Arab World Debates How U.S. Should Respond To Syria

Professor Shibley Telhami is a Middle East expert and author of The World Through Arab Eyes: Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Arab World. He discusses with Renee Montagne how the Arab media and people are reacting to the U.S. debate over whether to intervene in Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A big part of the challenge of enforcing President Obama's red line against Bashar al-Assad's regime on the use of chemical weapons is how the region will react. And as a possible strike on Syria looms, the mood among Arabs is something Shibley Telhami is following closely. He's a professor at the University of Maryland and his latest book is "The World Through Arab Eyes: Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Arab World."

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: From the outset of the Syrian uprisings, Arab public opinion - according to my polls, particularly in 2011, 2012 - were overwhelming against Assad. Still, when you ask people whether they wanted to see an international intervention, even U.N. intervention, more people said no than yes.

MONTAGNE: Professor Telhami has found, though, that the media landscape is complicated. For instance, in the Gulf States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the state-controlled or state-influenced media favors some sort of intervention in Syria. He says that's because those two countries saw the need to get ahead of the Arab Spring to support protestors. And now, with the civil war in Syria, they're sticking with that position.

TELHAMI: Gulf media in general, and that includes the biggest and most influential satellite stations, al-Jazeera for Qatar and al-Arabiya for Saudi Arabia, they're favoring some form of intervention in Syria. They certainly highlight all the suffering of the Syrian people. They take an anti-Assad line. They host people more often than not who want to see an intervention and leading with the story.

The story has been a central story, not just for the chemical weapons, but for months now.

MONTAGNE: You speak of Saudi Arabia and Qatar as different from other countries. Of course, the big one we would be thinking about here would be Egypt. How is it playing out there?

TELHAMI: Well, you see a very strong opposition to military intervention that is articulated in much of the press and conspiracy about why the U.S. is doing it across the newspapers, from the private to the public, it's fascinating to watch.

MONTAGNE: What exactly would that conspiracy be?

TELHAMI: I'll give you one example of a column just published by one of the most influential columnists in Egypt, Mohammed Hassan Enykel(ph). He's highly admired. He goes back to Nassr's era. In his column, he says, don't believe this talk about chemical weapons. American has itself killed a lot of innocent people. They're not going to worry about a few hundred more.

This is Jew's strategic struggle, in essence, to defeat Hezbollah because Hezbollah is the only one who really poses a strategic threat to Israel together with Iran. And so the conspiracy on behalf of Israel is very, very prevalent.

MONTAGNE: What about social media? We all know it played a great role in the Arab Spring. And in this last chemical attack in Syria, videos that found their way to YouTube basically brought that story to the world. So where are we at with social media right now as regard to Syria?

TELHAMI: Well, social media's played a major role in the Syrian conflict, from the outset, because remember this was an authoritarian regime that has made it very difficult for outsiders to come in and tell the story. And it was really phone videos, victims of chemical weapons, you see these horrible, terrifying pictures of the victims. That's why we know so much about what's happening in Syria.

But here's what I would say. The Arab press has been focused on the victims of Assad from the very beginning - and we don't know exactly how many, but we know that they're probably in the tens of thousands. And they've been seeing even more graphic pictures than the chemical weapons victims, so people's positions on Syria had already been formed.

And what they want done, or not, is not so much connected to chemical weapons. Even those who are urging the U.S. to intervene, it's the same people who wanted America to intervene for humanitarian reasons before. So yes, it's added, but it really hasn't profoundly changed attitudes at all or, for that matter, the coverage in the region.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

TELHAMI: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Shibley Telhami is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Anwar Saddat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

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