As Syrian Rebels Unite, Intervention Options Increase

Nov 15, 2012
Originally published on November 18, 2012 7:23 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Violence in Syria continues to escalate. Every day thousands of refugee flee into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but for the first time in months, there's an opportunity to form a government in exile that could open room for diplomacy.

So far Turkey, France and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have recognized the newly formed National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States and the European Union have not, at least not yet. And so far it's not clear that this new group can effectively unite the often fractious opposition.

If you have questions about the prospect of this new Syrian rebel coalition, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Anna Witter-Merithew on the role of the face and body in interpreting from spoken English to American Sign Language. And we'll get to Syria shortly, but we begin in Gaza, where exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli forces have escalated into the most serious combat in four years.

After various Palestinian groups fired dozens of rockets across the border, Israel launched a series of air strikes yesterday and began with a missile that killed a top Hamas leader. Edmund Sanders is Jerusalem bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us by phone from Gaza. Thanks very much for being with us.

EDMUND SANDERS: Thanks.

CONAN: And what are you seeing there this evening?

SANDERS: It's actually escalating just in the last hour or two on both sides. Hamas and militants in Gaza really crossed what Israel considered a red line by firing rockets towards Tel Aviv, a city that in the past was seen as sort of off-limits and in many ways out of reach of militants down here. But they have acquired longer-range rockets, and they used them tonight for the very first time.

That seems to have led to a series of air strikes by Israel all around Gaza, including in Gaza City. They've been going on for about the past 45 minutes or so.

CONAN: We're also hearing reports that Israel's defense minister has mobilized reserves there, which could presage a decision to come in on the ground in Gaza.

SANDERS: That's true. I mean, they are - they have said they're going to be massing troops along the border. They haven't said for sure that they'll go in. I think a lot of people would have seen the strike on Tel Aviv as definitely something that would trigger a ground invasion. But complicating matters somewhat is how the international community will react.

Egypt in particular is very concerned about this. The Egyptian president has said he's sending a delegation to Gaza tomorrow to show support for Palestinians in Gaza but in what might also complicate an Israeli ground invasion, if they don't want to do it while the Egyptian prime minister is there.

CONAN: I understand, and as you look around you, are people concerned? Is life going on as normal?

SANDERS: Surprisingly, you know, for most of today, life was very - I wouldn't say it was normal, but there was no sense of a panic. It was a little bit tense, but shops were open, kids were playing soccer in the street. People were getting their hair cut. There were a few signs of, you know, hoarding food and supplies. Some people were moving out of neighborhoods that they consider at risk to be targeted.

But generally it was somewhat of a normal day. Now that will change, of course, as the conflict grows.

CONAN: We've heard that three people were killed in a southern Israeli town from rocket fire from Gaza. What's the casualty toll there in Gaza?

SANDERS: In Gaza today, it reached seven. So that brings the total to 15. Today about three civilians were killed, four militants were killed. So - and that is - it's interesting to note that's far less than the first day of the conflict that they had four years ago. On that day, on the first day of that conflict four years ago, 200 - more than 200 people were killed.

So it's really starting out very slow this time, which I think is a sign that Israel is a little bit concerned about having too high a civilian casualty toll because they came under fire for that last time.

CONAN: We know that Israel started this with an assassination, a missile strike against the Hamas military commander. What do we know of their other targets?

SANDERS: Most of their targets have been, seem to have been, up until now, targeting Hamas offices, training camps, weapons caches, things like that. And they seem to have been selective. Now it's, you know, nighttime here, so I don't know what they've been targeting in the last 45 minutes, and I don't know if that's changes, but they seem to have been very selective.

But that doesn't mean, however, there haven't been civilians who have been killed. In fact, there was a funeral today for an 11-month-old baby who was hit by some shelling in a Gaza City neighborhood that set his house on fire.

CONAN: And the Palestinian rockets are essentially unguided; they fall where they may.

SANDERS: They do. They have some precision, but mostly they are just fired towards - indiscriminately towards populated areas. The vast majority of the time, they don't hit things, and Israel has a very sophisticated missile defense system that can knock out other missiles. But as you mentioned, today there was a very deadly rocket attack on an apartment building that killed three people, and those were the first casualties on the Israeli side in this conflict.

CONAN: And we've also seen something of a propaganda war on Twitter, the Israelis sending out the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. If I were a Palestinian commander, a Hamas commander, I would not show my face above ground over the next few days and Hamas saying Israel has opened the gates of Hell.

