Political And Military Pressure Tightens On Damascus

Guests

Deborah Amos, foreign correspondent, NPR
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief, Russia in Global Affairs
Amb. Frederic Hof, senior fellow, Atlantic Council

As the conflict in Syria continues, the international community is preparing for the possible fall of President Bashar Assad's regime. Last week, President Barack Obama formally recognized a Syrian opposition group as the country's legitimate representative.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Grim and rapid developments in Syria: 40,000 now believed dead in almost two years of uprising and rebellion. Palestinians become the latest to flee after rebels seize a densely packed refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. Reports that the regime resorted to medium-range missiles. The United States formally recognizes Syria's opposition coalition. The rebel groups forms a military command. Russia seemed to accept that Bashar al-Assad may not survive the civil war.

And now Syria's reclusive vice president comes forward to tell a Lebanese newspaper Assad cannot win. Quote, we are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime. As the political military pressure tightens on Damascus, what are the stakes in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a look at how officials control information as they investigate mass killings. But first NPR correspondent Deborah Amos joins us from Istanbul, Turkey. Nice to have you back, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's very nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And a lot has happened in the last couple of days. But let's begin with the attack on the Palestinian refugee camp there in Damascus, Yarmouk. Palestinians reported to be streaming across the border into Lebanon.

AMOS: There are reports from Beirut that about 1,000 Palestinians crossed into Lebanon today. I want to say one thing about Yarmouk camp. It's not really a camp, it's a neighborhood. These are buildings, apartment buildings, and so when you have this kind of horrific fighting in the middle of a neighborhood, with civilians who have moved into the neighborhood from other places, you have displaced people there.

You have two factions of Palestinians fighting each other. The regime says that they will try to take the neighborhood back. For the moment it appears that the rebels, the Palestinians who have banded together with the rebels, have the upper hand in Yarmouk.

CONAN: The Syrian government long portrayed itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. Many Palestinian refugee camps there. It also supported many Palestinian groups, among them terrorists, among them the PFLP-GC, headed by Ahmed Jibril, which is now on the side of Bashar al-Assad.

AMOS: This is the fight that has been happening today. Palestinians who are for the government and Palestinians who are with the rebels. In some ways it's a generational fight. Younger Palestinians who are Sunni Muslims, the majority of the rebels are Sunni Muslims, stayed on the side for months and months. But now it appears that the Palestinians are moving to the side of the rebels.

There are so many parts of this regime that have been undone over these past years. And this is one of the most important parts of this regime that always claimed to be the champion of the Palestinians. Early on, they sent busloads of young Palestinians from the Yarmouk neighborhood down to the border, down to the Golan Heights, the border with Israel.

And those people crossed the border and were shot at by the Israelis. The elders in Yarmouk said that's it, we're not doing that again. We are going to sit on our hands. And I think that for months they tried very much to stay neutral in this fight.

And in the past couple of weeks, that has proved impossible. They have been overrun by displaced people, and you can see that the Palestinians are beginning to take sides in this revolution.

CONAN: As many others previously have been forced to do, sooner or later. But tell us, what does this portend for Damascus? This is an important part of the city, and rebel groups keep moving closer to the heart of the regime.

AMOS: We've been watching them move closer to the capital. I think it would be wrong, though, to assume that this means the capital is in danger of falling. We've seen reports from a handful of Western journalists who have been in the city, who their impression is that things are relatively normal in the heart of the capital, that they can hear the fighting, but it is not near to the downtown.

It appears what the regime is trying to do is set up a cordon two kilometers around, or three to four miles outside the center of the city and to keep the rebels back from the heart of Damascus. There are still loyal troops in the army, and they've been fighting very hard. The regime has stepped up what they are willing to do.

For example we saw last week they are willing to use SCUD missiles, surface-to-surface missiles shot from bases near Damascus into the north of the country. One of - a senior official went to Aleppo and pledged $4 million in aid on the government-held side of the city. They are signaling, as best they can, that they are not giving up this fight, not yet.

