Syrian Protesters Under Siege

On Monday, Syria's closest ally Iran called on President Bashar al-Assad to listen to the "legitimate demands" of demonstrators. Today, Syrian government forces reportedly opened fire on protesters as worshipers exited mosques, marking Ramadan's end. To learn about Syria and the violence there, host Michel Martin speaks with members of Al Jazeera International and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we take a look back at that racially charged Jena 6 case. The incident that touched off one of the largest civil rights protests in recent years happened five years ago today, but we're wondering if there was any lasting impact of that massive protest and outcry. We'll talk to one of the organizers of the march and a critic of it in just a few minutes. But first, we turn to Syria, where today, government security forces reportedly opened fire on protestors as worshippers marking the end of Ramadan poured out of mosques into the streets.

At this point, the number of casualties is unclear. The international community has been condemning Syria's crackdown on demonstrations. On Monday, Syria's closest ally, Iran, called on President Bashar al-Assad to listen to, quote, "the legitimate demands of protestors." To shed some light on the situation there, we've called upon, once again, Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington Bureau Chief from Al Jazeera International. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Always good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Mousab Azzawi. He is a Syrian opposition activist with the London-based group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and he's with us by phone from London. Thank you, Mr. Azzawi. Thank you so much for joining us, as well.

MOUSAB AZZAWI: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And Abderrahim, I'm going to start with you, because I'm just going to ask you to tell us a little bit about Syria, because I'm sure, certainly, Americans have heard about it. It's been in the headlines. But I'm not sure that many Americans know a lot about the country apart from what's been in the headlines. So could you just tell us a little bit about who Bashar al-Assad is, what kind of government he runs, what kind of country it is?

FOUKARA: Bashar al-Assad is a 46, 47-year-old president who was initially trained as an ophthalmologist, both in Syria and in the United Kingdom. In fact, he'd barely been in the United Kingdom for his training for two years when his brother Basil - who'd been groomed by their father, Hafez al-Assad, at that time to take over - was killed. So, Bashar was called back to Syria. He was put through a military academy. I think he reached the rank of colonel.

And then when Hafez al-Assad, the father, died in 2000, there was a popular vote, as the Syrian government claimed at that time, which massively supported making Bashar president. Bashar is the head of the Baath Party and - which also existed in Iraq, by the way. A lot of people are saying that the Baath Party is just a shell, now, and that, basically, the people who actually rule Syria is not the Baath Party, but the family of Bashar al-Assad. And the family of Bashar al-Assad, they say, controls the army and controls the security forces who were doing much of the killing in the - as the opposition says now.

MARTIN: Well, it's - but - it is - I think it's been known that Hafez, the father, ruled the country with an iron hand. In fact, you were telling us about a well-known massacre that was directed under his leadership, you know, some 30 years ago to put down, you know, rebellion in the city that is restive, you know, to this day. But I think the impression that some Americans had with Hafez - rather, the son, Bashar al-Assad, was interested in negotiating, being more of a modernizer, if I can use that term. So is it a surprise that he has, then, responded with the level of violence that we are now seeing?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, first of all, about the father, yeah, as you rightly pointed out, in 1982, he laid siege to the city Homs, which continues today to be a source of protests and trouble for the regime in Syria. And the reports at that time estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed by the father at that time. But the father wasn't just ruthless. The father had a lot of political cunning and, you know, he held so many different ropes regionally that made him look indispensable, that made Syria look indispensable in the eyes of the international community.

And then when the father died in 2000 - actually, Madeleine Albright was secretary of state under Bill Clinton at that time - she traveled to Damascus. And Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father was widely endorsed by the international community, including the Bill Clinton administration at that time. And now, he is facing probably the most serious challenge that the Bashar family - that the Assad family have faced in their 40-year rule or so in Syria.

There's obviously now this wave of change sweeping not just through Syria, but through the entire Middle East and North Africa region. And that's not looking good for Bashar, but he still has some support. I mean, the most significant support that he's still counting on is, obviously, Iran. Without him in Damascus the Iranians would be in serious trouble.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, I want to hear more about, also, what the relationship between Syria and the United States has been, but I want to bring Mr. Azzawi into the conversation. Mr. Azzawi, I wanted to ask you, what are you hearing from your contacts in Syria? And are you surprised that Iran has made the statements that it has?