SANDERS: It's true, there is - if you log on to Twitter, there is a very vigorous back-and-forth. I mean, most interesting to me, Israel has always had Twitter, you know, but they really seem to have hit their stride in this particular conflict with getting out the information, getting out - debunking rumors. Yesterday there was a rumor that Tel Aviv had been hit, and they debunked that.

Most interesting also is the al-Qassam Brigade, which is a Hamas site, also has a Twitter account, and they've been very active in responding to what Israel is doing, and there's even been a little bit of back and forth. So a big part of this war is playing out on social media.

CONAN: But in the escalation, has there been any indication from either side of a willingness to maybe back down at all?

SANDERS: No, quite the opposite. I would say the rhetoric has been more towards escalating, and some of that could be brinksmanship, but neither side gave any sign of wanting a ceasefire. And I was - among the public, I think in the public on both sides, because of some of these attacks, there's a lot of anger and resolve on both sides to (unintelligible) further, even though, you know, it turned out to be somewhat disastrous four years ago for both sides when this happened.

It was very deadly for Palestinians, and people were very critical of Israel.

CONAN: And that raises a final question: Why now?

SANDERS: The - I think that is a good question. You almost never know those. I'm a little bit stumped on that. I mean, I think that what has happened though is that because of the Arab Spring and because of the changing leadership in Egypt, Hamas has been a little bit more emboldened. They felt that they could be a little bit more aggressive.

They had a ceasefire for most of the last three years, but they've really been attacking Israel and maybe testing Israel, and Israel had decided that now would be the time to let Hamas know that, you know, this is its limit.

CONAN: Elections coming up in Israel, as well. We can't overlook that. But Edmund Sanders, thanks very much for your time this evening.

SANDERS: Thank you.

CONAN: Edmund Sanders, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, with us by phone from Gaza. And let's turn not to NPR correspondent Deborah Amos, who's with us from Beirut. Deb, nice to have you back on the program.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And as Edmund Sanders was saying, everybody's been very watchful of that relationship between Israel and Egypt, the famous peace treaty of course signed all those years ago. Mr. Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said over the past months since his election that he will abide by this treaty. This is his severest test.

AMOS: It is a bedrock of U.S. policy and of regional stability. This is a test for him. What's been interesting today is to watch the president of Egypt also tweeting. There's an information war that's happening here, and he is caught. He's been very cautious today. There are many Egyptians who want him to go further than he did.

It was late in the day that he announced that his foreign minister would be going to Gaza tomorrow. Now, there's some speculation that this could be a masterstroke. If the Israelis back off of a ground attack, assault there because the foreign minister is there, that will look good for Morsi.

He is certainly in no way headed towards breaking that peace treaty, but he has expressed his outrage, his anger, his solidarity with the Palestinian people. We've seen this behavior before from the Turkish prime minister. There is a model for how you deal with Israel when you're angry. You don't go all the way to breaking treaties, but this is normal diplomatic behavior between two states that are on different sides of an argument.

CONAN: It'll be fascinating to see what's going on there in Beirut. Have we heard anything from Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian ally?

AMOS: Not much today. I think the more concern here in Beirut is from the Syrian refugees who are here who know that Gaza and this conflict will overshadow theirs. And this is taking up all the oxygen on the Arab channels. It has been nonstop, wall-to-wall coverage since this began. And, you know, the Syria story has flipped to two, three, four down in the news lineups. People are still dying there, but Gaza is taking everybody's attention.

CONAN: Well, it won't take all of our attention today. We will switch focus to Syria and the prospects of this new Syrian coalition. But I have to begin by asking: There was an exchange of fire on the Golan Heights. At least a couple of times, Israeli forces responded to what appeared to be stray mortar rounds from the Syrian side. And interestingly, this is the first exchange of fire on that front since 1973.

AMOS: Indeed. And the Israelis made it very clear that they weren't kidding. You know, the Turks have been a little bit softer, not so much in the last couple of weeks, in looking the other way at times early in the conflict. The Israelis made it clear, you know, no shooting, no way.

But what is interesting about what is happening on the Golan, I think, is that these villages, these border villages, are now in control of rebel forces on the Golan Heights. And so now Israel is dealing with somebody that they don't know. They say they don't know who those rebel groups are. I'm suspicious of that answer. I think that they probably do know exactly who's on that border and which rebel groups have taken over those villages.

