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Syria's President Assad Pressed To Open Dialogue


This week, the world watched as Tunisia held its first free and democratic election. Last week, the 42-year dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi ended in airstrikes and gunfire. Meanwhile, the cycle of protest and crackdown continues in Syria. Activists reported at least nine civilian deaths today, while state television reported that tens of thousands packed a square in Damascus to support President Bashar al-Assad. Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly will join us in just a moment.

We'd also like to hear your questions about what's going on in Syria. 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. Liz Sly joins us now from Beirut. Nice to have you with us today.

LIZ SLY: Hello.

CONAN: And I understand you just returned from five days in Syria. It's been very difficult for foreign correspondents to get to stay even half a day.

SLY: That's right. I did manage to spend about 24 hours there in July, but otherwise, I've been leaning on the Syrian authorities for a visa since February. And finally last week, they said I could go.

CONAN: And how were you - was this one of those trips like that one in July where you were constantly attended by a government minder?

SLY: Well, I wasn't actually constantly attended by a government minder in July. I went to attend a conference, which they said we could cover, but nothing much was going on, on the day I arrived. And I wandered off, and they hashed(ph) the U.S. Embassy, and that was, of course, very newsworthy, so I wandered over there, interviewed people, walked around. And they didn't even find out until the next day.

CONAN: And this time?

SLY: This time, it was very, very different. I was shepherded everywhere, escorted everywhere, and it was made clear to me that I wasn't supposed to leave the hotel on my own.

CONAN: And were you able to do so nevertheless?

SLY: I tried. I tried.

CONAN: There was a tweet from your second day in Damascus: A quick spin through some upscale Damascus cafes. Gadhafi was insane. We love Bashar. Libya is different from Syria. Was that the sentiment you were getting throughout your trip?

SLY: Yes. It certainly was. I mean, it was a - I mean, I saw quite a lot of different facets of what's going on in Syria during this trip. But one thing I certainly picked up is that there is quite a lot of support for Bashar in Damascus. I don't think this was being put on for the sake of the government people who were with me. And when people spoke English, he stepped away, anyway. People were very happy to volunteer how much they love Bashar and how much they hate Americans for interfering in their country.

CONAN: And interference, the most recent example of that, Ambassador Ford, who was recalled from Damascus to Washington and the State Department said it was afraid for his safety after what they described as rent-a-mobs put him in jeopardy.

SLY: That's right. When - a sign - I think that's a real sign of how tense things are between Syria and America that the U.S. just felt it wasn't safe to keep Ford in Damascus anymore.

CONAN: In the meantime, of course, the Syrian ambassador, tit for tat, was recalled for consultations in Damascus. So there is no official representation at the highest level in either capital at the moment. But the Syrian government has more problems than its relations with Washington.

SLY: Well, the Syrian government has an enormous number of problems, one of which is a revolt that - it's not gone away after eight months. Perhaps just as worrying from the point of view of most of the ordinary Syrians I spoke to is the rather dire state of the economy, which is in a bit more of a critical state than we might have imagine from the fairly limited sanctions that have been imposed so far. But they seem to have had a huge psychological effect, as has the unrest of the past eight months, and people really described some very dire economic conditions indeed.

CONAN: How is that manifesting itself?

SLY: Well, at the moment, it's not manifesting itself in sort of anything dramatically, like sort of hunger or desperation or anything, but people seem very anxious about the future. I mean, the - I really only saw - most of my time I spent in Damascus and the capital is a little bit of a bubble. It has been somewhat immune from the unrest that's plagued much of the rest of the country, but people there are certainly very anxious about the future. They don't really know what's coming next - and it's the economy that makes them really worried.

CONAN: And the other stronghold for the government is the other major city, Aleppo. But elsewhere the protests continue unabated, and there has been the formation of a national council to represent the Syrian opposition. They're based in Turkey. Are they getting much support?

SLY: Are they getting much...

CONAN: Support.

