Opposition Spokesman Won't Commit To Syria Peace Talks

Leaders from around the world are urging Syrian opposition and government groups to hold talks aimed at ending the two-year-old civil war there. But the Syrian opposition won't commit to negotiations. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Khalid Saleh, Chief Spokesperson for the Syrian Opposition recognized by the US.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the latest jobs report is out. The economy added jobs, but also added to the unemployment rate. We'll explain how that math works with the Wall Street Journal's Sudeep Reddy and NPR's Marilyn Geewax. The civil war there has now raged for two years, more than two years. The most recent reports say President Bashar al-Assad's army is making gains at this point, including the capture of a key rebel stronghold this week. And from the earliest days of the conflict, the war was never contained by Syria's borders. Refugees and violence has spilled over into neighboring countries, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. Arizona Senator John McCain just got back from a trip to the region. He spoke yesterday at the Brookings Institution about what he saw.

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Syria as we know it is ceasing to exist. More than 80,000 people are dead. A quarter of all Syrians have been driven from their homes. The Syrian state is disintegrating in much of the country, leaving vast ungoverned spaces that are being filled by extremists, many of them aligned with al-Qaida.

HEADLEE: Joining me now in studio is the chief spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition. His name is Khalid Saleh. Welcome to the program.

KHALID SALEH: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: First of all, your response to John McCain's characterization of what he saw in Syria.

SALEH: We know for a fact that of the 185,000 square kilometers in Syria, 100,000 is not under the control of the government, they are liberated areas. However, we have a challenge in governing those areas. We've been trying, with very limited resources, to provide services to people. We've been trying to help local administrative councils provide services, rule these different areas, provide rule of law, but has been challenging with the limited support that we are receiving from the international community. Bashar al-Assad has been trying to push back, to like, you know, his forces are trying to gain control over certain areas.

But the reality is, his army, which was the 13th largest army in the world, has been degraded to a great extent. At this point, he's having to rely on Hezbollah militias to assist him. He continues to receive massive shipments of weapons from Russia. We all heard about the S-300 missiles that Russia is sending to Assad. He's also getting help from Iran. All these - all these forces.

HEADLEE: What kind of help is he getting from Iran?

SALEH: Intelligence reports tell us that Iranian generals are actually doing the full planning and direction for the Hezbollah militias and the Assad army in several areas. They're doing the planning in Aleppo, they're doing the planning in Homs, they're doing the planning in the countryside of Damascus. These are significant areas where Iranian generals are actually doing the planning, giving the orders, and they're giving those orders to Hezbollah militias, which happen to be very well-trained. If you recall, they fought Israel. So Assad is getting tremendous amount of support versus the support that the rebels, that the Free Syrian Army, is receiving.

HEADLEE: Although, let's be clear, you guys are receiving some support, notably from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But you're hoping to get support from other nations, notably the United States. The United States is a little dismayed at some of the disarray - described as disarray, among the national coalition, of which you are the chief spokesperson. I would imagine that governing the places where - that you have control over is not complicated only by lack of support. I mean, you have, in your group, such disparate opinions. You have everything from the Muslim Brotherhood to the very, very liberal, left-wing-leaning groups. I mean, how on earth are you going to come together and get a draft constitution? How do you establish a rule of law when parts of the national coalition want to use Sharia?

SALEH: Well, let me kind of go back to couple of things over here. Whatever support that the Syrian Coalition or the Supreme Military Council is receiving is very little. As a matter of fact ...

HEADLEE: You mean from Saudia Arabia?

SALEH: From Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other countries are providing support. As a matter of fact, one foreign minister told me, he said, you know, all the support that we've given you guys, add up, summed all together, is equivalent to about one week worth of support that Assad receiving from Iran or Russia, just to put it in perspective. And he said, yes, we're trying to provide you with support, but it is limited and we recognize that. So you can imagine, you know, we're going through receiving support for 16 months, that's equal to about one week of support that Assad is receiving. That's the first point. The second thing about the Syrian Coalition - everybody in the Syrian Coalition, all the different parties, are calling for democratic pluralistic society. Every single party that...

HEADLEE: All of them?

SALEH: All of them. Now there's some reality that we have to admit. We all have the same call. We all want to get rid of Assad. We want to establish a free democratic Syria. But when you have a hundred different parties, all joined together, there will be disagreements. It's just not even something I can fathom that they will all agree. At the same time, think about the ordinary Syrian who is living in the liberated areas. He could not care less about Syrian opposition and what they think and disagreements amongst them. What he wants is he wants water, he wants food, he wants services and that's what we've been telling the world. Help us provide services to the people because that's what matters to people at the end.

HEADLEE: Well, one of the things which is sort of a key question is whether or not your coalition will attend the peace talks that are proposed in Geneva for later this month. Both the United States and Russia have been pushing Assad, his government, and the coalition to go. President Assad has agreed to go. Will the coalition go?