CONAN: And then we have the vice president, one of the senior Sunni officials, he's not believed - not reported to be close to the inner circle of Bashar al-Assad by any stretch of the imagination, has been largely absent these many months - but comes out today in an interview with a Lebanese newspapers saying we're not fighting for the survival of any individual or any regime.

AMOS: That was such a curious interview, Neal. Here's a man who has actually been promoted as perhaps an alternative to Bashar al-Assad. He comes out, he makes the statement at the same time that two other things happen. One, the Iranians begin to signal that maybe they don't support Bashar as much as they had and what we really need here is an election.

You also see in Lebanon the leader of Hezbollah, another ally of Bashar al-Assad, say, you know, there's two kinds of people in Syria, those who support the president and those who support the rebels. This is the first time we've heard Hezbollah acknowledge that there is popular support for the revolution.

And so you're getting signals, both from allies and from inside the regime, this could be a flag to say all right, we are ready to talk. It is not altogether clear, nothing is ever clear that comes out of Damascus, but these are very, very interesting signals.

CONAN: Other interesting signals coming out of Moscow. Russia, of course, another important ally of Bashar al-Assad throughout this struggle with his own people. Joining us now is Fyodor Lukyanov, he's the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. He's with us on the phone from Moscow. Good to have you back on the program.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: Hello, thank you.

CONAN: And what do you make of the various statements over the past week or so that some in the West and indeed some in Syria have read as Russia backing away from its support of Bashar al-Assad or at least recognizing that whatever it does, he may not be the person in charge much longer?

LUKYANOV: Yes, we've heard a couple of statements of this kind, but frankly I didn't see much new because in Russian foreign ministry or in academic community here, we didn't have any illusions. So it was quite clear that sooner or later the situation in Syria will collapse, and something will happen which will remove Bashar al-Assad.

The question is OK, what does it mean for Russian position? Actually nothing because for Russia now, Russia cannot do much. To change sides, to try to turn sides now would be anyway too late and quite senseless because those who are fighting against Assad, they see Russia as an enemy. And they will do it anyway.

So I think Russia will just wait and see what will happen in Syria after collapse of regime, and predictions here, and this is almost a consensus, but the predictions are very gloomy that some - many people doubt that Syria will survive as a single state.

CONAN: We also hear reports today from Interfax, the Soviet - the Russian news agency, excuse me, that Russian warships have been dispatched from the Baltic to go and pick up Russian military personnel from the port of Tartus. Have you heard that? Can you confirm that?

LUKYANOV: Yes, there's an official statement, and I think it's not only about military personnel from Tartus, it's also about to help those Russian citizens who would like to leave Syria in case of the worst-case scenario because there are many Russian citizens living there, a lot of women who married Syrian citizens, and different numbers, but it's tens of thousands of Russians.

And in case the Assad regime collapses, and it will be complete chaos, that is a very bad perception here inside the country if the Russian state will not be able to help those Russian citizens living there.

CONAN: If the consensus has become rather gloomy, and Mr. Assad is not really part of the future, will Russia, do you think, change its position in the Security Council, where it's moved in the past to block any international effort to impose sanctions?

LUKYANOV: First, I don't think that we are there now to this discuss U.N. Security Council. (Unintelligible) because the fate of Syria is now decided on the battlefield. We should be realistic. Second, even if something will come up in the U.N. Security Council, I don't believe that Russia will change position because Russia actually is not in favor of Assad, but Russia is very much against any kind of outside intervention.

The Russian position from the beginning was to let Syrians come to terms and let Syrians themselves decide what kind of state and what kind of leadership they want, no repetition of Libyan model, when outside forces decided whom to support, and that changed the regime.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to this gloomy future, you and others in Moscow, what becomes of Russia's position then?

LUKYANOV: You know, it might sound a bit cynical, but of course to leave Syria to be forced to abandon the last ally in the Middle East, that will be unpleasant, and that's not a good scenario. It will be sad. But frankly for Russia to leave the Middle East, it's not a big - it's not a disaster. It's not a big deal because Russia today, Russia is not Soviet Union anymore.

