Exile Defends Unity Of Syrian Opposition

Tensions are heating up between Syria and Turkey, as rebels and regime troops continue to battle it out. Host Michel Martin discusses whether the conflict can spill over with Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International and Radwan Ziadeh of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of exiles opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, there is new debate over New York City's so-called stop and frisk policing strategy that allows police to stop, search, and question people suspected of carrying drugs or guns. We'll hear from a young man and a filmmaker about the scars of that strategy in just a few minutes, how it's being experienced by a few people.

But first we turn to the Middle East where the Syrian civil war continues to ravage that country. All week long there have been reports of intense fighting between rebels and regime troops throughout northern Syria. Turkey yesterday turned up the heat by intercepting and searching a Syrian passenger plane looking for military supplies.

We wanted to talk more about what's happening on the ground and beyond Syria's borders so we've called, once again, upon Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera International and he often joins us to talk about affairs over the region. Also with us today, Radwan Ziadeh. He is a member of a group called the Syrian National Council. That's a coalition of exile groups who are trying to organize opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

RADWAN ZIADEH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, let's start with you. Let's talk about the tensions between Syria and Turkey. And there's also news that the U.S. sent 150 specialists to help Jordan prepare for a refugee crisis and possibly a bigger conflict. So can you just bring us up to date on this cross-border conflict?

FOUKARA: Well, obviously the relationship between Turkey and Syria has been very complicated over the last couple of years or so, since the events started in Syria. Recently, as you pointed out, it's got even more complicated with rockets landing in Turkey from the Syria side and the Turks retaliating for that.

The Turks are saying that they will do everything to protect their own sovereignty, but they are saying that they will also do everything they can to help resolve the situation diplomatically. The Turkish prime minister is in a bind now, because domestically, in Turkey, there is a lot of this increasing opposition to a potential war with Syria, although many people would consider what's already happening across the border between Turkey and Syria a state of war.

And now we have the situation of the plane, that you referred to, intercepted by the Turks coming from Russia. And the Turks are saying that it had military equipment destined to Bashar al-Assad. The Russians are very angry about it and obviously the Russians are very staunch supporters of Bashar al-Assad. So this story seems to be going in so many different directions, getting more complicated by the day.

There's a lot of destruction in Syria. The armed opposition seems to be making some territorial gains in Syria. But Bashar al-Assad, for all the things that have been said over several months, that he was finished, he may be finished politically but militarily he still seems to pull some weight.

MARTIN: Hmm. Radwan, can you tell us what your group is asking neighboring governments to do? Have you made specific requests of them?

ZIADEH: Basically should - all the neighboring countries, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon respect the right of the Syrian refugees. Unfortunately, because the crisis it's so long and take more time and many refugees crossing the border to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq. There's a number, according to data, in increase of 300,000. Of course, the situation of the refugees' camp in very good condition in Turkey but still a lot of question in Jordan and Lebanon.

And this is why we call all the neighboring countries to appeal with the international role, especially respect the rights of the refugees regarding the access of food, humanitarian assistance, and the health care. But more importantly, that's what we found, because the number is increasing and some countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, they cannot afford more.

This is why it has all the international community among them. The U.S. and EU countries has a responsibility to increase the fund to those countries, at least to be able to accommodate more Syrian refugees crossing the border.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, it's an awkward question because Mr. Ziadeh is sitting right here, but I did want to ask who is perceived as negotiating on behalf of the Syrian opposition? Not just the refugees, but the Syrian opposition, you know, more broadly?

FOUKARA: I mean, most of the reports that we are hearing suggest that there are divisions among the Syrian opposition. Not just Syrian opposition outside of Syria but also among the armed opposition inside of Syria. And I think if you speak, for example, to the mission of the United Nations, Lakhdar Brahimi's people in Syria - Lakhdar Brahimi, the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League - they would tell you that they are having a really hard time dealing, not just with the rigidity of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also the problem of the divisions within the opposition.

Now, I think, to look at it from another point of view, those divisions should not be too over-stressed, if you will, because we did see similar divisions in Libya. Violent divisions - the rebels at that time fighting the regime of Muammar Gaddafi turning on each other, even. But ultimately they did manage to get rid of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, it goes without saying, with the help of NATO.

