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Syria's Uprising Escalates, World Mulls Options


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, it became clear that the crisis in Syria has entered a dangerous new phase. The presence of monitors from the Arab League failed to restore calm. As violence continues, monitors withdrew on Saturday.

Armed opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad continues to mount, and in just the past few days, clashes were reported in Damascus and in Aleppo, the two largest cities in the country, which had been mostly quiet.

The Syrian government rejects an Arab League proposal for the president to step down to make way for negotiations on elections, and Russia appears ready to oppose further measures at the United Nations Security Council. So what's next? What do you think the United States should do? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Freddie Mac's conflict of interest on refinancing mortgages. But first Syria. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, joins us from Beirut, and Kelly, as always, thanks very much for being with us.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And what is the latest, especially from Damascus?

MCEVERS: What we're hearing from activists and witnesses inside Syria is that government troops are launching a major offensive in a series of suburbs outside the capital. Government troops are going in with heavy arms and shelling residential areas largely to sort of take back some of the towns that rebels had claimed to control over the weekend.

Now, when they say they controlled these places, they basically had set up checkpoints to protect unarmed protestors in these towns, protestors who are against the government. But now the government troops are coming back in and saying no, you actually don't hold these towns, we do.

CONAN: And we apologize for the slight delay. that's caused by the satellite telephone. But it brings Kelly McEvers to us in high quality. In the meantime, as this conflict continues to spread, is there any doubt any longer that this is on the verge of civil war if not open civil war?

MCEVERS: It's looking more and more like the latter, Neal. You know, it's - for months and months, this was an uprising. This was largely by, you know, unarmed protestors in cities and towns across the country calling for the downfall of this regime.

Over the summer, what we saw were, you know, small numbers of soldiers defecting from the army, taking their guns off of the base and saying they wanted to protect protestors, again like they've been saying in these suburbs.

But what we're seeing now are just open clashes between these anti-government rebels and pro-government forces. And what we're hearing in the last 24 hours is that the defections are increasing.

CONAN: It had been, also, until very recently, a provincial conflict: mostly in the countryside, mostly in smaller cities. What does it mean now that there has been fighting in and around Damascus and Aleppo?

MCEVERS: What it means is that the regime's narrative - that they have everything under control and that, you know, yes this is largely a concern of folks in the rural areas, this doesn't really concern you people here in Damascus and in Syria's second city, Aleppo - that that narrative is really kind of unraveling.

That the rebels were even able to get that close and, you know, even if they were just manning some checkpoints for a short period of time, that they were able to do that sends a really strong message to the people inside Syria, to the so-called, you know, silent majority that's been kind of sitting on the fence waiting to see where this is going to go.

I think now there's a sense that there is a tip - now, does that mean that the regime is on the verge of falling? No. Why? Because the army is still more powerful than this very ragtag rebel group.

CONAN: And where does this leave diplomacy with the withdrawal of Arab League monitors? The Arab League says it will take its proposal to the United Nations Security Council. But as we noticed, Russia and perhaps China, as well, seem to be ready to oppose it.

MCEVERS: That Arab League initiative does call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to, you know, eventually abdicate power. It's not an open call for, you know, regime change. It's slightly more diplomatic, let's say, than that. And so by - but by doing that, you know, Russia has said that that's just too much. Even though this new resolution does not call for new sanctions, does not call for any kind of international intervention into Syria, they still say that this notion that somebody else, that outsiders would, you know, would decide when a president should step down, that that's too much for them.

That's what they're saying publicly. They have indicated that they are willing to negotiate, and we'll see tomorrow, when the U.N. Security Council meets. Russia kind of came up with its own proposal today, saying that - you know, inviting elements from the Syrian regime and the opposition to Moscow for talks.

The regime, of course, immediately agreed. The opposition, of course, immediately refused, saying there's no way they will hold talks with a regime that is responsible for so much killing.

CONAN: And in the meantime, there are those who say it is time to at least start talking about what kind of international intervention might be useful, might be possible, and that, I assume, you hear different things from different people in Syria. We hear more and more of the people in Syria at these demonstrations saying please protect us.

