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The conflict in Syria has entered its 18th month with no end in sight. Many now call it a civil war. In a rare television interview yesterday Syrian President Assad said his country was facing a “regional and global war.” He indicated the Syrian government would ultimately win. Fighting is occurring across Syria, with some of the heaviest battles in and around Damascus. Thousands of Syrians have been forced to flee. The crush of refugees has risen dramatically this summer. Over the past three months the average number of Syrians fleeing to border nations every day has jumped from 1,000 to 3,000. Diane and her guests talk about the crisis in Syria.
- David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program 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.
- Charity Tooze Senior spokesperson and communication officer for UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency.
- Marc Lynch Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. So far, all efforts to stop the fighting in Syria have failed. Since the conflict began, as many as 17,000 people have died, mostly civilians. Calls from some quarters for the U.S. to intervene militarily have grown stronger. But many argue that would be a huge mistake.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about what's happening now in Syria: David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Charity Tooze of the U.N. Refugee Agency and Marc Lynch of the George Washington University. I'm sure many of you have your opinions. Please join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. We'll try to get to as many of your questions as possible. And good morning to all of you.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood morning.
MS. CHARITY TOOZEGood morning, Diane.
MR. MARC LYNCHGood morning.
REHMGood to have you all here. David Schenker, yesterday in a television interview, President Bashar al-Assad said we are waging a regional and global war. What did he mean by that?
SCHENKERWell, I think he himself is implying that external powers are behind the uprising. He's trying to lay this off on the instigation of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Of course, nobody at home is buying that, but this is an indigenous uprising. But it has gained an international element, and the fact that he's promoting that by pushing the conflict into the neighboring states, whether this be refugees in Turkey and Jordan or by trying to destabilize places like Lebanon by sending in explosives. There was a recent arrest. We can talk more about that later if you'd like.
REHMAnd to you, Marc Lynch, he also said the regional and global war requires time to be concluded. He said ultimately he would win out. What kind of time is he talking about?
LYNCHWell, you know, I think the idea and the reality right now is that we're locked in what's probably going to be a long and grinding civil war. And the profound irony Assad's speech is that at the outset of the uprising, as David said, this was very much an indigenous popular uprising, primarily non-violent and primarily driven by the Syrian people.
LYNCHAnd, unfortunately, what's happened over the last few months is that as it's become militarized and turned into a full-scale civil war, you actually do have significant components now of external actors, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the others, arming the opposition. It's created a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the really sad thing is that this has probably extended the lifespan of the Assad regime.
LYNCHI don't think he can survive in the long term, but I think that basically has put -- created a situation where he's fighting on the terrain that's he's most comfortable, a terrain of war, killing and alike. And he's basically removed the possibility of a political solution. And without that possibility, there's nothing left but to fight this to the end.
REHMIt's so interesting because he has not made many public statements over the last few months. Why yesterday?
LYNCHI think he needs to shore up his own base and to reassure them that he's still in control. You might remember not too long ago, several members of his inner security cabinet were killed in a mysterious explosion, and I think that he needed to show that he was still in control and to show his allies that this is not the time for them to abandon ship, that he's going to fight to the end and that they should as well.
REHMIn the meantime, Charity Tooze, you've got thousands of people trying to cross the border, trying to get into Turkey, trying to move elsewhere, some into Lebanon. This crisis of refugees is really on the increase.
TOOZEYeah. I mean I think, Diane, about three months ago we could say that it was a stream, and now it's a flood, you know. We're looking in the past, there were 1,000 -- you know, three months ago, about 1,000 people a day aggregated in the neighboring countries, and now it's about 3,000. On Monday alone, there were 2,500 people who crossed into Jordan. Three months ago, Turkey was reporting 4,500 people crossing the border.
TOOZENow, we're looking at 5,000. You know, the situation is really burgeoning at seams, and the needs of these people are immense. You know, refugees are telling us that, you know, as early as Monday that they were -- there were aerial bombs as they were trying to flee. Inside of Syria where we have hotlines, people are calling terrified. Some people are receiving threats. Food, water, sanitation is running out. And, you know, one of reasons we think that the flow has increased so substantially is that this -- the theater of war has went into a space where it's mostly a civilian population.
