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Few Good Options Remain To End Syrian Attacks


Countries around the world expelled Syrian diplomats today, explaining that the representatives of a country that slaughters its own people are not welcome. United Nations observers confirmed the massacre of over 100 men, women and children, many of them children, in the village of Houla last Friday. U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus today to demand that his government abide by a cease-fire agreement that now lies in bloody taters.

Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the massacre but imposed no new sanctions, and violence spread across the border into Lebanon. Joining us now by phone from his home in Beirut is Rami Khouri. He directs the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and serves as editor-at-large for the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. And, Rami Khouri, always good to have you with us today.

We're trying to get Rami Khouri on the line from Beirut and to talk about the latest developments in Syria. And again, Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy, was in Damascus today to meet with the Syrian president. This is, of course, Bashar al-Assad. In the meantime, we'll get Rami Khouri on the phone as soon as we can. In the meantime, joining us is Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, with us from KGOU, our member station in Norman, Oklahoma. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, it's wonderful to be here.

CONAN: All right. How does this outrage change things?

LANDIS: Well, it is sharpening the lines of sectarian lines in Syria. Obviously, the international community has done most of what it can, but it doesn't want to enter into Syria directly - no direct military intervention. But the West is increasingly supplying aid, money, and the Gulf Arabs are supplying arms and money to the Syrian opposition. And that's going to cause things to heat up, and I think the death rate to increase in the future because we're committed to regime change in Syria. We don't want to do it ourselves, but we're going to arm the opposition to destroy the Syrian military...

CONAN: And when...

LANDIS: ...and that's where we're headed.

CONAN: You talked about sectarian conflict. This village of - really a group of villages but surrounded by a group of largely Shia villages, surrounded by Alawite villages. And confirmation today again from U.N. sources that many of the killings were carried out by paramilitary thugs - Alawites, supporters of the president.

LANDIS: Absolutely. And you see, as the revolution have spread, the military has become too thin on the ground, especially in this area around Homs, where we've seen so much revolutionary activity. So what the regime has started to do is arm the villages. They've just passed out machine guns and other light arms to the villagers in the neighborhood. And we've had a series of tit-for-tat strikes now, and that's undoubtedly what's happened is that these shabihas - these irregular forces that are using local strongmen descended on this village and wiped it out.

And that's what seems to happen. And we don't have a completely clear picture. The government has been printing on its website - SANA news agency - pictures of other massacres in - of kids killed in other villages outside of Homs. They don't say the religion of them, but theoretically, they're trying to make a case that this is becoming part of a, you know, part of a wider war. And I don't know if that's true. If this is just out of the blue - striking at this village - but it's - we're on a downward spiral toward civil war on an ethnic basis where no hold seems to be barred and the savagery is going to go off the charts.

CONAN: And both sides clearly are going to have access to, well, one side already has access to some of the most sophisticated...

LANDIS: Yes, the government.

CONAN: ...military equipment in the world. The other side is going to be getting it.

LANDIS: They are. They're getting it. And the word from various people in the Syrian National Council is that the Saudis and so forth have gotten arms through Turkey into the Idlib area in the north, and that they're getting through in Jazira. That's the eastern area from Iraq through the tribal links. And that there are about 50, 60 militias operating in Syria today - opposition militias. And nobody knows which are the strongest, who are the most capable. And the word is that they've got to go out and prove themselves. And what we're going to see is an increasing heating up of this struggle.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, stay with us if you will. We do have Rami Khouri back on the line. He'll be joining us after we return. After a short break, we're going to be focusing on Syria. What are the options in Syria now after hundreds are killed in a brutal massacre. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right now, we're talking with Joshua Landis about the crisis in Syria and how calculations on all sides have changed following last week's massacre and continued violence over this weekend. If you have questions about the calculations in Damascus, in Washington, in Moscow and in Ankara, give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can email talk@npr.org. Joining us now, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large for the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, with us from his home in Beirut. And nice to have you with us, Rami.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.