MCEVERS: Sure, you know, every - you know, all the way back to the summer, we had, you know, Friday protests. Every time they protest on Friday, they have a title, and one of them was even called No Fly Zone Friday. So it - that's - you've seen that going all the way back several months. But this is still a very fiercely debated topic inside Syria and inside the Syrian opposition.

I mean, it's the one thing that divides the opposition probably more than anything else. So while we have seen calls from the inside for some kind of help, some kind of intervention, it's not unanimous by any means. I think they're - the Syrian people by and large are very wary of such a move.

CONAN: We want to hear from our listeners today. What should the United States do? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Matt(ph), and Matt's on the line with us from San Jose.

MATT: Hi, I'm calling about the Christian minority in Syria that's protected by the Assad government. We've seen in Egypt and in Iraq that once the government falls, the government is no more, the Islamists start attacking the Christians. In fact, it's even starting in Syria.

Just on Friday, a priest named Bassilius was shot in the chest while he was taking care of wounded people at one of the demonstrations, shot by the demonstrating side or the rebel side. I'm not saying that Assad's good, he's a horrible tyrant, but at least he's maintaining order or has been maintaining order, I mean, has been keeping people from killing the Christians.

So that's all I wanted to say is that I think we ought to stay out of it and let Assad reassert himself and re-establish order.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, the United States has said that President Assad should step aside. It has not taken steps to do that other than sanctions thus far. But what about Matt's point that Christians seem to be being protected by the regime and might be at risk if that regime should fall?

MCEVERS: It's a hugely important point. While I cannot confirm this particular incident that he's talking about, access to journalists is very restricted these days, it is an extremely important point for all minorities, not just Christians. Actually, the Assad regime is in the minority itself. The Assad regime comes from the Alawite sect, which is very much in the minority in Syria. So all other Alawites in Syria are very worried about what would happen should this regime fall.

We saw what happened in Iraq when the strong man goes. We've now seen what happened in other places when the strong man goes. Who's there to sort of hold the place together? And it's not just about Islamists, it's about minority groups finally having a chance to have their say and all of a sudden thinking that maybe one way to have their say is through violence when there is no order at the top.

The Christian minority in Syria, therefore, has been very silent throughout all of this and very much on the side of Assad through all of this. But again, as the country begins to unravel, and as the instability spreads, I mean, as people don't have power anymore, as the currency starts to plummet, as it has, they start to wonder is this is the guy who can hold the place together.

And I think that's the issue. You know, while America can call for Assad to step down, I think this is exactly what's making the U.S. and the rest of its allies very wary of any kind of intervention, it's this very scenario.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call. Joining us now is Wissam Tarif, Arab world campaigner with Avaaz, and he's with us from his home in Lebanon. Nice to have you with us today.

WISSAM TARIF: Thank you, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And what do Syrians tell you that they want?

TARIF: Syrians want to live in dignity. They want basic human rights, and they want freedom. They want very much what people in democratic countries, in the U.S., people take for granted. We're talking about a regime that for 40 years has oppressed its people.

There's no - there was no freedom of expression. People were put in jail very easily. There have been systematic torture. There have been killings, shooting on peaceful protestors. What's happening in Syria at this stage, we have to take it to its root, to its origin.

This is an uprising of the people in Syria against a dictator, against a totalitarian regime.

CONAN: And to - to remove that dictator, as you describe him, do Syrians want the outside world to help? And if so, how?

TARIF: Well, Syria is in a very strategic location. We have to keep in mind that the Syrian regime and the U.S. had a deep problem during the Bush era while the Syrian regime was accused, repeatedly, even by Obama administration, in the early stage, of sending insurgents to Iraq.

The Syrian regime has been accused by (unintelligible) the Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon, by supporting terrorist group, et cetera. The Syrian regime has chosen in the past, when it was convenient, for the regime to play the role of the stabilizer.

That's why the international community have constantly embraced this man and this regime. Now the game has changed. This man is not an element of stabilization in the region. This man is a dictator who has been killing his own people. Therefore, yes, we have heard lots of voices coming from inside Syria.

The National Council has called for military intervention very similar to the Libyan scenario. Of course, this is a very difficult topic, and there have been different views coming from inside Syria. But as the oppression and the military campaign and the crackdown expands, also the demand for a buffer zone or for a no-fly zone is getting bigger and louder during the protests from the people in the streets.