REHMCharity Tooze, she's senior spokesperson and communications officer for the UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, Mark Lynch is director for the Institute of Middle East Studies at G.W., and David Schenker is director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Do join us, 800-433-8850. David Schenker, Charity talked about the treats that individuals and groups are receiving. Does Bashar al-Assad want these people to leave, or does he want them to stay and be killed?
SCHENKERWell, I think this is a very calculated strategy to internationalize, to put pressure on Syria's neighbors. This is a tool for Assad, a leverage if you will, to try and keep Turkey out of this somehow by flooding the country with refugees if you could persist, for example, in housing the Free Syria Army or letting arms go over your territory or talk about a safe zone or a safe haven on our territory. We will send refugees into your territory, increase the burden for you.
SCHENKERAnd perhaps we will also activate the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization that has killed more than 40,000 Turks historically. So this is a means of leverage. And Jordan as well, where you have -- what is it, I don't know -- maybe 20,000 refugees living in the camp plus what Jordan say are about, you know, 50- or 100,000 more people in the country. You know, there's a history of Assad basically terrorizing Jordan, sending in terrorists to kill both Americans, Jordanians.
SCHENKERHe's sending in people to harass the refugees. So this is also a tool, and this is message to Jordan to not consider sending weapons from your territory to the Free Syria Army because, of course, it's a very short distance from the border of Jordan to Damascus. This would be the -- one of the best ways actually to send weapons in.
LYNCHWell, I mean, clearly what's happened is that this has gone from a struggle inside of Syria to a regional struggle for Syria. And I think that the real problem here is that you can't contain the conflict. And I think what David is describing is absolutely right, is that there's immense pressure being put not just on Jordan in Lebanon but also on Iraq and on Turkey, then it's really having these effects.
LYNCHAnd at the same time, you have then the stakes go up for everyone else in the region. And so you've heard the reports of Iran putting more and more support into the Assad regime. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have dramatically stepped up their support for the rebels, so as Turkey, so as Jordan. And so basically, Syria becomes a battleground for proxy war for the entire region, which is a far cry from the way it began as a peaceful uprising for democratic change inside of Syria.
LYNCHAnd at this point, it's hard to imagine that there's any going back. I think we've reached the point where this is really this regional struggle to the death, and that's a pretty destabilizing set of elements to introduce into the Middle East.
REHMCharity, how is Turkey, for example, handling this influx of refugees?
TOOZESo the Turkish government, since the beginning, has been managing the refugee situation themselves, and UNHCR is offering technical support, assistance, counseling to refugees. There are presently about nine camps. They're working very rapidly to open up five or six more camps. You know, Turkey's call to say that they can't shoulder this burden alone is the truth for all of these regions. We're talking about 220,000 people registered.
TOOZESo, of course, they need support from the international community to shoulder the situation. And, you know, they're doing a great job and have been very generous at keeping their borders open and the humanitarian space...
REHMBut how can they continue doing that with the flow of refugees increasing each day?
TOOZEI mean, I think this is the question in any refugee situation, how do the neighboring countries manage it? And, you know, with the support of international organizations, local NGOs, they have to continue to step up to the plate with the medical needs, with the food needs, with the sanitation needs. There's really no other choice. All of us have the right to seek refuge. We all, underneath the universal declaration of -- you know, have the right to go across the border if we fear persecution.
TOOZEAnd we urge these countries to keep their borders open, and for donor governments like the United States and other major donor governments to continue to support these countries in hosting the refugees.
REHMSo where is the money coming from to assist Turkey in this refugee saga?
TOOZEFor -- the money for UNHCR, the funding that UNHCR is receiving to help with refugees, I can't speak on exactly where Turkey is getting its money. But where UNHCR is getting its funding, a primary donor is the government of the United States, Sweden, the U.K.
