Syrian President Going Down Amid Uproar?

The U.S. faces rising tensions across the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. Embassy in Syria recently closed as violence against dissidents continued. In Egypt, a group of Americans, including a cabinet secretary's son, is facing trial for funding pro-democracy groups. Host Michel Martin checks in with Hisham Melhem of Al-Aribiya television.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Still to come: Are you carrying a human rights violation in your pocket? Now that people are becoming more aware of the conditions inside some of the factories where these products are made, some activists are saying it's time for consumers to step up and demand changes. A reporter who's been covering this will tell you more about this controversy in a few minutes.

That's just ahead. But first, we want to turn to the Middle East, where American officials are watching events closely in a number of countries.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have concluded that we need to suspend operations at our embassy in Damascus in light of the fact that we have security concerns about the safety of our personnel.

MARTIN: That is State Department spokeswoman Victoria Newland announcing that the U.S. is pulling staff out of it's embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus. There have been ongoing reports that dozens of people are being killed every day by government forces there. Meanwhile, in Egypt, nineteen Americans have been accused by the military of working to undermine that regime. Sam LaHood, who is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is among those who have been banned from leaving the country, and President Barack Obama yesterday announced a new series of sanctions against Iran.

We wanted to take a closer look at all of these stories, so we've called upon Hisham Melhem. He is the Washington bureau chief for the television station Al-Arabiya, and he joins us from time to time to talk about events in the region. Welcome back, thank you so much for joining us.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

MARTIN: We want to get to the other stories in a minute, but we'd like to start with Egypt because obviously this is a story of great concern.

MELHEM: Sure.

MARTIN: Particularly to Americans. We're coming up on the anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's ouster, but now the military government who has been essentially running the country in this interim period before there have been elections says that nineteen Americans are going to stand trial for illegally funding anti-government groups, and as we mentioned, one of the Americans is the son of a cabinet member. And I'd like to ask you, what do you think is behind this and what do you think the implications are for Egypt's relationship with the U.S.?

MELHEM: The American/Egyptian relationship is going to go through a different period. It's not going to be again the kind of strategic partnership that was built three decades ago to stand up to the Soviet Union, to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, to work on the peace process, to collaborate politically on regional issues. Now you have a very precarious transition going on in Egypt supervised by this unelected body which is called SCAF, Supreme Council for the Armed Forces of Egypt, which is ruling Egypt by decrees.

They sense that there is latent anti-Americanism there and they feel that by subjecting these nineteen Americans to this kind of public charade plays into the streets. And there is a minister of International Cooperation. She is known for her anti-American views and she believes that, you know, playing the American boogeyman helps the SCAF. She's very close to the SCAF, Field Marshal Tantawi, who's the head of the...

MARTIN: This military government.

MELHEM: The military council. But essentially what we have now is a military government that is looking for enemies abroad and domestic to justify its presence. They know that the new parliament doesn't want them to remain in power but they want to enter into a new arrangement whereby the new order in Egypt, whatever that order is, will maintain their economic perks and their special political status.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting about this is the U.S., as you would imagine, is now threatening to withhold over a billion dollars in aid to Egypt, and it has to be known, at least by the military government, that a very large percentage of that funding does go to the military. So it just seems curious that they would take this step which would jeopardize a lot of their funding.

MELHEM: Absolutely but there is a kind of maybe naive notion on the part of the military council in Egypt that the Americans want that relationship, that the Americans are not going, at the end of the day, to cut off military aid or economic aid. But I'll tell you, I'm sensing a chorus of voices in this town calling for the United States to if not cut off aid completely but to reduce it, and there are many experts who argue that we should reach that point, that we've been supplying Egypt with economic aid and military aid just as Israel, you know, since the 1979 peace agreement, and I think those two countries, to put it bluntly, don't need that kind of support.

MARTIN: Israel and Egypt are the largest recipients of U.S. government aid still. So I'm going To ask you what scenario do you see unfolding here?

MELHEM: I think for sure, with certainty we can say that the Egyptian-American relationship is no longer the same and you're going to see more criticism on the part of the Egyptians of the United States government because they believe that this play well with the street, with the new majority, the Islamist majority, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salifists in the new parliament, and I think it's about time that the relationship will be normalized. This is no longer a very special relationship.

MARTIN: I do have to ask just briefly before we move on, because we do have other countries we wanted to check in on, do you - is there any substance to the charges as you understand it? Or you used the word charade. Is there any substance to what the accusations are and do you really think that these trials will go forward?

MELHEM: Look, the Americans - and I think correctly - the American government correctly insists that some of the money that goes to Egypt goes to NGOs. The Egyptian government under Mubarak always undermined NGOs. They wanted the American money to go directly to them, but every time an American supports NGOs in Egypt, they talk about interference, undermining Egyptian sovereignty, interfering in Egypt's domestic affairs. They cannot have it both ways.