In Syria there are divisions. Again, Islamist rebels against secular rebels, but I think they are all united towards the goal of getting rid of Bashar al-Assad. Remains the question, as Radwan said, how much support - real support, as they would say - they would be getting from the outside world, particularly the United States, over the next few weeks.

Everybody has written off Bashar al-Assad several months ago. He is still in control and a lot of people are awaiting now, in that part of the world, generally the U.S. election to see how the U.S. may change course in terms of giving, supplying the rebels with the kind of heavy weaponry they say they need.

MARTIN: We're talking about the civil war in Syria. Our guests are Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International and Radwan Ziadeh of the opposition coalition the Syria National Council. Mr. Ziadeh, as Abderrahim said, many people are surprised that Bashar al-Assad has been able to hold on as long as he has. And you've just returned from the region and we can just see from the pictures that are coming out of the region just how widespread the destruction is.

I did want to ask you, you know, what are the conditions that you saw when you were there, particularly for civilians? And do you have any insights into just how he has been able to hold on for as long as he has?

ZIADEH: This is - it was my first visit to my home country after five years being in exile. I left Syria in September 2007 and back to Syria in September 2012. It's emotional, of course, to see your country after five years, with the same time shocked, actually, about the destruction inside the country, especially in Aleppo and Aleppo suburbs.

With the same time, the people even that they managed to get rid of the Assad regime in that area, they are happy now. They're joining the freedom celebration and all of that, but it's a very hard condition. I mean, in the city of A'zaz only 35 percentage of population, they back to the city. There is 60 schools, elementary and secondary schools, all of them out of service because the Assad regime destroy all of them.

The Assad regime used the main mosque in the city as a military base and they use the minarets to be actually the place where the snipers can shoot anyone in the city, with the same time, the national hospital out of service. I mean, none of the public buildings, let's say, is in good condition or be able to function right now. This is - it needs a lot, a lot of humanitarian and also of reconstruction, the country.

I mean, the estimate number is more than $300 billion and this is just in the suburbs. If you go to the city of Aleppo, as example, which many neighborhoods, according to the U.N., it's one of the richest heritage of the humanity. It's being destroyed, the old market in Aleppo and all of these places.

It's very difficult, which make it more difficult, of course, the lack of the support from international community. Let's see here that the division among the opposition reflected the division among the international community. Let's - after (unintelligible) the Security Council was unable to adapt any resolution to protect the civilians.

Now, the estimate number of people who have been killed, 32,000. Maybe the number is much higher. There is a huge number of missing people and that's increasing day by day. Children, women, civilians and all of that. And (unintelligible) the international community failed to address the Syrian crisis and to ensure to end the Assad regime because we talked before that about refugees. Let's - the refugees actually - these are the symptoms of the disease. The disease still the Bashar al-Assad. If we did not get rid of the Assar Assad regime, we will have more regional consequences and more impacts on the whole region.

MARTIN: I understand your point. You're saying that the refugees are the symptom of the crisis. They are not the crisis, although they are certainly a big part of the crisis at this point. Abderrahim, a final word from you, if you would. We have about a minute left.

I mean, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar are openly supporting the oppositions diplomatically. The U.S. has not intervened at this point, except that the U.S. has certainly been very vocal through its diplomats, but has not made any kind of moves on the ground. What should we be looking for to see if there's some sign of change in the status quo here? Because it seems like this war is just grinding on after 19 months. What should we be thinking about and looking at?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, first of all, the United States is involved. There are CIA operatives, for example, in Turkey and their main job is to see what groups the United States should be supporting inside Syria.

The situation - what happened in Benghazi has not helped the Obama administration in terms of who carried out that attack, so obviously, the Obama administration is very worried that it may end up supporting groups that may not necessarily be on the right side from the point of view of the United States.

I think part of the problem of the opposition, also, is that it is supported by so many different actors, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Europeans and each one of these has a slightly different agenda, so it makes it even more complicated.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Radwan Ziadeh. He's a member of the Syrian National Council. That's a coalition of exiles opposing the Syrian president, Ashar al-Assad.

Thank you both so much.

FOUKARA: Thank you.

ZIADEH: Thank you.

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