REHMCharity Tooze, she is senior spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency. When we come back, we'll talk further. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the ongoing battle in Syria, the killing of more than of 17,000 people and the refugee crisis that's now been created for Turkey, for Jordan, for other countries in the region. Here in the studio: Charity Tooze, she is senior spokesperson and communications officer for the U.N. Refugee Agency, Marc Lynch is director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
REHMWe have email here, and I think this question represents a question many people have. Michael says, "Who are the Syrian people referenced by your panelists? Is the opposition made up of a unified resistance, or is it many separate groups each with its own agenda?" Marc Lynch.
LYNCHWell, I think that's an outstanding question. And I think that one of the big differences between Syria and, for example, Libya is that there are really profound disagreements and internal divisions inside the Syrian population. There actually is a very strong reservoir of support for the Assad regime, and people who really do believe that their country is being -- is under threat from global conspiracy.
LYNCHYou have ethnic and sectarian and religious differences, the Christian community, the Alawite community, Kurds, then along with the Sunni majority. And so what you have is a divided country, which really does resemble the kind of ethnic and religious mosaic that you saw in Iraq, where you have the potential for a very serious fishers. Then you have the divide between an external opposition, the Syrian National Council and other organizations which have tried to represent -- be an umbrella for the entire opposition, but have largely become irrelevant.
LYNCHAnd then inside, a whole bunch of local groups, local coordinating committees, the various brigades of the Free Syrian Army, which have been completely unable to unify around a common political agenda. And so the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition has been a major obstacle to any effort either to defeat Assad or to provide meaningful assistance from the outside. And I think that that's unlikely to change anytime soon.
SCHENKERI think that Marc is right about the divisions in the country. But I'd also say that this has been one of the strengths of the resistance against the Assad regime that there is no single leadership in the country, that this is a many-headed Hydra, if you would, that these units have risen up, and you can't chop off the head of the opposition leadership. Marc is right that the Syrian National Council, the exiled leadership, it's been -- has very little legitimacy inside the country.
SCHENKERIn fact, the -- many call it the opposition of the hotels, 'cause they spent so many time -- so much time in conferences in Istanbul, and they're trying to sort of get a handle or gain control over the Free Syria Army within the country. But this is basically a non-Islamist group of fighters, many people who have left the military who are dedicated to toppling the regime. I think we have to give them a lot of credit for what they've done and what they have accomplished and their dedication through all this hardship.
SCHENKERI think this is a strength and that we should not be, I think, focused necessarily on unifying the opposition before we move forward and help these guys in a significant fashion. They have no tradition.
REHMAll right. And we'll get to that point. Here's another email from Anne, who says, "Your panel's response to the why of the timing of Assad's statement yesterday did not mention the nonaligned nation's meeting now going on in Tehran nor to Egyptian President Morsi's strong statement in Tehran opposing Assad's oppressive stance." Can you speak to that?
LYNCHI think Morsi's statement in Tehran really threw a curveball for a lot of people. There was a lot of people in Washington who were very uneasy that President Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, had decided to go to Tehran and join the Non-Aligned Movement summit. But the strong statement in support of a Syrian uprising clearly embarrassed the Iranian hosts and infuriated the Syrian regime. And I think it speaks to where public opinion is in the Arab world right now.
LYNCHMorsi was trying to take what I think -- he was trying to craft a popular stance to demonstrate his independence and to demonstrate that Egypt is different from Egypt under Mubarak. But he did so not by aligning with Iran but by trying to align with the aspirations of the Syrian people. And I think it's extremely significant that that's his calculation about what the Arab public wants to hear and what the Egyptian public believes.
SCHENKERYeah. He was skewered -- Morsi was skewered by Tom Friedman, though, in The New York Times the other day for going to Tehran and for the hypocrisy of aligning himself as it were trying rapprochement with Iran, which crushed its own popular uprising, its own freedom movement in 2009. So this was, I think, unexpected and an unusually welcomed statement from Morsi.
REHMThere are many groups certainly in this country and elsewhere calling for the U.S. to become involved in the Syrian uprising militarily to offer support to those who are rising up against President Bashar al-Assad. What is your thinking, David Schenker?
SCHENKERWell, right now we're providing non-lethal assistance to the Free Syria Army -- communications, logistics assistance, helping to get them organized. But I think we should be doing much more. I think we should be providing them with weapons. Right now, the weapons are coming primarily from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and they're not particularly discriminating about who gets those weapons. Qatar has a known affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis, like the Salafis. These are hardcore Islamists.