AZZAWI: Well, basically, the situation in Syria, from the human rights perspective - which is our specialty - I can tell you that it is - it's a looming humanitarian crisis. And I can tell you a few points, that what the regime is doing to treat them - the ordinary civilians who are participating in the demonstrations and in the uprising, that they are just trying to detect - to take civilians as hostages, or the activists who are wanted by the security forces and those who are members of their families.

They are threatening families of members who are wanted activists with burning and destructions of their homes. And if they find the home empty of an activist, they will just burn it and ruin it by a tank to enter the house from one side to another. And they are now - we have number - the total number of the documented names. We have, by name, 36,000 persons arrested now for the time being, and they don't have access to healthcare.

They are just fed once a day, and you can imagine what they're doing. They are just in absolute violation of the basic rights of the religious places. Churches, mosques are attacked by the security forces, and what's very important to us. We were discussing that with the Doctors without Borders today. We have the names of over a 100 doctors who are arrested just because they treated people in their own private clinics just to get them avoid going to the public hospitals where they will be arrested if they go there.

MARTIN: Let me just jump...

AZZAWI: (unintelligible).

MARTIN: ...let me just jump in briefly to say we are talking about the ongoing violent crackdown on protestors in Syria. We're speaking with a Syrian opposition activist, Mousab Azzawi. He's speaking with us from London. Here with us in Washington, D.C., Abderrahim Foukara. He is of Al Jazeera International. Abderrahim, you heard Mr. Azzawi say that they - that his contacts and human rights workers - however they're able to get this information - have determined that at least 36,000 people have been detained. And we also know that it's been very difficult to get, obviously, journalists to be able to function in Syria.

Is Al Jazeera able to function? Are there any credible independent reports coming out?

FOUKARA: No. Al Jazeera is not able to function in Syria. And, in fact, that's been one of the most important hurdles that the international community has faced in trying to verify claims by the Syrian government that it is actually not - its problem is not with protestors. Its problem, as it says, is with terrorists who are armed and who are actually shooting at the security forces. The international community has no way of verifying that. What we do know from the United Nations, for example, is that over 2,200 people have been killed so far in Syria, and thousands of people have been arrested.

The way this conflict has been covered, at least by Al Jazeera, for example, is relying on Syrians inside Syria who supply videos of what the security forces are doing, what the protesters are doing. But it's very difficult to, you know, verify with great precision what's going on inside the country.

MARTIN: Mr. Azzawi, I wanted to ask how you are assessing, for example, whether events in Libya offer you any guide to what might be possible in Syria, as of course you know that the Gadhafi regime has resisted violently, as well, but that regime does seem to be falling.

And so do you see that circumstances in Libya have any relevance to what's happening in Syria now? And if so, how?

AZZAWI: Yes, I think that the people in Syria, when they started the uprising, they were inspired by the revolution, the successful revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. And the falling of Gadhafi regime gave them, like, a great impulse to foresee that we can deliver the change, we can make it. Maybe the price would be too high, but we are willing, and we have a very deep resolution to get that change happen.

And I think the local people, they are still trying to keep to the peaceful side of the uprising, and they feel that this is more powerful and to deliver their message to the international community. But I can tell you what the sounds in Syria are calling now.

They are calling for the international community to step in, as it happened in the scenario of Libya or the story of Libya, to protect the civilians because without that, we will keep hearing the total death toll every day, seven - like yesterday, it was 17. So far this morning, we have five. And that will continue if the international community will not step in.

MARTIN: Okay, finally, I'm going to give Abderrahim the final word. I'm going to ask: Is there any prospect for the international community to step in? And are there any pressure points that could be applied? So far, the condemnations don't seem to have had any effect.

FOUKARA: I mean, Libya, not to take away from the importance of what has happened in Libya, it's given incredible momentum to the wave of change, as it is called, sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. But Syria is - obviously, it's a much more complicated case.

Geographically, for example, it's very close to Iran. It's very close to Lebanon. It's very close to Israel. It's very close to the Gulf countries. The composition, the internal composition of Syria also is much more complicated ethnically, religiously and so on.

And therefore, the prospects of an international military intervention like what we saw in Libya, I'm not sure how possible that would actually be at this time.

MARTIN: To be continued. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. We call up on him frequently to give us insight into these matters. He was with us once again from Washington, D.C. From London, Mousab Azzawi, he's a Syrian opposition activists with the London-based The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Gentlemen, thank you.

FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

AZZAWI: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, more on the newest member of the president's economic team. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michael Martin.

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