Op-Ed: Only Syrians Can Save Syria

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Arab Reform Initiative executive director Bassma Kodmani says the international community is limited in what it can do to stop the bloodshed in restive Syria. The key to stability in the country, Kodmani argues, lies with the Syrian people, specifically a minority sect called the Alawites.

TONY COX, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Activists in Syria say security forces killed at least six people in anti-regime protests across the country last night. Today, a resident of the central city Hama told the Associated Press that gunmen in plainclothes are shooting people at random in the streets. This is just the latest assault in a city where at least 100 people have been reported killed since Sunday.

Last night, the United Nations responded to the escalating violence. The Security Council issued a presidential statement condemning the actions of the regime forces and calling on Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence.

While some say the statement marks a turning point in the attitude of the international community, others argue that the U.N. response was too weak and too late and that the international community must do more.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, however, Bassma Kodmani argues that foreign governments, whether Arab or Western, have limited roles to play and that the key to stopping the bloodshed lies with the Syrian people. We'll talk with her about her view in just a moment.

Later in the program, NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner joins us to walk us through the ins and outs of the new preventive medicine mandates for insurance companies. A year from now, women will not have to pay deductibles and co-pays for birth control. What difference could this make? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, that is the number here. Or email us at talk@npr.org. We'll get to your calls and emails on that after the break.

But first, the uprising in Syria. Bassma Kodmani joins us now from Paris. She is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative. Bassma, welcome.

BASSMA KODMANI: Hello.

COX: As more and more reports come out about increased violence in Syria, the question about what to do gets bigger and bigger. And you say that the key to toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad lies with the Syrian people, specifically a minority Shiite sect called the Alawites. Tell us who they are and why they hold the key in your view.

KODMANI: The Alawites in Syria represent some 10 percent of the population. They are - they try to relate themselves to the Shia(ph) branch, but they are a very specific sect. Now, this sect rose in power through the military and the one-party system in Syria in the '60s, then rose to power, and this is the community that now holds power and relies, actually, on the community to serve in the security forces, in the top leadership of the army. They actually hold the key to the power centers in the country.

COX: What gives you the sense that the Alawites might be amenable to moving to the other side?

KODMANI: Well, I think there are indications that the community feels that it is being taken hostage by one or two families, and there are lots of grievances, actually. Historically, there always were grievances between the different families of the community.

And now, when they see the Assad family and their cousins and in-laws are losing power, losing credibility, they might find that it is safer for them now to opt for the new legitimacy that lies with the street, with the protestors, because their future will be better guaranteed if they are seen to join this movement while there is still time to do so.

But they are of course very concerned because the regime has been going - has been strategically dividing communities and convincing them that it is their survival that is at stake. If the regime goes, they will be in danger of survival.

And this is where I think the rest of the population and the majority of the population, which is Sunni Muslim, may have a role to play in reassuring the Alawite community that it is safe for it to turn against the Assad family and save the rest of the community.

COX: Bassma Kodmani is our guest. She is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative. One of the things that you wrote about in the op-ed piece in the New York Times was the relationship that the international community, specifically the United States, should or should not have with regard to the events occurring in Syria.

And you write, and I'm quoting here, that anyone who calls for outside intervention is likely to be branded a traitor. Any Western threat of military action would therefore hurt the opposition more than the regime. Outside powers can play a useful role by declaring they will not use military force.

What is your reaction to the response so far this week, particularly from the United Nations and also from what occurred today from the Obama administration as far as their response to the uprising so far?

KODMANI: Well, when we say the international community should say that it is not intending to - it does not intend to intervene militarily, I think one should add that it is ready and decided to use all other means.

Now, all other means requires spending more time and energy on developing smart sanctions and smart ways of pressuring the regime, playing with different actors in the region who may have influence on the regime, such as Turkey, but also such as Iran, who can talk to Iran. There are different ways of pressuring the government.

Now, the action through the U.N. Security Council is important. It is important to get the Syrian regime to lose the different layers of protection it still has. It has protection from a number of powers outside the country, such as Russia, such as China, but it's specifically Russia, and of course Iran.

It has also a layer of protection which is the business community inside the country. Now, when one - when the international community decides on sanctions against individuals, it is hurting very much the regime because those families, those groups who are in alliance with the government, with the current regime in Syria, find that they have, they are now at risk. Their interests are at risk. So they are turning against the regime.

And this is very important to make the regime lose those layers of protection. Diplomatically, at the international level, Russia is moving fairly quickly now, and this is what we're seeing. Atrocities make it more and more embarrassed to justify not taking - not condemning the regime, not taking sanctions and not reaching a resolution.

So I think, yes, the international answer(ph) has been below the expected or the needed reply from the international community, but I think we are moving in that direction. It is a race against time.

COX: Well, just in the last hour, there are reports that come from the Obama administration that it has imposed economic sanctions on a prominent businessman accused of supporting the Syrian government in the crackdown. This is Muhammad Hamsho, and the Treasury Department said it ordered a freeze on his assets and his companies.

You've made some reference to sanctions. Do you think that sanctions will deter the regime?

KODMANI: Well, the sanctions against such people may not be the most effective. I think the more effective is - there is a second circle of businesspeople who still protect the regime and help it, and these should also be targeted, not only the first ones that you just mentioned.

These are loyal till the end, and the regime has been smart in involving these people so that there is no one person decision. It's always a collective decision to go after one city, to crush a protest somewhere and to commit those mass crimes against the population.

So yes, sanctions are effective. The one interesting development, I think, and I'm seeing - we see that the international community is moving quickly, is a statement by Mr. Medvedev, the Russian president, this evening saying that if the Syrian president does not make the necessary moves and stop the repression, he may have a sad ending. And I think a sad end for Assad does mean that Russia is now moving in the right direction, hopefully.

COX: As you are no doubt aware, six activists who represent U.S.-based leaders of the Syrian opposition met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. And they pressed her for sanctions - or stronger U.S. leadership on oil, gas and weapons sanctions against the regime. They also asked the administration to call for Bashar al-Assad to leave office and for the International Criminal Court to charge him with crimes of humanity.

Are you finding that those who are in support of the opposition both here in the United States as well as around the world - you're in Paris, for example - are you on the same page?

KODMANI: Well, we are on the same page as far as the pressure can be maximized on the regime. So sanctions, declarations, particularly sanctions. I think public diplomacy, public statements does not impact the regime so much. It actually is - sometimes benefits the regime.

But sanctions, yes. The International Criminal Court, yes, definitely. But at some point, once the regime feels it is completely cornered, and this has not yet happened, there will be, I think, the need to talk about what's an - what's the end scenario for the regime to go because I don't think we want to see what happened in Yemen or what happened in Libya - that is, the burning of the capital, the burning of a presidential palace, the destruction of the country.

This regime is willing to go that far, but I think we need to think very hard about the political ending of this crisis and how the regime can be convinced and told at some point there is no other way but to go complete to go away, without any confessions, actually, but I think there is some scope to do that.

So I see that declarations of the regime needs to go, the street is saying that. Everybody is saying that. If it comes from Western powers, it is not going to add so much, but definitely measures, yes.

COX: Thank you very much. Bassma Kodmani is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a consortium of policy research centers. She joined us from her home in Paris. Thank you again for your time today.

KODMANI: Thank you.

COX: You can find a link to her New York Times op-ed at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Next week we'll bring other opinions on what can be done to ease tensions in Syria. Tune in for that.

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