SCHENKERIf the United States was running this or providing weapons, I think we would vet who's getting the weapons, and we would have some leverage therefore on preventing perhaps some of the atrocities that the Free Syria Army allegedly is perpetrating on the ground. We would also, I think, have leverage after this is over because the people that are going to be in charge of Syria are the people with the guns, not the people on the hotels in Istanbul.
SCHENKERSo we should be doing this, providing, at a minimum, weapons. I'm talking about anti-tank weapons primarily. I don't think -- although the opposition is asking for anti-aircraft weapons, MANPADS, I don't think that's in the cards. But I think that anti-tank weapons would be a good start. There is a lot of reasons why, and primarily it's that there should be a sense of urgency in ending this.
SCHENKERThere is no political solution, and the longer it goes on, the more nihilistic the people will get on the ground. You have reportedly 26,000 dead. You have 40,000 missing. You had 3,500 people killed last week, 320 in a single day this weekend. It's going to turn Islamist, and this is not what we want.
REHMCharity Tooze, how do you think the U.S. arming the rebels would somehow affect what's happening there on the ground?
TOOZEYou know, as a humanitarian organization, we're not really in a position to comment on political maneuvering by the United States or any of the other outside countries. But I would say that what we see is that people flee when there's a lot of violence, so, if there's a lot of shelling in various areas, people will leave. You know, right now, people are saying they've been displaced five or six times inside of the country before they leave. And, you know, increased violence will just potentially increase the amount of people who have to avoid and move away from that.
LYNCHWell, I think the question the United States arming the Syrian opposition is pretty much a red herring at this point. They're already receiving many weapons, and I actually disagree with the idea that we would gain any kind of significant leverage or control over these organizations by arming them. I think that the problem that they have right now is not access to weapons. I think that that's out there.
LYNCHAnd I think many of the arguments against arming the opposition, such as it would empower men with guns and destroy the possibility of negotiated solution, have largely evaporated because we're already in a civil war. So I think that arming the opposition, if the United States decides to do so, really won't have much impact one way or the other. It might be a way to make us feel good about ourselves, but I don't think it's going to matter on the ground in any meaningful way.
REHMDo you think arming the opposition would eventually lead to American boots on the ground there?
LYNCHWell, that's my great fear, is that most likely this would simply continue and intensify the conflict and have the war continue. And then when it fails, you then get to the next rung on the ladder. And when you look at the calls for a no-fly zone, for safe areas, for buffer zones, all the things that are out there beyond arming the opposition, they all sound good on an op-ed page, the idea that we can somehow solve this by bombing.
LYNCHAnd, unfortunately, when you actually look at the military realities on the ground, this is unlikely. We would get ourselves embroiled in this deeply problematic ongoing civil war, and I don't see how this ends without U.S. troops then occupying Syria and...
SCHENKERYeah. No, I think that you can do a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone. I think we've done it in many countries before. This is not the vaunted Syrian armed forces. This is not a first-rate military. This is a fifth-rate military. This is infinitely doable, and it doesn't imply boots on the ground. The logic behind it, really, is that you create an area -- you know, a lot of the comparisons.
SCHENKERPeople talk about -- I think Marc has talked about how Syria is not Libya, that the -- in the past it's written that, you know, that the opposition is divided, but also that, you know, that the opposition doesn't control territory. Well, increasingly, the opposition is holding territory, and the government cannot hold territory. And, in fact, if tanks can't come into a certain area that are government tanks, then this would promote further defections from the Syrian military. I think a lot of people are staying in the Syrian military 'cause they're terrified what happens if they defect. And it...
REHMYou just had four defections of senior military, didn't you?
SCHENKERYeah. No, you're having a lot from colonel level, et cetera. These people are going. But I'm talking about whole battalions leaving and taking their tanks with them, and this is what you're going to have to have. The army is going to have to split. This is going to be a bloody and prolonged conflict. My point is that if you have a no-fly or no-drive zone, you can make this move more quickly on the ground.