SALEH: We will negotiate with anyone if we can stop the bloodshed in Syria. That's the first principle. We welcomed any international effort to bring about a political solution to stop the bloodshed in Syria. However, we said couple of things. First, the political solution must meet the aspirations of the Syrian people. We must establish a democratic country. The second thing that we've always pointed out to - that any transitional period must start by the departure of Assad and the pillars, the heads of the security apparatus. Now what we don't want to do is negotiations for the sake of negotiations. We don't want to do negotiations to give Assad more time to kill more people.

HEADLEE: And I need to point out, of course, we're speaking with a representative of the Syrian National Coalition. We do not have a representative of Assad's government with us to provide counterpoint. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with the chief spokesman for the SNC, Khalid Saleh. Let's talk about chemical weapons, 'cause the UN says they have evidence that both your coalition and Assad's government have used chemical weapons. What's your response to that report?

SALEH: We've asked for the UN monitors to come into Syria. Assad is still head of the legitimate government, so they have to take his permission to enter even liberated areas and that's the main point of contention with the UN. Well, we said, please send your representatives, take samples, and let the evidence show. Now here is something that we know about chemical weapons. They have to be mixed, most of the time, in less than 24 hours and then be used. Only the Assad regime has the capability, has the know-how, and has the willingness to use those chemical weapons.

Now one thing that's interesting is now we had the report that came in Le Monde, where you actually had French journalists who actually were in the countryside of Damascus and they saw chemical weapons being used by Assad forces. We also, and for the first time, we had the Turkish government taking samples from Syria and they actually took them out. They also took bodies and they analyzed them and they actually took all this evidence and they're sharing it with different governments. And again, we're going back to the point where we want to stop the bloodshed. We want to have good negotiations that are going to end up in a transitional period and we're still waiting for those good-faith actions from the Assad side in order for us to engage.

HEADLEE: There are many reports that say members of al-Qaida are fighting with and even training Syrian rebels. John McCain referenced it in that excerpt from the speech he gave at the Brookings Institution. What is your response to Americans who are reluctant to provide support to the Coalition because they're afraid members of the group have ties to al-Qaida?

SALEH: No member from the Syrian Coalition has any ties to al-Qaida. It's an ideology that we reject. We believe it's an ideology that has no chance of surviving in Syria. Now at the same time, there are small numbers of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, that is actually fighting in Syria. But let's put things into perspective. There's about 100,000 Free Syrian Army fighters. Jabhat al-Nusra, at the highest estimates, is anywhere between 4,000 to 5,000, so that is a small percentage. We have the same concerns that the international community has and that's the reason we've established something called the Supreme Military Council. This was established four, five days after the establishment of the coalition.

It contains 85 percent of the fighting brigades on the ground. Now all support that goes into the fighting brigades on the ground goes through the Supreme Military Council. One thing that the Supreme Military Council has done over the past six, six and a half months is it established very clear lines of auditing and monitoring supplies that go in. Any brigade that signs up with the SMC, the Supreme Military Council, first must sign on the bylaws of the Supreme Military Council, saying that we are all fighting to establish a free, democratic Syria. If they find a minor fighting within any of these brigades, anybody under 18, that brigade will be cut off completely supply. If they find a foreign fighter fighting within, with these brigades, they will be cut off supplies.

HEADLEE: Foreign fighter meaning anyone not from Syria?

SALEH: Anybody not from Syria, they will be cut off supply. And they do very constant auditing of these different brigades. So - and the brigades have been very well responding to this because ultimately, they need those supplies. Ultimately, what I tell any of the foreign offices that we meet, the Foreign Ministry, the State Department, it's about providing Syrians with alternatives. We need to support the SMC because that is a viable solution that will help remove Assad and establish a democratic Syria.

HEADLEE: Well, I, I mean, I guess the real big question is - I mean, you've seen what has happened in other countries. You've seen that, despite the aspirations of the people of the countries in Libya and Iraq and even in Tunisia and Egypt, that post-conflict, unexpected things can happen. Chaos can occur. So tell me what your post - let's assume, just for the sake of this question, that there is a post-Assad Syria in store. If Assad leaves the country, if he's no longer in power, what then?

SALEH: So when Assad leaves the country or when he is captured and put on trial, we have a very well-established transition plan that has been put in place. The reality of it - people look at what happened in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and they are a bit worried, and I understand those worries. However, the nature of the Syrian people is a lot different, tremendously different than what you have in Egypt, than what you have in Libya, for example. What we want is we want for the Syrian people to actually have a right to vote. We want them to say, here is how I want the future of Syria to look like. We want them to participate in that. And I think the best guarantee right now is to support the coalition and the SMC to establish that that's the shape of Syria to give equal rights to every Syrian citizen. And that's something that we've been working on with all of our partners.

HEADLEE: Okay, thank you very much. That's Khalid Saleh, the chief spokesman of the Syrian National Coalition, joining me here in Washington, D.C. Khalid Saleh, thank you so much.

SALEH: Thank you for having me.

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