CONAN: And so it is the U.N. envoy, Kofi Annan, in Damascus today who says after his meeting with the president, Bashar al-Assad, this could be a tipping point.

KHOURI: Well, clearly, it's a tipping point. I mean, the response of the moral outrage from people all over the Middle East and the world has been much greater than anything we've seen before in Syria, and the very quick response of major governments pulling their ambassadors out of Syria or kicking the Syrian ambassador, asking them to leave their countries is symbolic of how strong people feel about this. It's also a reflection of how frustrated they are because they can't really do much beyond these symbolic gestures.

And this is what everybody is focusing on now - from Kofi Annan to Ban Ki- moon to the American, European and other leaders. What did the Arab leaders - what can they do to bring this crisis to an end, and hopefully peacefully, with some kind of negotiated transition or to a democratic government or just to get rid of the Assad regime and let the Syrians figure out how to replace it. There's just no easy option, and people are as frustrated as they are outraged.

CONAN: And that is the approach that the administration has been talking about using the Yemen model that you talked the president into leaving power, leaving his vice president or some other figure as a transitional president and then try to negotiate with the opposition. It's having some rocky progress, if progress at all, in Yemen. And there seems to be no indication that President Assad would be, in any case, willing to adopt that in Syria.

KHOURI: Well, he's certainly not willing to consider it now. You can't rule it out. You know, this is a very changing situation, and week by week, conditions change. There's a huge emphasis now on helping the opposition groups inside the country and outside; diplomatic, economic, political and military and logistical support. So the opposition is going to get - have a better strategy. It's going to be probably more focused. They're not going to take on the Syrian military head on, but they'll - you'll find more guerilla attacks, assassinations, blowing up of strategic or symbolic targets to really drain the confidence of these people who are in Syria supporting the regime and to try to weaken the pillars of the regime, which is happening slowly, but the key pillars, the Alawites and the security services are still very much with the regime.

But there's a lot of change going on and will continue to change. So what you have today is not necessarily what you'll have in a month or in three months. I think the - they want to keep - the reason people want to keep the Annan plan, the U.N. plan on the table, even though it's not really achieving very much at all, but it still remains an opportunity to negotiate some kind of mechanism for a transfer of power and transition. But that will only happen if Assad feels that the game is up and he's like Ali Abdullah Saleh did in Yemen, that he has no opportunity to stay in power.

All his people are against him. The world is against him. The region is against him with one or two exceptions only. But he hasn't reached that point yet. So I think the Annan option is an option down the road potentially, but not now.

CONAN: In the meantime, Joshua Landis, Rami Khouri was talking about the pillars of the regime. They include the Alawite community, and they include the security services, and some of those forces are very much based on Alawites as well. They seemed to have nowhere else to go.

LANDIS: No, they don't And I think what we are seeing is this sort of gentle - not so gentle slip towards civil war. The pillars of the regime, as Rami said, are growing very thin, and they're weak reeds, indeed. The cooking gas, for example, costs about 40, $50 if you can find it for just one of these blue tanks that go into your kitchen. Wheat is not getting in, energy not getting in. Syrians are going to begin to starve, and the state can't resupply. Sanctions are taking hold, and the chaos of civil war means that transportation within the country extremely difficult. So prices have been screaming up. This is all causing the country, in a sense, to shutter, and the military is spread thin.

So we're - the Assad regime is relying more and more on the Shabiha. These are irregular troops that are being drafted in, because as semi-regulars defect for the military at the very bottom, the military has to counter-balance that. And they're bringing in - they're arming villagers, and they're bringing more Alawite irregular troops in in order to do the heavy lifting and to - and that means we're increasingly getting more sectarian with Sunni rebels against this Alawite - increasingly Alawite military effort.

And that's where we're headed, and in many ways, that is the strategy of the West today, faute de mieux, because they are - they want to have regime change. They don't want to do it themselves. And so they're going to arm the opposition, and it's, in a sense, regime change through civil war. And we've got to brace ourselves, I think, for more of this, but it's moving in the direction of more capable opposition, I suppose.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, if there's one place nearby Syria with lot of sad experience with civil war, it is Lebanon. And there are aspects of the Syrian violence that are spilling over there too.