Russia doesn't have any global ambitions, and of course the Middle East is important, but it does not belong to core interests, say area of core interests of Russian civilization, which is much more of Eurasia, the former Soviet space.

So in case of Syrian - continued Syrian disaster, so Russia will withdraw and then watch what'll happen next.

CONAN: Fyodor Lukyanov, thank you very much again for your time.

LUKYANOV: Thank you.

CONAN: Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, with us by phone from Moscow. We're talking with NPR's Deb Amos about recent events in Syria. We want to hear from you. What's at stake there now for Syrians, for the region, for the world? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Today, Syria, where rebel forces seem to be gaining momentum in recent weeks. In the country's neighborhood of Palestinian refugees, Yarmouk, fighting raged today between Syrian rebels and a group of Palestinians loyal to President Assad. In the offensive that began Friday, rebels hoped to push the group, led by a longtime ally of Assad, out of the area.

The fighting has forced refugees there to flee, for U.N. installations around Damascus, to other cities in Syria, and to the border with Lebanon. And in an interview with a pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper published Monday, Assad's vice president reportedly called for the international community to broker a ceasefire to establish, quote, a national unity government with wide powers.

So call and tell us what's at stake in Syria. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR's Deborah Amos is with us from Istanbul, and here with us in Studio 3A is Ambassador Frederic Hof, recently left his post at the State Department as a special advisor for transition in Syria, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

FREDERIC HOF: Neal, it's great to be with you, thanks.

CONAN: And what is the significance now that the United States has formally recognized the opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

HOF: Neal, I think it's a pretty significant step. And you know, perhaps the significance of it can be summarized in the old expression you can't beat something with nothing. The one thing that 23 million Syrians can agree on is that the Assad regime is corrupt, it's incompetent, and it's brutal. What they can't agree on is what should replace it.

And among minorities in particular, the Alawite sect that the Assad family comes from, and among Christians, there's a real question about whether or not they should continue to support the devil they know.

So for the opposition to acquire a face, for the opposition to have a program, for the opposition to have structure, this is all important in terms of giving all these people who are still sitting on the fence an opportunity to abandon this regime at last.

CONAN: Deb Amos, the last time we spoke, you said the new coalition was in sort of a honeymoon period with a lot of the various elements inside and outside of Syria. Is that continuing?

AMOS: A new development is taking place on the ground, and you see it in the two northern provinces, Idlib and Aleppo. Idlib actually had an election for a local council, eighteen people, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers who are putting themselves forward to run the province. You see the same thing in Aleppo.

The idea is they are connected to this new coalition, and if there is, when there is aid money coming in, it will go through them. So far there really isn't any money. The Qataris put in eight million, and these two particular councils got a share of that, and they're trying to get bread into their provinces. It is a dire situation in both places.

The bread has practically disappeared. So these people are beginning to form local structures, having to deal with a humanitarian crisis and not having enough money to deal with it and show people that they actually can govern or at least begin to govern these rebel-held areas.

CONAN: And Ambassador Hof, is the United States going to be able to supply money in time for them to provide bread? Winter's coming on. The situation, as Deb describes it, is dire.

HOF: I think Deb describes the situation quite accurately, and this will have to be a high, high, high priority for the U.S. government, if this new national council is going to work. If it's seen as not delivering for its constituents, then it's going to suffer the same fate as its predecessor, the Syrian National Council.

CONAN: The other thing critical to its survival is that it is seen as the force that commands and controls the military, the Free Syrian Army.

HOF: Absolutely, absolutely.

CONAN: There was a structure set up. Is there any belief that it's beginning to establish authority?

HOF: Well, that structure was set up by 260 military commanders who came out to Turkey and basically formed what they call a Supreme Military Council, 30 members under a commanding general. What's very, very important now is for this Syrian national coalition and the Supreme Military Council to unify, to unify, to form one organization, because what's really important here is that people bearing arms on the ground against the regime need specific political guidance.

