friends (unintelligible) not going anywhere for David.
GJELTENOK. Let me...
MONIEROne thing -- one last one I'm going to tell you. One last thing I'm going to tell you. You ask foreign policy, and Israel never -- was never, never part of solution, was always part of the problem.
GJELTENOK. Monier, we're going to -- yes. Sorry. I'm going to have to -- you're making a little bit of a speech here. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David, what about this? Monier is saying that, as a ex-Syrian military officer, he can say, already, there is intervention in Syria.
SCHENKERWell, we do know, oddly and paradoxically enough, one of the leading groups of people that are coming into Syria are Libyans, the Libyan "freedom fighters." But, many of them, it's probably their second trip to Syria because Syria was a leading point of entry of mostly Libyan Jihadis or transported by Assad into Iraq to kill Americans and kill Iraqis during the war. We do -- there was a report about Turks on the ground captured in Northern Syria.
SCHENKERYou know, this is going to be an issue, and it's become -- going to become even more of a critical issue, the longer this takes. But the Free Syria Army is not going to go away. People will try and arm it. I think, you know, the Saudis are going to do it. The Qataris are going to do it. The Russians are doing it. The point is...
GJELTENThe Russians are arming the other side.
SCHENKERCorrect. Correct. Correct. And the point is, in the end, that we should be on the right side and try and help shape things if we can.
LYNCHI mean, I think that one of the things which emerges from this discussion is that we often talk about military intervention being an end point, that we'll have this debate and then, eventually, we'll intervene militarily and then -- and then what? And I think it's a mistake to think that any kind of military intervention is going to end the conflict. It's simply going to ramp it up to a new level. One of the things that we haven't talked about at all today is other things we can do besides military intervention. What role for sanctions? What role for diplomacy?
LYNCHWhat role for international justice, bringing the top regime officials to international criminal court, trying to go to the Security Council again? In other words, I think that we need to think about this not as military intervention, or not, because, as David says, it's already happening. There's no way to prevent the Saudis or the Qataris or others from getting weapons into Syria. But I do think that we need to stop thinking about this just as we do or we don't.
LYNCHWe need to bring together the political options that we have to try and force a political transition into Syria without getting so hung up on this question of what will we do. Will we bomb? Will we arm the opposition?
GJELTENKim Ghattas, is there a consensus among other players of those who you just traveled with around what can be done?
GHATTASNo, there isn't a consensus yet. And I think that that's what the Obama administration is going to try to work on now. They've gone out and listened to everybody, and they found that there isn't a consensus. So they've now come back to the drawing board and said, well, perhaps, we can, you know, come up with some kind of plan that others can agree on that we can all get together. The options at the moment seem to be either a long-term diplomatic strategy or go all in with the big military intervention.
GHATTASAnd I think that what this administration is looking for now is something in the middle where you have some diplomacy but also a mini-intervention that would require, in the short term, more sanctions, more pressure, trying to peel off top officers or other members of the Assad regime away from President Assad, while trying to figure out whether this is -- there is some kind of limited intervention that is possible that would help protect the civilians and push or help accelerate a little bit, the downfall of the regime. But finding that right balance is very, very difficult.
GJELTENThat's right. And, of course, in the situation in Libya, the United States famously -- in the words of some anonymous foreign policy adviser to the White House -- said, the United States was leading from behind. There's a question here of whether a strategy like that will work with respect to Syria. Kim Ghattas, state department correspondent for the BBC. David Schenker from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mark Lynch. I'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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