KHOURI: Yeah, there are aspects of it, especially in the north, in Tripoli, but there's also a lot of the - many of the incidents recently in Lebanon are homegrown incidents but would have happen with or without the situation in Syria. But Syria is clearly aggravating some of the existing tensions, especially in the north where you have Alawites who are with - in Tripoli in the north where you have Alawites who are with Syria, with the government. And you have many Sunnis and others who are against the Syrian government. So there's tensions there, but they've had those tensions for years, going back before the civil strife started in Syria.

And the Lebanese don't need external stimuli to - unfortunately, they don't need external stimuli to have political battles or occasionally shoot-em-ups in the street, which is part of this country's modern history, unfortunately. The good news is that these things tend to be contained very quickly. And it's quite impressive in the last two or three weeks that when every time - every time there was a breakdown of some kind of shooting or tension, that the big political leaders immediately expect it and said, you know, stop this, including, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah, and then the Saudi king spoke out, Saad Hariri, the leader of Sunnis, spoke out. And the army is being used much more effectively to go in and quickly calm down things when they happen.

So, I mean, yeah, there is spillover from Syria, but I personally believe that it'll be limited, that the Lebanese are not stupid enough to allow themselves to fight a proxy civil war for somebody else, and they've had their civil war. They're not going to have another one.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, another place directly involved in this is Moscow, the new Russian president, the once and future Russian president, Vladimir Putin, he is Syria's most important ally, at least, you know, in - except for Iran.

LANDIS: Yes, he's a protector right now. And, you know, a lot of people - I think American foreign policy is, right now, pushing hard on Russia and trying to get Russia to flip and abandon Assad. I don't think it's going to happen. What the Russians has said is they condemn the violence. They say that they're not glued on Assad, and that they would like a peaceful transition. The trouble is there's no peaceful transition in sight. So in a sense, they're throwing the ball back into the Western court by saying, you bring us a consolidated opposition, which doesn't exist in Syria today, that will negotiate with the government for a peaceful transfer, and we'll look at it seriously. But that option isn't there because the head of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella group that America had been dealing with, just resigned as a leader of it, and there isn't another leader.

There's lots of factions within the Syrian National Council battling each other. There will be elections next week for a new leader, but there are about 50 militias on the ground. And at this point, the United States is beginning to try to make contact with each of those militias to figure out which ones are going to be the winners, which ones are more pro-Western and less Salafi because they don't want, you know, to produce another al-Qaida like they did in Afghanistan as they arm up the opposition.

So it's a delicate balancing game for the West. They don't really know what they're dealing with with the opposition yet because the opposition is so fragmented and that plays into the hands of the regime. So we can condemn it and what's happening there, but we really don't know how to change the balance of power.

Saudi Arabia is putting arms and money into the opposition as we are trying to strangle through sanctions with the Syrian government. And that's changing the balance of power slowly. But it's a hard thing to do rapidly if you're not going to bomb from the air, which is what we did in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. So we don't want to get into that because if we destroy the state in Syria, we're going to end up with all these militias, and the danger is is that you could get a real-life civil war with a death rate increases and doesn't decrease. And then America would be on the hook for fixing it, and Syria is a big country, 24 million people, very hard to fix.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at University of Oklahoma, with us from KGOU, our member station in Norman. Also with us, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, also editor-at-large for the Beirut-based Daily Star. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a question in. This is Matthew. Matthew with us from Portage in Michigan.

MATTHEW: Hi, Neal. I was wondering what the chances that we'll see Turkish military intervention over the coming months just (unintelligible) this escalation. I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Matthew. Thanks very much. And, Rami Khouri, that's another very important player in this game.

KHOURI: Yes. Turkey is an important player. It keeps kind of evolving its role. It was at one point very close to the Syrians and was sending high-level envoys talking to the Syrian president, hoping to get Syria to - this was like six, eight months ago - to moderate its position and its response in the early days and that completely failed.