MARTIN: We're talking about developments across the Middle East with Al-Arabiya Washington bureau chief Hisham Melhem. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Let's head to Syria now. The U.S. has evacuated all embassy personnel out of the country as we said. You know, we've been hearing reports all along, for months now, of major attacks against anti-government groups and other civilians, hard to verify, because it's very hard for Westerners to report in that country.

Now, the U.S. is saying that the president's Bashar al-Assad's time is running out. Is that - do you think that that's really true?

MELHEM: I think it is true. It's a question of time. I think he is, as one American official said, a dead man walking. It's a question of time, when he will be overthrown, and I shudder to think about the price that the Syrian people are going to pay and are paying every day. There are some reporters in Homs, which is the third largest city, that is getting the brunt of the attacks from the government forces and we've seen indiscriminate shelling against civilian neighborhoods. And this can be basically verified, I mean by reporters, by eye witnesses, by YouTube videos, and we've seen all of that.

There's a war being waged on the people of Homs in particular, and if you remember, this uprising began as a peaceful movement and it remained largely a peaceful movement. Then you had defections from the Army, and now those who are fighting the conventional forces, the government forces, are defectors from the Army who are sick and tired of shooting at their own people, and now you have a qualitative shift in the government's attacks after the Russian/Chinese veto over the weekend which was seen by many people in the Arab world and in the world, really, as a new license to kill given by the Chinese and the Russians to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

MARTIN: Just to clarify here, that there was an attempt made to get the United Nations Security Council to coalesce around an effort in Syria and Russia and China.

MELHEM: It's supported by the Arab League and the Europeans and the Americans. It was not Western imposed, as some people - as the regime is claiming. It's essentially an Arab peace plan.

MARTIN: An Arab peace plan which Russia and China oppose.

MELHEM: Right.

MARTIN: So the question, I think, that many people have, and you covered the NATO operation that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi from Libya, why has there not been any effective international intervention in Syria to this point, as we have seen in other places when the international community came to a decision, as was the case in Libya - why do you think that hasn't happened in Syria?

MELHEM: Well, it was a lot easier to use military force against Libya. What happened in Libya remained in Libya. Unfortunately what happens in Syria does not remain in Syria. Syria is surrounded by a number of states that are extremely important for the United States. Tension in Syria is likely to spill over to other countries - Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, maybe even Jordan. Syria has a stronger military, so unless you have a concerted American effort, or lead by the United States, nobody is talking about a serious military intervention.

And this country is not willing at this stage, for a variety of domestic reasons - Afghanistan, you name it - is not willing to play that important role. And that's why they are trying to focus their collaborations with the Turks, with the Arabs and the Europeans, to squeeze the regime, to deprive the regime from sources of funding, but short of a military intervention a la Libya.

MARTIN: Finally, and all of these stories are complicated and deserve time and attention...

MELHEM: Sure.

MARTIN: ...we do want to spend the last couple of minutes talking about Iran. The U.S. just announced a fresh run of sanctions against banking institutions in Iran and there have been open rumblings about an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Could you talk a little bit about why now? Why is this happening now?

MELHEM: This administration is very concerned that the Israelis may take things into their own hands and attack Iran during the presidential campaign, the last year of, you know, a president in office, and that's the last thing the United States would like to see now, at a time when it's still involved in Afghanistan, at a time when the economic recovery is still slow.

An attack on Iran will create havoc in the oil markets, international markets. It will allow the Iranians - give them an excuse to lash out at the Americans in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in the Gulf. And this is precisely what Barack Obama, President Obama, shared on Sunday.

So essentially the United States is very concerned about the unilateral Israeli attack. On the other hand, the American intelligence services - and I think most intelligence services in the world tell you that Iran is not there yet in terms of producing all the components of a nuclear device.

And that's why the administration, on the one hand, is ratcheting up the pressure and maybe attempts to sabotage the nuclear program from - you know, from the outside, short of a military option at this stage. And by the way, this president, Barack Obama, has imposed the most stringent sanctions on the Iranian regime, more than any previous president, with collaboration with the Europeans. Today, the Iranians are really beginning to feel the economic and financial pinch.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, we've focused on these stories which are commanding the headlines, you know, for obvious reasons. Is there another story from the region that you think we should be paying attention to that perhaps is not getting as much attention, that your reporters, for example, are talking about?

MELHEM: Well, I mean, the Palestine issue remains an issue, and then you have the other uprisings taking place in the Arab world, like in Bahrain. We don't talk too much about Bahrain because we have a major naval base there. Also, Yemen. It's still in ferment.

But essentially the region is going through tremendous social and economic and cultural changes, and then the Islamists are going to inherit the immediate future of most of these societies, and it's going to be a debate within the Muslim groups as to the nature of governance, as to the nature of these societies in the next decade or two, and this is – this is a long term story that is extremely complex, even for those of us who make a living covering that part of the world.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk about this with us.

MELHEM: Thank you.

MARTIN: Hisham Melhelm is the Washington bureau chief for Al-Aribiya Television, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

MELHEM: Thank you.

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