But this is really quite new. We've certainly seen rebels who have taken over villages on the border with Turkey, in fact have taken over two border posts and made those a regular lane in and out of northern Syria and are working on a third. But this is very new in the Golan Heights, very new indeed.

CONAN: And Israel's defense minister I think was up there just the other day and said yes, all those villages are in the hands of the Syrian rebels, and we watched the Syrian military respond with ever-diminishing capability, interesting from the Israeli defense minister there.

Well, Syria, we're going to be talking about the prospects of this new umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. It's being welcomed by France, it's been welcomed by Turkey, it's been welcomed by the members of the Gulf Council. What's its prospects to change the prospects for diplomacy in the Syrian situation? 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 from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces gained further legitimacy today as Turkey joined France and the Gulf Cooperation Council to recognize the coalition of Syrian rebels. And today French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France will ask the EU to think about lifting its arms embargo.

So far, the U.S. has withheld official recognition of the umbrella group, though in a news conference yesterday, President Obama expressed hope that they may have more cohesion than they've had in the past. If you have questions about the prospects for this new Syrian rebel coalition, give us a call, 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.

Our guest is NPR's Deborah Amos. And joining us here in Studio 3A is Amr Al-Azm. He is an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. And we should also mention Amr's father is Syrian and is involved with this new coalition as head of the Syrian Writers Union. It's good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

AMR AL-AZM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And though many were surprised by the formation of this new coalition on Monday, this did not happen overnight. Over months it's appeared the old group, the Syrian National Council, had become increasingly dysfunctional.

AL-AZM: Yes indeed. In fact the Syrian - the SNC or the Syrian National Council had been in a terminal state of decline for quite some time, and then in fact just before the Doha meetings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her announcement that the SNC was finished, basically, that they were no longer really the true representatives of the Syrian people, and this was the setting the stage for the next phase, which came up in Doha.

But really this goes back a little bit further. Back in I believe the end of June when there was the big Cairo meeting that happened there, and it became very clear that the SNC was not going to allow for any improvement or, if you want, development of the new situation that was necessary to take the political, if you want, representation of the opposition to the next stage.

And that required a formation of a (unintelligible) committee from the big meeting in Cairo.

CONAN: That was the Friends of Syria.

AL-AZM: It was very closely followed by the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris. And this is when it - you know, the idea began to come together that maybe they needed a new entity or body, and the Riad Seif plan started to be put together. Over the next few months, I believe Riad Seif then, who is, you know, a very prominent opposition figure, very well-known and also currently the deputy of Moaz al-Khatib, the new head of the - this new coalition.

CONAN: Yet as we look at this new coalition, it not only replaces the Syrian National Council, the SNC, it subsumes it. A large number of representatives of this new council are representatives of the old council.

AL-AZM: Indeed, in fact in some ways you could argue that the new coalition is, in essence, a lifeboat, what becomes a lifeboat for the old SNC ship, which was sinking under the weight of its own, whatever you want to call it, incompetence, inability to achieve the goals and purposes that it was intended to achieve in the first place.

And I just wanted to say that although the SNC started out with the best of intentions, it very quickly ran into a lot of trouble, partly because of the way it was put together, partly because of the lack of experience of those who had put it together.

And for me what is really important is to avoid the same mistakes being repeated because we see similar challenges facing this new coalition, and it's very important that these challenges are addressed quite early on, whilst there is this window for opportunity, whilst we are in this honeymoon, you know, period where I believe Moaz al-Khatib has the opportunity to make the difference.

CONAN: And he is the cleric who is the head of this new council.

AL-AZM: Indeed.

CONAN: Deborah Amos there in Beirut, is this new group being taken seriously?

AMOS: It's been actually taken very seriously. Many Syrians that I saw on the street in the past couple of days are relieved to see what they consider a plausible alternative to Bashar al-Assad and his regime and that it has finally come together. The honeymoon may not last, but certainly young activists were downloading Moaz al-Khatib's first speech, which was Obama-like in its inclusion of all groups, the sadness he expressed over every Syrian soldier who was killed who, you know, were created to protect us and now have turned, but they too are dying.

It was a very hopeful speech for people who don't have much hope about the conflict. We are now close to 35,000 dead and bombing campaigns every day, which people here are watching on television. So that moment in Doha, which no one thought would come because it was quite painful in that week trying to birth this new organization, are very happy.