SLY: Well, you've got really a different situation between Damascus and the rest of the country, and there are different situations in all of the rest of the country. This really is a revolt of the provinces against the center, and it's a revolt, really, of the working classes against the elite. And I wasn't really able to go and spend time among those people who are part of this revolution because I wasn't able to move around freely. And certainly among - but certainly, from all the protesters I've talked to and from what we know from the videos, the Syrian National Council does have huge support on the ground among the protest movement. They have attached themselves to this as a great source of hope.

And in the capital there, I found many people still supporting the government, or at least uncertain - there's a kind of aversion to the Syrian National Council because they feel it's being imposed from abroad. They're representing foreigners, and there's this huge, like, fear that there's a conspiracy against Syria by foreigners to invade it and take it over like Libya and Iraq.

CONAN: In the meantime, there had been talk of what had been largely a peaceful protest movement thus far, that after more than 3,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations, it was time to take up arms.

SLY: A lot of protesters are calling for arms. They're very frustrated, they're extremely demoralized that they've not succeeded, really, in denting this government at all in the eight months of peaceful protests. And a lot of people are saying only weapons will do the job. And we are seeing a lot of signs that that is happening in the protest areas, not all over the country, not every place where people have protested certainly. But in Homs, it's clearly, clearly become a militarized situation and almost sort of low-level civil conflict situation, and in parts of the northern province of (unintelligible) and Hama as well, you're getting reports of guerilla attacks and bombings on a daily basis.

CONAN: As you know, the government has maintained all along that its troops are the victims of armed gangs. Does not - do not these kind of attacks, as they develop, play into the government's hands?

SLY: Well, that's the big fear that a lot of people have, is that this really will then justify the government's use of very harsh tactics to crack down, and a lot of people are saying, please don't let's go down the route of armed resistance, armed rebellion, because there really isn't much chance if the protesters will get enough arms quickly enough to confront the government anyway. And in the process, the government will use this to justify even harsher measures.

CONAN: We're talking with Liz Sly, the Washington Post foreign correspondent, with us from Beirut. She returned from a five-day visit to Damascus and other parts of Syria earlier this week. 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. Let's get Carl(ph) on the line, Carl with us from San Jose.

CARL: Yeah. I was in Aleppo myself years ago, and I found a great, great welcome, great - just people - they're so friendly and liking and doing everything for me. And when this started like seven months ago, I felt like immediately the West - the U.S. should just send cruise missiles into the palaces of the dictators there in Damascus because the government is just not going to do anything except shoot people. I mean, they have no - and these sanctions and talking, talking and scolding the dictator, it's not going to do anything. What do you think would happen if the West just decided we're going to send drones and cruise missiles and we're just not going to let them shoot people at will? We're going to target their, you know, these Americans in the West, they know how to target people. They could target their palaces and other things just to let them know that they just can't do this.

CONAN: The aerial intervention in Libya, of course, followed a United Nations Security Council resolution, which in turn followed a resolution by the Arab League. Liz Sly, neither of those things likely to be coming up in the Syrian context.

It's just so hard to imagine that happening in Syria because Syria is so different from Libya. Gadhafi was a madman. He had no friends. He was widely regarded as (unintelligible) lots of Arab countries were willing to dumb him, and the West was willing to turn against him.

SLY: Bashar al-Assad sits in a very, very strategic area of the Middle East. It's the crossroad of multiple simmering conflicts in the region. He's next door to Islam. He's next door to Iraq. He's next door to Turkey. He has an alliance with Iran. He sponsors Hezbollah. He's on good terms with Hamas, although that's a little strange. And several people I spoke to, they're very(ph) frightened that if any dares to attack Syria, they will attack Israel and Iran, and Hezbollah will join in the fight.

CONAN: So a regional conflict would ensue if there was intervention, at least that's the fear.

SLY: Yes.

CONAN: And as you look at...

SLY: And I think that's why you're seeing the West be much, much cautious over Syria than they have been over any of the other Arab revolts.

CONAN: We're talking with Liz Sly of the Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I needed to ask you a question about the internal support for the government of Syria. Of course the president and his family are Alawites, which is a minority sect. We are told that other minorities, Christians and Kurds, support the president in their power because they fear what might happen if he was removed from power.