Without that, there can always be a tendency to go off in different directions that could really, really burn out the support they enjoy now from Syrian people.

CONAN: And Deb, one organization, yet one of the major rebel groups, specifically excluded from that armed council and specifically denounced by the United States as a terrorist group.

AMOS: You're talking about the al-Nusra Front, and on the ground what you see is they have turned themselves into the Islamist Robin Hoods. They took control of a grain silo from the government, and they have been giving out free bread in the places that they control. And in some cities also they've been giving out fuel oil.

This has made them incredibly popular at a moment when people are standing six to 10 hours in bread lines. That's why it's also crucial for these new local councils to get some support, because they are fighting for legitimacy, and al-Nusra Front knows that.

They have been essentially the clean guys, the good guys on the ground. Whether we call them terrorists or not, they are not seen that way inside Syria. They are (technical difficulties) and they give out free bread.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. What are the stakes now in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. George is with us from Santa Clara, California.

GEORGE: Hi, good morning.

CONAN: Good morning.

GEORGE: Yeah, I'd just like to comment a little bit. I've been listening about the news all over, not just on this station. The prediction is that the regime, and everybody is assuming the regime is leaving very soon, and I totally disagree with this, simply because history in the Middle East and similar situations that happened, if you take Iraq or you take what happened in Lebanon during the civil war, and many other situations - I predict that this situation will probably last for months, if not years.

And even if the regime would leave in probably a few months, if - even if you predict this, the situation is going to continue to even get worse, actually, after this because no one - the rebels are not united. No one - the factions are not - they don't have the same belief. They don't have the same foundation. I think it would be a disaster for years to come.

I hate to paint this gloomy picture of what's going to happen in the region, but I think this is the reality. And then I strongly actually support the political solution right now before the situation gets to the point of no return.

CONAN: Is there any prospect, Deborah Amos, of a political solution at this point, or as we heard from our Russian colleague earlier, is the conclusion going to be reached on the battlefield?

AMOS: You know, you can never go wrong predicting that the worst will happen in the Middle East because it often does. I think we are far away from a political solution. Your Russian expert was very clear that the Russians are not changing their position and probably won't until the very end. So it is going to be decided on the battlefield.

I think many analysts now have come to that conclusion, and that fight still has a long way to go. The rebels are not in the middle of Damascus. They have not taken the heart of Aleppo, which is the second-most-important city in the country. And so a political solution seems a bit off.

CONAN: And George's analysis of the opposition, Ambassador Hof, seems to be accurate. This is, yes, striving to become one organization but a long way from there yet.

HOF: Yeah, I think George made several good points, and that was one of them. The opposition still in many, many respects is a work in progress. But I think what it really needs to do, you know, in addition to the internal organization, in addition to uniting with the Supreme Military Council, is move as rapidly as possible in the direction of forming a provisional government and establishing itself on Syrian territory.

But George is right. The fact that the wheel seem to becoming off of the regime is not necessarily indicative, Neal, that this is going to be over in the next 20 minutes. This could go on for quite a while, and time is the enemy. The closer this gets to an all-out sectarian civil war, the worse the prospects are for Syria for a long, long time.

CONAN: And how - and, George, thanks very much for the call.

GEORGE: OK. If I may mention something about the political solution? I think what hinder in the political solution is mainly those terrorist organizations that are infiltrated the rebels in this. And then if I may say, it is the al-Qaida followers. And those guys, they really don't want any political solutions. And also, those guys do not support - do not like the support of the Western countries to the rebels. They don't like that support. They truly don't want that support. And they would do their best to prevent any political situation. And even after the regime is defeated and is out, they would do their best to make sure that the country is in chaos rather than have been controlled by foreign, Western countries.

CONAN: George, thanks again. Appreciate it. And he's made another good point, Ambassador, that the interest of the - what the U.S. identified as an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq...

HOF: Right.

