Who Benefits From Syrian Civil War?

Egyptians are voting on a new constitution - but the vote is polarizing the country. Meanwhile, in Syria, the main opposition group is now recognized by the U.S., but there are questions about al-Qaeda affiliates fighting alongside them. To make sense of the developments, host Michel Martin talks with Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you might not think of southeast Nigeria as a destination for your Hanukkah celebration, but in fact thousands of Nigerians of the Ebo ethnic group are celebrating Hanukkah this week. Our next guest celebrated with them three years ago and he's going to tell us more about this corner of the Jewish Diaspora in just a few minutes.

But first, we are going to head to North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt tensions are high over a constitutional referendum planned for the next two weekends in Syria. There are new developments on the devastating, ongoing, bloody civil war there. Trying to help us make sense of everything is Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and he's with us from time to time to help talk about events in the region. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA AL JAZEERA INTERNATIONAL: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's begin with Egypt. Tell us about this constitutional referendum. I think a lot of people who have been following this story do understand there's been a lot of unrest in the country over the last few weeks, concerned over the president's efforts to aggregate more power to himself. Tell us about the referendum. What's going on?

INTERNATIONAL: Well, basically, when he went through what his opposition described as a power grab he tried to climb down. And the way he found to climb down was to rush the draft of the constitution through. So he got the draft of the constitution and he said, OK, I have two weeks to prepare for the referendum.

The opposition has problems not just with the content of the new constitution in terms of liberties and the status of women and so on. They also have a problem with the date of it. They say two weeks has not given them enough time to actually explain the content to their followers and to Egyptians at large.

So he seems to have got himself in a pickle. He also seems to have got the entire country in a pickle because Egyptians now are divided.

MARTIN: Is the opposition encouraging people to boycott the referendum?

INTERNATIONAL: There was a lot of discussion about what they were going to tell people to do. In the end, I think they've agreed by now that they will take part in the referendum but they are urging their followers to vote no, to vote against it.

MARTIN: To vote no and vote against. Does the international community, broadly speaking, do they have a stance on this? Obviously, it's an internal matter but what is their posture toward this?

INTERNATIONAL: Well, the U.S., for example, the Obama administration which seems to have now very close with the Morsi government in Egypt, seems to have taken an ambiguous position. They want him to have dialogue with these opponents and they've been very vocal about how the political tent, so to speak, should be made large enough for everyone to live under it in the future of Egypt.

They have not singled out any particular part of the drafted constitution for criticism. They just want it to be inclusive.

MARTIN: We're talking about events in the Middle East and North Africa with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Let's turn now to Syria. President Obama recently said that his administration formally recognizes the rebels who have been fighting President Bashar al Assad. Here is a clip of President Obama on ABC News. He's speaking with Barbara Walters on Tuesday.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime. And so we will provide them recognition. And obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities on the part of that coalition...

BARBARA WALTERS: That's a big step.

OBAMA: It is a big step.

MARTIN: Is the rest of the world seeing this, particularly people in the region seeing this, as a big step?

INTERNATIONAL: It depends who you talk to. I mean, for the coalition itself it's obviously a big step. That they now have 120 people recognizing them which means that they can open diplomatic representations in about 120 different countries, including the United States and Europe.

But there is some criticism, obviously. A lot of people are saying it's a big step for the Obama administration, it's a big step for this Syrian coalition. It may not necessarily be a big step for the Syrian people, people who have been demonstrating and getting killed and shot at for about 22 months.

A lot of people see this coalition as basically a front for international forces - the U.S., the Europeans, the Gulf Arabs - to interfere in the situation in Syria.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think is the more interesting question, the question of the Obama administration saying that some of these Syrian rebel groups are affiliated with al-Qaida or al-Qaida has now - I don't know what word they're using - has infiltrated or is now aligned with some of these rebel groups. Do we credit that?

INTERNATIONAL: I think that's a very, very, very important issue for so many different reasons. Because remember that in Libya, for example, when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked and initially reports were saying they were talking about these demonstrations against an anti-Muslim film connected to the attack on the Embassy. And in the end it turned out that it was actually attacked by a group that was described as a terrorist group.

And I think that the Obama administration doesn't want to repeat the same mistake from its point of view in Syria whereby he will be accused of working with terrorists to support Bashar al-Assad.

MARTIN: Well, what's the practical effect of this designation?

INTERNATIONAL: The effect of it is much more symbolic than anything else. Because there are other countries that will continue to work with Jabat al-Nusra. This is the main group that we are talking about. But if you look at the broader context, and if you look at the shift that seems to be happening in the Russian position, designating a group such as Jabat al-Nusra as a terrorist group it seems to be a concession to the Russians.