Now we have to see who supports it on the ground because it's been very clear, and the international community has made it clear, thank you very much, nice group, but can you get support on the ground from not only the activists who are quite keen to see this new secular group but from military commanders.

And can you streamline the funding into the country so that we know who's who and who's on what side?

CONAN: And that Amr Al-Azm, is one of the principal challenges.

AL-AZM: Yes indeed. I think there are a number of challenges, really, that are facing the - this new coalition. One, OK, Moaz seems to be presenting himself as a communicator, and his statements, in fact he's issued two statements, and when you listen to them, they do seem to reach out, and they've been very well-received.

But like any great communicator, there has to be a strategy, a body of advisors, you know, assistants who are able to take and translate and put together policy and implement these things. And, you know, there isn't any of that structure in place.

So, you know, Moaz can communicate only for so long unless an infrastructure is very, very, very quickly put into place. And this is seriously lacking. The other one is the chicken or the egg. Do the - does this new coalition get the necessary recognition and support in order for it to gain the legitimacy it needs to impose its will on the ground, or do we wait for them to demonstrate their ability to impose a will on the ground, impose their will inside and outside and hold it together, and then we give them legitimacy?

And that chicken or the egg situation is really the dilemma that we are facing now and the international community, and we have two options. The French went one way and the U.S. went the other, and we wait to see which is going to work out.

CONAN: And this is not to even ask about the Russians and the Chinese, who will have a role in this before too long because this is going to go to the Security Council, and they will play a critical role once it gets there. But the other question is: Can this new umbrella group form an administration which can then communicate with the forces that Deborah Amos was just talking about inside Syria and effectively command and control the Free Syrian Army, which has been a nice slogan but not much of a unified force?

AL-AZM: I mean, this is the test, and this is why it takes us back to the chicken or the egg situation where, you know, those who put the coalition feel that yes, there are a lot of cracks, yes there are - it's a patchwork coalition. Yes, you know, the seams are showing. Maybe the colors don't quite match right. Maybe, you know, a couple left feet here and there.

But ultimately, if we get the recognition, if this is how they see it, if they get the necessary recognition, that will give them enough momentum forward to be able to roll over these cracks and basically push out a coalition government that can then act in these things in that manner, whereas if the international community then decides no, but you have to work it out for yourself first, then it's going to be much harder, I think, for them.

CONAN: And Deborah, has there been any indication that groups inside Syria, and there are all kinds of groups inside of Syria doing all kinds of things, not just military, that they are going to recognize this coalition as their representatives?

AMOS: Some of the military councils have. We've seen reports that in Homs, near Damascus, in the center of the country, there has been some reports. We asked our translators here to reach out, and the answer we got is we're thinking about it, we'll let you know.

I think there is another interesting point that we need to discuss, and that is the international community has asked and pressured and demanded that the Syrian opposition unite, but they haven't taken that lesson themselves. So you see the Syrian - the Saudi Arabians on one side, the Qataris having another policy, the Turks having a third, the French having a fourth, the United States having a fifth.

And I was stopped on the street today by a Syrian activist who said: What do they want from us? They need to really decide. And I think that it will take the United States, probably the only international actor who can bring all of these allies together finally, and say this is how it's going to be. These funding streams are problematic. It may be too late to streamline them and have them come through this one body. It may be that there will be some rebel groups who will still be able to fund themselves through private donors, and that raises the question of extremist groups, Jihadi groups, radical groups who can get their own funding on the ground. So I think there's a long way to go before we see some coherence in not only the opposition but the international community.

CONAN: Let's get some callers into the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Dan's on the line with us from Boston.

DAN: Hi, guys. Nice to hear everyone, and I am actually calling really quick to ask a question. Deborah, you mentioned about how the U.S. would be the major player that would help with the coalition recognition of the new Syrian government, correct?

AMOS: Not so much the recognition but bringing all of the allies together on the same page so that you don't have arguments.

DAN: (Unintelligible) just regarding actually how in terms of when Syria begins to recognize a new government and how the integration of all these different religious groups are going to play a factor in terms of which side you're going to be leaning towards, whether you have extremists within the Free Syrian Army who are more so - from my perspective and what I've digested so far, it's almost as if some are trying to build a theocracy while others are trying to legitimize and recognize the more free, liberal and less religious type of government.

AMOS: I'm going to talk a little...