REHMWhat about Syrian air force, Marc?
LYNCHI think that the growing use of jets, fighter jets, to attack rebel-controlled territories is increasing the intensity of the calls for a no-fly zone very understandably, although a no-fly zone wouldn't do anything about shelling or any of the other kinds of ways of attacking those areas. The real problem is that people think, hear no-fly zone, and they think it's something that's easy to do.
LYNCHBut, in fact, what you have to do is a systematic bombing campaign against anti-aircraft things to create control over airspace, which is going to involve a very serious air campaign. And, again, the last -- I just want to say that, you know, I've heard the arguments it'll go easy before. I heard that in Iraq, too. I mean, we've heard about cakewalk, about fifth-rate armies, and that's not the way it ends up.
REHMMarc Lynch of the George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Detroit, Mich. and to Hazim. (sp?) Good morning to you, Hazim.
HAZIMI love your show. Good morning, Diane. And...
REHMThank you. Good morning to you.
HAZIMI'm a Syrian-American physician, and honestly I am very disappointed with the Obama administration response to the conflict, to the revolution. You know, my feeling is that they've failed the Syrian people for almost two years now. Every day we have daily massacres. It's almost amounting to a genocide that the regime is committing against its people.
HAZIMAnd my question is, why can't the Obama administration help in establishing a safe zone outside of the NATO -- outside of the U.N. resolution requirement, just under the NATO umbrella? And why can't they also help in providing the rebels with anti-craft missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, you know, to down these airplanes that are bombarding all the cities?
REHMAll right. First to the U.N. safe zone. Charity.
TOOZEHi, Hazim. You know, for -- from UNHCR's perspective -- and I know that the -- there's a meeting at the U.N. Security Council today on this issue, but from UNHCR's perspective, all people have the right to seek safety. And, you know, until there are some other viable solutions to safety, we urge the governments surrounding Syria to keep their borders open so that people have the right to leave.
TOOZEI know that there, you know, historically have been a lot of complications regarding, as my fellow panelist mentioned, regarding keeping a space safe, and we constantly are advocating for a civilian space for refugees to have access to. So, at this point, we would urge that the -- that rather than a safe zone, that the borders remain open.
REHMAll right. And, Marc Lynch, your arguments regarding Hazim's suggestions.
LYNCHI mean, I think that everybody is outraged by what's happened in Syria, and the argument is not over whether the United States should help or whether Assad should go because everybody agrees with that. The argument is over how you can do it, and I think that Obama's assessment has been that creating safe areas and no-fly zones and the like would make things worse rather than make them better, that it would be a significant investment of U.S. military forces on the ground and would radically change the situation.
LYNCHAnd I think he's right about that. I think it's quite telling that the Romney campaign has adopted essentially the same position, and that whenever you get calls for a no-fly zone, responsible governments will back away from it. On anti-aircraft missiles, I think this is a terrible, terrible idea, given Syria's location.
LYNCHAnd if you can use anti-aircraft missile to down Syrian fighter jets, you can use it against Israeli or Turkish military or civilian airlines just as easily. There's a fragmented opposition with no command and control. Flooding the heart of the Middle East with anti-aircraft missiles is just a really bad idea.
SCHENKERYeah. I mean, the Holocaust Museum has already said that the conflict in Syria is taking on the characteristics of a genocide. So I think, you know, you can ask what the administration is doing about it. In fact, State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland was asked, you know, what's the difference between this and Srebrenica? You know, what are you doing to prevent a massacre?
SCHENKERAnd she said, well, we're aiding the opposition for -- after Assad. And the reporter pushed her and said, well, you know, what are you doing to prevent a massacre? And she said, well, we're lending our concern, and that's just not going to cut it.
REHMAnd you would really like to see the U.S. doing more.
SCHENKERYeah. I think, at a minimum, arming the opposition, but I think that we should be really looking at making plans now for the no-fly zone in collaboration with the French and other willing nations.
REHMDavid Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. We'll take a short break now. We'll be back and take more of your calls, your email.