Because the Russians are worried about militant groups near Russia in places such as Chechnya and Dagestan. And one of the main reasons why they've been opposing the toppling of Bashar al-Assad is that they're worried about Islamist groups taking over in Syria.

So one way that the Obama administration could mollify some of those fears is to designate this group Jabat al-Nusra as a terrorist group. And the Russians seem to be now moving in a different direction from where they were, let's say, a month ago. The fact that they are now talking about Bashar not being able to control the country and talking about - literally they're saying now, the Russians, that the opposition does have a chance to actually win against Bashar al-Assad.

In the eyes of the critics of these outside forces in the Middle East, this is seen as being part of the haggling that's going on, which does not necessarily serve the interests of the Syrians themselves inside Syria.

MARTIN: Who are these critics? And what do they think would serve the interests of the Syrians inside Syria?

INTERNATIONAL: Even people among the Syrian opposition, or at least some of them, they've come to the conclusion that that's the way it is because Bashar al-Assad has been, in their eyes, killing his own people for 22 months. The Syrians have not been able to topple him themselves.

And they've been forced to seek help from the outside world. And the outside world has given not just political help, political assistance, it's provided them with weapons. And many of them say they must've done this for a price and the future of Syria would have to bear that price. So the outcome, they feel, would in the end serve the best interests of these outside forces, including some of Syria's neighbors, rather the interests of the Syrians themselves.

MARTIN: It's a fairly cynical view. I mean, on the one hand there's this ongoing demand for outside help. On the other hand, that help, when it's offered is now looked at askance?

INTERNATIONAL: It could be seen as a cynical position but the situation is this, in their eyes, is that 22 months ago the Syrians themselves rose up against Bashar. If they had been able to topple him themselves through peaceful means or even through an armed struggle themselves without the interference of the outside world, then the outcome would, by definition, be in their favor entirely.

But the fact that you've had all these difference forces - the Turks, the Gulf Arabs, the Russians, the Europeans, the Americans and others - the fact that you've had all these forces play a role in the toppling of Bashar al-Assad, the feeling is that comes with a price tag.

MARTIN: What is the source of Bashar al-Assad's continuing hold on power?

INTERNATIONAL: Military might is one of them. Russia standing up for him in the Security Council and elsewhere has been another source of power. The Russian position, as we said, has been shifting somewhat recently. But one of the most important ways that he's buttressed himself with is obviously Iranian support. We still do not know how the Iranians are reacting to all these shifting sands, if you will, of the situation inside Syria.

The Iranians, probably more than anybody else, have every reason to continue to back him up because they feel that if he goes one of the main pillars of Iranian influence in the Middle East will be gone.

MARTIN: You know, it's important to note that there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians on the move as this conflict has gone on, as you have pointed out, for some 22 months now with a very high, you know, loss of life. The dimensions of which we're not even absolutely sure about because it's been so hard to get information consistently out of these areas.

According to the United Nations, more than 500,000 Syrians are now refugees and have left. Many have crossed into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, even Iraq. Do you have some insights about what their situation is? What there circumstances? Obviously, that's a big territory of people to disperse to. But can you just tell us a little bit in the time we have left about what are their circumstances?

INTERNATIONAL: Well, it's not just refugees in neighboring countries. It's also displaced people inside Syria. There are estimates saying that over a million Syrians are now displaced. And you have to remember that this is the cold winter season. They don't have fuel. They don't always have shelter, especially those inside Syria. A lot of these people have fled to Damascus itself and living with relatives.

So the kind of problems they face are financial problems, social problems, economic problems. And all the neighboring countries are saying that we've done enough for these people. We don't have the resources. If you take a country like Jordan, for example, they say we are a poor country and we don't have the resources enough to deal with the flow of refugees. So we need assistance from the outside.

I think there is assistance from the outside world from the United States, from the Europeans, for example, the Saudis. They're all providing money to help deal with the situation. But the scope of it is so big - 500,000 refugees, over a million displaced people, not to talk about over 40,000 people killed, many of them women and children.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He joined us here in our Washington D.C. studios. Thank you for joining us.

INTERNATIONAL: Good to be with you.

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MARTIN: Coming up, in the 1960s Lawrence Guyot was on the front lines of organizing African-Americans to vote in his home state of Mississippi.

LAWRENCE GUYOT: We organized people from the prostitutes to the preachers. We turned this fight into their fight.

MARTIN: We remember the life and legacy of the late civil rights leader Lawrence Guyot with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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