SLY: Well, it's true that a lot of Christians are supporting the current government precisely because they fear what would happen if he was removed. One thing, Bashar, I think, has been known for over the past decade and his father before him was enforcing a kind of - quite rigid form of secularism. They've always been extremely fierce with Islamic fundamentalists.

And a lot of the minorities in Syria are concerned that if the protesters - if the protest movement was empowered, it would be majority Sunni because the majority of the country is Sunni Muslims, and that they would end that secularism for which Syria - on which Syria has prided itself for quite a long time. So yes, it's true. Many of the minorities are leaning more towards the government than they are towards the protesters.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Chip, and Chipper with us from the Amargosa Valley in Nevada.

CHIP: Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air, Chip. Go ahead.

CHIP: Yes. Well, I'm wanting to know what kind of government - I mean, you said with the Kurds and everyone is afraid of - is that what's happening? Do you think that's what will happen after - if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown? And is that what's happening in Libya, in Egypt right now? Are we going to have, like, hard-line Muslims and Sharia law in the area? Is it going to be, like, worse than it was under the dictators?

CONAN: Liz Sly, can you...

SLY: I don't think there's any evidence at the moment that this is an Islamic revolution at all. What it is, it's a revolution, as I said, mostly for provinces, mostly of the poor and working classes, and it's a revolution of frustration and anger. There are, undeniably, some Islamists among them, and they - they have – they haven't really - they made themselves (unintelligible) but it is certainly possible that some form of Islamic politics would come to the fore if there was democracy in Syria. But that's something, I think, we're going to see all over the region, and as you said, in Tunisia, in Libya and in Egypt it's quite clear that Islamist parties are being empowered by their democracy. I don't think that means they're going to have Sharia and Islamic law. There are some very moderate Islamist parties that speak in the name of Islam but don't want to impose those kind of things.

CONAN: Chip, thanks very much for the call. As we continue to look ahead, you spoke about the frustration that fuels the protest movement. But as you also said, they are going to be increasingly frustrated that they seemed to be making no great headway at this point.

SLY: Yes. I think there's a huge amount of frustration. And also, with some of the activists I speak to there's a huge amount of despair as well because they were very optimistic following Tunisia and Egypt that this would, you know, it was only a matter of time. You only had to go onto the streets and march around and make a lot of noise, and the government would fall, and that's not happening in Syria. And it doesn't seemed that there's any likelihood it's going to happen anytime soon.

CONAN: The power resides, perhaps, in the armed forces. Is there any suggestion that the revolt has, in any way, spread to the armed forces?

SLY: We have seen defections from the army, and there are battles taking place in different places between defectors from the army and the regular army. And they have formed a group recently called the Free Syrian Army, which is claiming lots of the attacks that place and coming(ph) to represent a rebel army, if you like. The evidence of them actually achieving any kind of critical mass that were enough to make a difference to the balance of power in the country, it's just not there. They just seemed to be very small groups of defectors who kind of run away in tiny groups because they don't agree with what's happened or they don't want to shoot protesters. And they put up a fight in some places, but there's not really a lot of evidence that this is gaining ground or taking off.

CONAN: So is this likely to continue at the level of nine people being killed a day?

SLY: I think at the moment it is, unfortunately. Yes. We're going to see any - I don't see any sign that anybody is prepared to give way on anything at the moment. The regime thinks it's winning, and there are some signs that it is. And the opposition is in some ways in disarray. They haven't really got their act together. It's taken them an awfully a long time to form this council that they did form earlier this month. Since then they haven't really come up with any clear positions on anything. They haven't spelled out what they would do if they took power, and that too is deterring some of those people who aren't quite sure what side they're on from actually joining the opposition. They prefer to stick with what they know to the uncertainty of what might take place if the regime fell.

CONAN: Liz Sly, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

SLY: Thank you.

CONAN: Liz Sly, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, just back to Beirut after five days in Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.