CONAN: ...is not concordant with the other rebel organizations, or at least not all of them. And are they, though, the force standing between - in the way of a political solution?

HOF: Yeah. Well, the only point on which I would part company with George, I believe, is on this situation of a - of who is responsible for preventing a political settlement? There was an opportunity at the end of June. When Kofi Annan got the five prominent members of the Security Council together and actually came up with a plan for a political transition in Syria, it was the regime that torpedoed that plan by escalating on the ground, eventually leading to Kofi Annan's resignation.

But on this Nusra Front, it does have an agenda that is bad for Syria, and this is one of the reasons why it was designated as a terrorist organization by our government. The Nusra Front is al-Qaida in Iraq at its core. These were people who, ironically, the Assad regime helped get into Iraq in the first place to commit murder and mayhem. Now, they've come back to Syria to bite the hand that fed them rather well in the past.

CONAN: Ambassador Frederic Hof recently left his post at the State Department as a special adviser for transition in Syria, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Also with us from Istanbul, NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Navil(ph) is on the line with us from Orlando.

NAVIL: Hi there. Thanks for taking my call. Look, I, you know, I grew up in a civil war in Lebanon. So I'm very familiar with how militias operate. I think, in the case of Syria, more than Libya, you know, in the last couple of years, the biggest challenge is going to be disarming the militias right as the war ends and as the war, you know, post-civil war Syria is going to be very difficult to disarm the militias, especially there because it's taken too long. I'm not sure how you were able to convince militias. A militia man who was a baker earning, you know, $5 a day prior to the war, who now commands 25 people running the streets and owning a certain town, to going back to making $8 or - a day, that's going to be the biggest challenge for the Syrians and the government.

CONAN: And, Deb Amos, he's also got a point, but it's more complicated than that. You have former regime soldiers who are now in the opposition army. And, well, some people would say the - what used to be the Syrian army is now the biggest militia in the country.

AMOS: Well, I must say that the Lebanese know about the nitty-gritty of what happens with militias. And let me say a couple of things. One, let's keep al-Nusra Front in its proper proportion. It's about 6 percent of the rebel fighters. It's more in the north than in the south. You hear a lot about it from reporters because it's the place that we can get to, and so we see them. And you see them in the news.

The second thing is that, unlike Lebanon, there are lots of defected officers who are within the rebel groups. These are secular men. You know, they were begging for support from the West. They didn't get it. The West outsourced the funding for these rebel groups to Gulf countries, who favored more Islamic brigades. These guys understand how you have to go about disarming rebels. They have been talking about it for months, making plans. It - and in their brigades, they keep serial numbers of weapons because they really are thinking about the future and how you disarm.

If they get some support, it is not going to be easy and there could be more of a fight after Assad falls than there even is now among these rebel groups. But it's not that people are not thinking about it and planning for it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Navil. And, Ambassador, that raises a question. You said, urgent necessity for the Obama administration to try to get help to these councils that have been established, the ones that are calling for help. Is the Obama administration going to get into the business of funneling arms to this organization to give it credibility in its competition with groups like al-Nusra Front?

HOF: Neal, my own conclusion on that, it is likely inevitable. That if this regime holds on, the administration will have to get into the business of providing arms. The key thing will be to try to dominate, with the cooperation of Turkey, the logistical system for external arms, try to dominate the question of end use, who gets what? Try to make sure that military units, which are obviously part of this new supreme military council, that stand for a system of citizenship in Syria at the end of the day instead of sectarianism, making sure that they get the support, making sure that others, the Nusra Front and their friends, don't get support.

The sad fact of the matter is that this will likely be determined by combat on the ground. And this means that weaponry, whether we like it or not, is the coin of the realm.

CONAN: Ambassador Hof, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

HOF: It's been my pleasure. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And, Deborah Amos, in Istanbul, thank you for joining us again.

AMOS: Thank you, Neal. Very nice to be here.

CONAN: Up next, we'll talk about the process of investigating mass murders, specifically how officials decide what information to release to the public and when. Join us for that. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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