DAN: So my question is, how does integration going to work because I feel like there's so much conflict, especially within the Free Syrian Army. You heard about how there's war crimes and things going on like that.

CONAN: Well, Dan, let's Deborah answer.

AMOS: Let's talk - I will talk anecdotally, and Amr is the professor of Middle East history, so he can tell you a whole lot more about the background of Syria. But you are seeing that and certainly in the north. There are times that I worry a little bit about all of our reporting. You know, we can't go everywhere in Syria. We certainly can't roam freely around in Damascus to see what's happening. And just recently we've all been able to cross the border into the north and sort of see what's going on in particular places in Syria. And it may be in the north that there is - there are more Salafis in the north simply because the north is the conservative Muslim part of the country, and also these are the people who are better armed, better trained, are able to cross the border, join the fight. But whether this is the identity of Syria in the long run, I think it's very difficult to say.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos with us from Beirut. We're talking about the formation of a new umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Amr Al-Azm, let's answer that question.

AL-AZM: Yes. Well, look, the taming of the dragon is going to hinge around controlling the flood of money and weapons. The question is, can the U.S. play the role now? And remember, this was the intended role of the SNC all the way back then, and it failed. And now we're back to that same question again. Can the U.S. make the rest of the regional players basically play together, come together, and agree to a coordinated strategy? And that's not very clear because I can tell you right now that the Saudis are not very, very happy. And, you know, they may well decide that they want to continue to channel weapons and funding on their own. The countries may agree to play for a while and then go off on their - so unless you can control that flow of money and weapons, you won't tame the dragon.

So those entities that you're thinking about, that you're asking about, you know, extremists, Salafis or otherwise, ultimately it's all going to be - it's all going to come down to access to resources. You know, you shut down the resources, you control the flow of resources, which is what we've been calling for for a very, very long time, right from the very beginning. And then you gain a grip on this. You let it - you keep it open as it is now and you will keep getting this odd mixture coming up.

CONAN: Deborah, there's also - we've been talking about the relations with the rebel groups inside Syria and the international community and all of those in there, very complicated and very important. But we also keep hearing there's not likely to be any resolution until Alawites, the group that supports the president of Syria and his regime, until Alawites see some resolution for them, some place in the Syria to be. Is there any place in this new national coalition for the Alawites?

AMOS: Certainly more than we saw in the SNC, the opposition group that has been representing the opposition for the last year. They were simply incapable of reaching out to Alawites. And when there have been small numbers of defectors, the old opposition group was never able to open their arms and say, you know, come on. Yes, of course we'll accept you. And as you have gotten more radical elements within the rebels in the north, you have seen rhetoric on safe book pages, and Syrians pay a lot of attention to those pages, you know, talking trash about Alawites in Syria. That has been a problem.

It remains to be seen if this new coalition can be more inclusive. Certainly Mouaz Khatib has a reputation about being an inclusive man. His religious speeches have all been against sectarianism. He has spoken very critically against radicals in the rebel's ranks. And so he is beginning that dialogue, but there is so much more work to be done to convince the Alawites that they are not in an existential fight with the Syrian Revolution.

AL-AZM: Yes. You're quite right, Deborah, in saying that Mouaz al-Khatib's, you know, statements have all been aimed at trying to bridge that gap. But also remember that bringing in Riad Seif as a deputy, bringing in Suhair al-Atassi as a deputy, these are people who are not known for being sectarian or for being, you know, hardline when it comes to - you know, such issues. And also having - even putting George Sabra as head of the SNC, that was a very smart move on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, who essentially control the SNC.

But really the question is not about whether these guys can create the necessary narrative right now, because it's gone past the political representation. Really now, can that narrative be translated back onto the ground, onto the people who are actually doing the fighting and convince them that they need to be part of this process, that they need to adopt this new narrative? This has been one of the greatest failings, in my opinion, of the opposition, that they never really addressed the issue of minorities, the issue of the Alawites, the issue of, you know, the fears of the Christians and so on and so forth, and it was left basically hanging there. And now this is going to come back and, I think, haunt us.

CONAN: There is also the question of time as more and more die and as this becomes, at least in some parts of the country, more and more of a sectarian struggle. Amr Al-Azm, thank you very much for your time today.

AL-AZM: Thank you.

CONAN: Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Also with us, Deborah Amos in Beirut. Deborah, as always, thanks very much for your time.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.