CONAN: A couple of differences with the situation in Libya. For one, many more people have died in Lebanon, thus far, 5,400 according to the United Nations. Thus far there are no areas held by rebel forces inside Syria, as there were in Libya, for an organization to form a provisional government. So that's a big difference, as well.

We're talking about the ongoing crisis in Syria. What should the U.S. do next? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Activists report heavy shelling rained over homes today, though Syria's official news agency has been silent on those reports. It said that a gas pipeline in that area was blown up by an unidentified terrorist group.

And Syrian forces attempted to push back dissidents from suburbs outside Damascus in an effort to regain control of the eastern side of the city. It's unclear that they've been successful. The intensified assault from President Bashar al-Assad's regime comes just a day before the U.N. Security Council takes up a resolution that would demand that President Assad adhere to an Arab League peace plan to make a transition to power to a vice president and permit the creation of a unity government.

NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers is with us from Beirut. Human rights activist, Wissam Tarif, Arab world campaigner with Avaaz, is also with us from Lebanon.

Callers, we want to hear from you. What should the United States do next? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go next to Drew(ph), Drew's on the line in Cincinnati.

DREW: Hey there. Well, I would just like to say that while I agree it's great to push economic sanctions, I think that the world community should really limit it to that, because if we look at Afghanistan, you know, we removed, you know, dictators, but you have the Taliban. And, you know, we went so far as to even put boots on the ground.

Now if we were to do that in Syria, you know, well, Afghanistan is still quite unstable, and they're still fighting. So I guess it really shows that it's ultimately up to the people to take care of their - you know, take care of their country and their government and really make their steps to decide what they want as a people.

CONAN: And Drew, I guess the question would have to be: Given the fact that the army remains loyal to the regime, we could see thousands of people, thousands more people, killed.

DREW: Yes sir, yes sir. I mean, it's quite unfortunate, but at the same time, do we want those people to be killed, both Syrian civilians and international troops? Or do we just, you know, try and hold out with economic sanctions and eventually try and find a, you know, a diplomatic end to it?

CONAN: A couple of question there. Kelly McEvers, is there any indication that economic sanctions can be persuasive? We know they're having an effect.

MCEVERS: Yes, definitely. Like I mentioned before, I mean, the currency is not doing well. The prices of basic goods and services are going up, you know, heating oil, things that people need this winter. It's getting cold. So I think that, you know, this silent majority that we're talking about is feeling the squeeze of the sanctions.

And this is exactly what the aim of the sanctions are, right, is to sort of convince the people that the government doesn't, you know, have the strength to hold the place together, and then maybe they'll turn against the government themselves.

However, I think it's - you know, it's a little bit dangerous. I think, earlier on, you saw a lot of American diplomats who just sort of assumed that this would just take care of itself, you know, that eventually this regime would fall. And I think we're seeing that this regime is very resilient and is not willing to just sort of capitulate.

So, you know, I think diplomacy is an important tool in the toolbox, as well, and I think we're going to see that, at least that debate begin at the U.N. Security Council tomorrow. I'm not necessarily certain that there will be some unanimous vote, where you've got, you know, a chorus of unanimous voices in the international community in agreement, but it...

CONAN: And we seem to have just lost the satellite telephone linkage to Kelly McEvers in Beirut. We're going to try to get that back. In the meantime, we'll got to Wissam Tarif, and you spoke just a few moments ago about the creation of buffer zones. They would have to be protected presumably by outside troops. Would they be a positive force, or could they make the situation worse, as our caller suggested?

TARIF: Well, we have to keep in mind that the Russians have been blocking any resolution coming from the Security Council. The Russians still hold three nos, no for sanctions, no for arm embargo and no for ICC referral. I think it would be only fair to refer this regime, al-Assad, and the regime components to the international criminal courts.

Nevertheless, the Russians are not going to allow that tomorrow. What is possible and what is doable, the Arab League have made an initiative or a peace initiative in which they have suggested that al-Assad pass power to his vice president, to Farouk al-Sharaa.

I think that if the United States and the main allies - which is Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the United States - put enough pressure on Russia, then Russia, because the Russians have been talking continuously about a political solution, well, this is a political solution. If al-Assad surrenders power to the vice president and leaves the country, then that might be the beginning of a political solution, like...