REHMAnd we have a great many emails, many of which are saying, no military, keep our money at home but blockade the border stringently with lots of aids at the border. Another email asks, "What is Israel's stance on Syria? Do you think it would help Israel's relationships in the region to take sides?" David.
SCHENKERWell, I think that the Israeli policy has generally been non-involvement, staying away from this, don't tarnish in any way or touch on the opposition, don't get involved. You know, initially, the Israelis have looked at Assad and said, he's the devil, we know. You know, despite warts and all, looking at how he armed Hezbollah, et cetera, all the really negative things that Assad did in the region, both the Israelis and the Americans, the Israelis said, well, we can tolerate this.
SCHENKERBut when the revolution really got going and turned violent, you actually had Avi Dichter, who is a former head of the Shin Bet, the internal security of Israel, give a great message in YouTube in Arabic supporting the Syrian uprising. It's really, you know, he said -- in Arabic, he said, well, we understand we can't involved in this, we can't arm the rebels. But he said, though, (speaks foreign language) Where is the Arabs? Where are the millions?
SCHENKERWhy aren't the Arabs not supporting the Syrian uprising? But the Israelis now have changed. They -- Michael Oren, the ambassador to Washington, wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal saying, hey, we don't have a dog in this fight. We support people's, you know, their rights for liberty and pursuit of happiness, et cetera. So the Israelis are standing on the sidelines.
REHMCharity, for a moment, I want to go back to the refugees and what kinds of conditions are existing in these camps in Turkey.
TOOZEYou know, in Turkey, it's incredibly hot. The number of people fleeing is so high that to keep up with just basic services -- food delivery, water -- is tremendously difficult. If you look at Jordan, the camp that's been opened there, it's 45 degrees Celsius, which is about 113 degrees. It is incredibly hot. It's dusty. The numbers are, again, so high that quickly building tents -- we're trying to bring in pre-fabricated houses because of the heat. And something that most people don't know is most refugees are women and children.
TOOZEIn Jordan particularly, we're seeing a lot of unaccompanied children show up without their parents. They have needs. We need children safe zones. We need, you know, spaces for kids to go to school while they're displaced, counseling services because, you know, this is an incredibly traumatic experience for people. You know, just like you and I wouldn't want to leave our home, we would do anything before leaving. They've been pushed to this space. And the situation is very extreme because just keeping up with the numbers is incredibly difficult.
REHMWhat is happening in Darayya? Tell me about Darayya. Marc Lynch.
LYNCHWell, it's yet another massacre, and I think this is part of the Assad regime's attempt to try and beat back the opposition and to make a symbol, to make displays of those who resist and to try and reassert control. Generally, I think that this is a self-defeating strategy. I actually think, going all the way back to March of 2011, if Assad hadn't responded with such brutality, he probably would have kept control over the country. And he brought it on himself by responding to peaceful protesters with horrible brutality. And so, really, it's just more of the same, and it continues in that same cycle of destruction.
REHMAll right. Let's go to East Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Siham. (sp?)
SIHAMGood morning. Thank you so much for taking my call.
SIHAMI am Syrian-American from Aleppo, Syria, and I still have my family over there. My question to the panel, why nobody is talking about the crimes committed by the rebels. My brother was taken hostage by the rebels. They destroyed his business. My whole family are hostages in their own homes right now in Aleppo. And how, as a country, we don't have human feelings for these people, for these innocent people over there. Is oil more important than people? This is my question to the panel.
REHMSiham, I'm so sorry for your family's situation, tough, very tough year. David.
SCHENKERYeah. You know, people have not, by and large, focused on it, but the Free Syrian Army is made up of both people who have left the military and have some level of discipline and by civilians who have taken up weapons and, you know, who have been through a lot and have a lot of grudges. And a lot of sectarianism is seeping into this. And they're doing things that are themselves atrocities. You had a -- I believe the Human Rights Watch had issued a report documenting some of the atrocities perpetrated by members of the Free Syrian Army of the opposition.
REHMAnd what about the kidnappings of Lebanese Shiites by Syrian opposition forces?
SCHENKERWell, this was a fascinating case. You had two dozen or so Lebanese Shiite "pilgrims" who were kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army or a group affiliated with this Free Syrian Army in Syria. They let the women go and kept the men. And there were reports that some of the men are affiliated with Hezbollah. In the meanwhile, you had a Lebanese group that went out and kidnapped about 30 Syrian Sunni Muslims, expatriate laborers in Lebanon.
SCHENKERAnd then the Free Syrian Army went and kidnapped 48 Iranian "pilgrims," men who actually had identity cards that said they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were there helping the Assad regimes. So this is really spreading across borders in a way that is inciting sectarian conflict really pushing over the borders.
SCHENKERAnd you can add to that that the Assad regime itself had hired one of their most loyal, trusted allies in Lebanon, a guy named Michel Samaha, to bring over, you know, pounds and pounds of high explosives intended to both kill perhaps the Christian patriarch, the Maronite patriarch in Lebanon and to bomb out a Sunni Muslim iftar to sow sectarian conflict and bring it over the border into Lebanon.
REHMJust getting worse and worse. To Mesquite, Texas. Good morning, Benjamin.
BENJAMINGood morning. My question is, instead of dealing with Assad, is it possible to persuade the rebels to leave their own arms and face Assad in an election?
LYNCHUnfortunately, I think the time for any kind of political solution, negotiated solution has probably passed. There's too much blood, too much destruction. And I think that the U.N. efforts led by Kofi Annan were the last best hope for achieving any kind of political -- and at this point, I don't see any appetite on the side of either the rebels or the Assad regime to accept any kind of political strategies. It might have worked a year ago, and I think Syria would be better off for it had it been allowed. But at this point, there doesn't seem to be any realistic prospect for that.
REHMTo Mark in Columbus, Ohio. Good morning.
MARKGood morning, Diane. I'm so glad to be part of the conversation. I am a Syrian American, and my family is largely in Damascus. Some of my family are in Darayya, and some of my family are in Qusayr, another town as well, and it has torn our family apart. I do support the opposition. And I want to let all of my other Syrian friends who've been calling in to let them know that I am a Christian, and I do support the rights of the Syrian people.
MARKBut one thing I wanted to bring to the attention of the panel is that as Christians, we are scared in what's going on. We are a minority. And we look to Iraq, and we see what's happened to the Christian community in Iraq. It's been decimated. We look to Egypt, and we see increasing fundamentalism as a result of the democratic movements that have happened there and the regime changes that have happened there.
MARKAnd in my own family in Qusayr, you know, what's happened is the Free Syrian Army or someone who claims to be affiliated with them got on the loudspeakers of the mosques and said, you know, Christians, you must evacuate Qusayr, or you face death. And these are the things that are causing a lot of apprehension on the part of Christians. I, myself, stop speaking with my -- part of my family stopped talking to me for supporting the opposition because they claim that I'm supporting their death.
MARKAnd it's something -- I guess, I can't really express it enough to my Sunni-Syrian friends is we have apprehension. It's based on reality. I wish the U.S. would speak out more about the rights of minorities or about the safety of minorities in the conflict.
REHMYou have spoken so eloquently, Mark. I'm so sorry to hear about those rifts in your family. It would seem that whenever a situation like this arises, you do have people taking very, very different positions. David, is he very right to be concerned about the Christian minorities?
SCHENKERHe absolutely is. I think Mark is dead-on. First of all, you know, my sympathies go out to al-Qusayr and Darayya, some of the two places that have been hit most by massacres of the regime. Christians face an uncertain future in the Middle East. Mark is right. The community was decimated in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. You've had reportedly 100,000 Coptic Christians leave Egypt since the elections.
SCHENKERAnd Christians have been divided in Syria because for all the terrible atrocities and repression that the Assad regime has committed over the past 40 years in power. Sectarian conflict was not one of them, or sectarianism was not one of them. You know, Christians got along. They were not persecuted in Syria.
SCHENKERAnd so now because they've been sitting on the fence or siding -- many of them siding with the Assad regime, there is this sort of perception that they're, you know, not with the revolution. And they're made -- this may be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy where they are targeted. The other thing, the United States is actually working with the Syrian opposition on sort of a future of Syria project and talking about reconciliation and Syria for all Syrians. Now, this...