But the big question is: Would Russia allow that? And if the Russians get engaged in this process, the big question, would al-Assad accept this and simply surrender power and leave the country? Well, I'm of the view that he will not do so.

CONAN: So you're of the view that this is going to be a protracted internal conflict, perhaps outside forces being drawn ever more inexorably in, providing weapons. As you mentioned, the Russians are providing weapons to the government, but other people are providing weapons to the opponents, too.

TARIF: Well, we have seen this uprising for the first six months, when it was very peaceful, people were taking to the streets with bare chests and asking for their freedom, facing tanks and live ammunition from the regime side.

Of course there is a militarized wing of the revolution that has started in the last three months, and it's gaining legitimacy and popularity from the people on the streets because the Free Syrian Army at this stage is protecting people, is protecting the protestors and protecting property.

But we have to be realistic here. The Free Syrian Army, when it comes to the kinds of weapons they are using or the amount of ammunition they have, it's nothing compared to what al-Assad has. Al-Assad have tanks, has helicopters, has missiles, rockets, everything. Al-Assad can take the cities and the suburbs of Damascus by force. Of course he can.

The question is: Can he afford the political price for that? Because this will come on a huge human cost. We're talking about thousands and thousands of civilians that he has to kill in the process.

So imposing order, in effect, means a huge number of casualties from civilians. So of course this is not an acceptable solution for the people in Syria or the international community.

One more point here, which I think is of extreme importance. The international community has to assume responsibility. Those dictators did not survive by themselves. Those dictators have had the leverage and the privilege of support of the West, of the United States and of Europe, and of other nations.

Now that people here are uprising, they are saying enough is enough, yes the West has interests in this part of the world, but these interests can be achieved and can be obtained by talking and befriending with the people in the Middle East, not with dictators.

The era for dictators is over. People want freedom and want dignity. This is the bottom line. And as the West supported dictators, now they have to support the people who are asking for their freedom.

CONAN: Wissam Tarif, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

TARIF: Thank you.

CONAN: Wissam Tarif, Arab world campaigner with Avaaz, he joined us from his home in Lebanon. With us now is Anne-Marie Slaughter, former policy planning director under Secretary Clinton. She is currently a politics and international affairs professor at Princeton. She wrote about how the world could and should intervene in Syria for The Atlantic and joins us now from a studio at Princeton University. Nice to have you with us today.

DR. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: And one of the problems you pointed out with intervention: Well, it's very messy. You also pointed out the problems of a lack of intervention could be even more messy. A full-fledged civil war in Syria, you wrote, could quickly become a proxy war between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and at least some NATO countries on one side against Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and possibly Iraq and Hamas on the other.

SLAUGHTER: Yeah, the prospect of a Syrian civil war turning into a larger proxy war is very real. Already, Russia is clearly arming Syria. Iran backs Syria strongly. Hezbollah has been a Syrian ally and protégé on the one side. And of course, Iraq has taken the view, thus far, it's stood with the Syrian government.

So if it comes down to a rebel army, the protestors - enough defections so really there is a full-fledged army fighting on the opposition side against the Syrian army, you're going to have those countries arming the government, and at some point then the - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the states that have been supporting the opposition or at least looking for a solution - will have to be on the other side.

And we cannot afford a - that kind of a conflict in the heart of the Middle East.

CONAN: So how do you avoid it? Is there a role for diplomacy still?

SLAUGHTER: I do think there's still a role for diplomacy. Indeed, I think when Steven Cook was raising the idea of intervention and I said at least that's to be thinkable, part of that is to try to make clear that we want a diplomatic solution, and we need to create the incentives to get one. It does depend tremendously in the first instance on the region. The Arab League has been more active than anybody could have imagined in terms of taking a stance, sending in monitors, calling now for Assad to step down.

If they can put a lot of pressure on Russia at the Security Council more than I think the standard Western-versus-Russia pressure, that is probably our best hope of a diplomatic solution.

CONAN: And the - of course, the threat to intervene has to be backed up by the willingness to intervene, no?

SLAUGHTER: It does. This is important. It's important, too, though, for the credibility of the West as a whole. When the West - when the U.N. authorized intervention in Libya, it authorized intervention under the doctrine of responsibility to protect, which says if a government is failing to protect its people by committing genocide or crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, really grave and systematic crimes, then the international community can intervene to protect.

We did that in Libya. At this point, as you pointed out, there are many thousands of people who've died in Syria. That's - if that continues, at some point, the credibility of the international community is on the line. I think, though, we can't intervene unless there is a pretty unified request to begin with from the Syrian people. They're the people we would be trying to protect. They have to resolve that debate on their own. And then, it has to go through the region and finally through the regional organization and then finally to the U.N.

CONAN: And if the Russians, as we have every reason to expect, unless they change their minds, veto, what then?

SLAUGHTER: That's the hardest question. In my view, if the - if you had a request from the Arab League backed by the protesters themselves and you had a - perhaps a super majority on the Security Council, meaning nine, 10, 11 out of the 15 vote to support, then I would be willing to countenance action even in the face of a veto as we did in Kosovo. When it comes down to this kind of humanitarian intervention, I think the rules surrounding the veto are more complicated, and there are precedents as in Kosovo for acting even in the face of a veto.

CONAN: Anne-Marie Slaughter is with us from Princeton University, former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. We're back with Kelly McEvers from Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Kelly McEvers, it's fair to say that every next step that we've heard - buffer zones, no-fly zones - is seen by the government as the next step toward removing it from power. It's regime change.

MCEVERS: Yes. You know, I think the regime feels like it's got its back against the wall in that regard, but it's up to now as - is confident in the fact that Russia will stand behind it. And so I think that's where it's able to sort of exercise, you know, the - sort of the crackdowns that it has and the power that it has in, you know, attacking civilians, attacking civilian neighborhoods and escalating the violence in the way that it has over the weekend. You know, this - the Syrian regime is very, very aware of its position in the international community and its position in the world.

This is not Libya. You know, Syria is in the heart of the Arab world. It is bordered by Iraq, you know, Turkey, Lebanon, places that have had their own problems in the past. And the Syrian regime is very acutely aware of the fact that the international community does not want a major quagmire. And so - and that the international community knows that intervention could bring such a quagmire or no intervention could bring such a quagmire. So they're using this stalemate. They're using this sort of indecision as a way to go in and take as much control as possible.

CONAN: Well, let's go next to Hannah(ph). Hannah with us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

HANNAH: Hi. I just wanted to see the idea of removing Bashar Assad and having Farouk Sharaa take over. I don't think that's going to serve the Syrian people any good because - I mean, as a Syrian myself, I think Bashar Assad is the weakest link in the whole regime. To leave anybody from that regime is a mistake. I think the Syrian people has suffered enough - long enough under all of those people, and this kind of solution, I believe, is only to give Bashar Assad a way out without being harmed and keep the same things, you know, not changed in Syria.

CONAN: So what is the alternative?

HANNAH: I think thousands of us do actually arm the Syrian people and let them get rid of the regime themselves.

CONAN: Anne-Marie Slaughter, arm the Syrian people, that would presumably be done by various degrees of covert or overt by Turkey.

SLAUGHTER: Well, by Turkey and possibly other countries in the region. I do want the Syrian people to be able to determine their own fate. But again, if we can get a political solution, it would be far, far better. Violence begets violence. The more killing there is, the more other groups who are affected want to take revenge. And as we've been talking about the number of people in Syria, the number of minorities who are already worried, who are also Syrian people - the Druze, the Kurds, the Alawites, the Christians.

If you arm the Syrian people, you really could get not only civil war but a kind of anarchy. So at this point, I think we want to do everything we can to use the kind of pressure, including a legitimate or a credible threat of intervention to bring the parties to the negotiating table.

CONAN: Hannah, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

HANNAH: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank Anne-Marie Slaughter for her time today.

SLAUGHTER: Thank you.

CONAN: Anne-Marie Slaughter, politics and international affairs professor at Princeton University, as we mentioned, former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. She wrote "How the World Could and Should Intervene in Syria" for The Atlantic. Kelly McEvers, thank you for your time.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

CONAN: NPR foreign policy - foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers with us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.