REHMHow likely do you believe that will be effective?
SCHENKERYou know, I want to believe that it's going to have an impact. But I think that the sentiments are going to be so raw on the ground that it's going to be very tough for Christians after Assad is gone.
REHMMarc Lynch, what about China and Russia? What roles are they currently playing in Syria?
LYNCHWell, they are little bit different. China is more on the sidelines. Russia has been much more active. But I think what unites them is just an opposition to what they see as an American-led effort to use the United Nations to pursue their self-interest. And they have defensive sovereignty. They don't believe in humanitarian interventions. They think that the United States abused their privileges or the Security Council resolution in Libya.
LYNCHAnd for Russia, this goes back to Kosovo, very raw feelings still over the intervention via NATO in Kosovo. And so I think that that's basically the role they're playing just in an obstructionist way. I wanted to say one thing about the -- about Mark and Siham's (sp?) comments is that, this in many -- what's happening right now on the ground in Aleppo for Christian communities and across the country is very much what those of us who are opposed to the militarization of the conflict wanted to avoid.
LYNCHBecause once civil wars get to this point and insurgency spread, they do insurgency things. And there is an iron logic to the ripping apart of families, of communities, of cities and it's extraordinarily difficult to put that back together again. You see it in Iraq. You see it in Bosnia. And I fear that, as David does, that all the best intentions aren't going to help when you get down to the judgment day.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Johnson City, Tenn. Good morning, John. Thanks for waiting.
JOHNGood morning. How are you?
JOHNYeah. I got a question for the gentleman from the Washington Center for Near East Policy or study.
JOHNYeah. Knowing that the rebels have al-Qaida in their ranks and knowing that Obama has just sent the Syrian rebels some aid, would that not qualify President Obama for arrest and detention under the National Defense Authorization Act? And also, doesn't that do a great disservice to all of our veterans who have served in the military and laid down their lives and their limbs to defend the region and our country against this very same al-Qaida?
REHMAll right, sir. To what extent do we know that al-Qaida has infiltrated those groups of rebels?
SCHENKERYeah, we can look very early on. You could track it over time. There are probably a million hours of YouTube videos of operations carried out by the Free Syria Army online. And if you look at them over time in the very beginning, you never saw, for example, in these videos a black al-Qaida flag. You never heard, you know, sort of the certain type of rhetoric that might be, you know, consistent with al-Qaida. You're seeing it more in some of the videos, no doubt.
SCHENKERBut you're also hearing reports -- and I've heard several -- where the Free Syria Army has gone and actually attacked specific battalions that are affiliated with al-Qaida, that in some cases that they are useful to the cause, but they also are a problem for the Free Syria Army, which, by in large, is not particularly sectarian as this point. So the revolution is not al-Qaida. There are al-Qaida elements and -- but this is not the mainstream. And there are -- there's evidence that the Free Syria Army is trying to root it out.
LYNCHYeah, and I think that's basically right. I think that there's probably too much media attention to the role of al-Qaida in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, but they are there. I think the best estimates are somewhere like about 1,000 fighters or that sort of thing. People loosely affiliated coming from the Salafi-Jihadist trend, not necessarily members of al-Qaida, they are there, and it is a reason for a concern. But that is not the dominant driving force behind the Syrian uprising or the Syrian opposition.
SCHENKERI would just add that, you know, Syria was a leading point entry as part of a matter of policy for the Assad regime for facilitating the movement of Jihadi-al-Qaida into Iraq from 2003 to 2009 or so. This was a matter of Syrian policy. So it's no wonder that some of these jihadists are going back. This is comfortable territory for them and they never particularly liked the secular Assad regime.
REHMMarc Lynch, finally, do you expect the U.S. to further arm the rebels?
LYNCHIt's very difficult to say. I mean, I think that the odds that the United States will be involved in policies that get arms to the opposition in the kind of circumlocution, which they like to use, is very high. It's already happening. You know, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not free agents in this. But I don't expect any move towards a no-fly zone or military intervention any time soon.
REHMMarc Lynch of the George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies, Charity Tooze, senior spokesperson, communications officer for the U.N. Refugee Agency, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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