And then the Turks became more disappointed and then started speaking out, saying they support the people of Syria, and now have been playing host to the Syrian - Free Syrian Army. So their position has evolved over the years, over the last year and a half. But it would really take a, probably, some kind of direct strike against Turkey for the Turks to actually get involve militarily. They're giving it a lot of support, the refuge, the refugees and the Syrian rebels and allowing arms and things to get through to them from there, but I don't think they're going to take direct action against Syria. That would really surprise me.

The only possible way that might happen is if we get to a situation where the daily death toll was like 300 or 500 people were being killed every day in Syria, which is possible, then you might see military intervention. But I think, short of that, that's not going to happen soon.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, some are concerned if that Free Syrian Army starts using Turkish territory as a sanctuary and maybe there's some sort of incident, cross border, hot pursuit, that sort of thing.

LANDIS: It could happen. You know, I think that both sides are very leery of each other. The Turks do not want to get sucked in. They've got a 500-mile border with Syria. They have lots of minorities themselves. The Kurds are being used by the Syrians against the Turkey. It is a potential Vietnam for Turkey. They do not - they've looked into getting involved, but they have made it very clear the only way that they're going to get involved directly in Syria militarily is if American goes in first and commits to be the leader in really doing Syria. And America has said, we're not doing that. We've done it in Afghanistan. We've done in Iraq. And we're going broke and we're getting out of the Middle East. That's Obama's line: getting out, not in.

And so Turkey is hanging back. And everybody has been in a you-first situation. We've tried to get the Saudis involved, the Turks. We want everybody else to do the heavy lifting because we're sick and tired of it. And they're all looking at us and say, well, we're not going to get in there and get stuck in a swamp if America doesn't commit because America has got the airpower, they got the money. Yeah, that's the situation.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Ashkan(ph). Ashkan with us from Charlotte.

ASHKAN: Hi. I was wondering if your guests could elaborate about the Iranian government which has been helping the Syrian government by spending arms and also militia to continue murdering their own people.

CONAN: What's the involvement of Iran, clearly an important ally of Damascus, Joshua Landis?

LANDIS: Well, Iran has certainly been helping financially. Iran has a lot at stake because as soon as Syria falls, all eyes are going to be focused on Iran and the regime change, sort of, rhetoric will heat up for Iran. So Iran wants to keep Syria as a bulwark and the focus of this attention.

Now, whether they're sending troops in there to fight alongside them, we haven't seen any real evidence of that. There have been some indications. They're certainly sending experts, advisers, all sorts of things to try to help the Syrians with the computer, which they know a lot about. They're helping with money. They're sending arms. They're doing everything they can. I don't think they've sent in troops yet because that would - if Iranian troops started getting killed in the battlefield - and there have been many claims they have been, but nobody has proven it - that would be another step undermining the Syrian government to make it a, you know, collaboration with foreign troops.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, the other player in the game is Iran's and Syrian's ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

KHOURI: Yes. Neal, I was just going to say, when you talk about Iran and Syrian, Hezbollah, you're really talking about a group of people who - group of entities that work together and see themselves very much as a front. They call themselves a resistance and deterrence front and things like that, and resisting in what they see as Israeli aggression. There are also Western American-led imperial encroachment and predatory plans, et cetera and public standards and all these things. And that (unintelligible) worked quite well for about 15 or 20 years, but now is becoming more brittle. So you have to look at the situation Syria vis-a-vis both Hezbollah and Iran. And Hezbollah is one of the great foreign policy successes of Iran in the Middle East, one of the few foreign policies successes. And Syria, the alliance with Syria is another one.

So weakening Syria is seen - that's one of the reasons why the Gulf countries are working with the opposition of Syria, they want to weaken Syria. They want to break that (unintelligible) with Iran. They want to weaken Iran. If this happens, Hezbollah finds itself in a rather more isolated situation. And Hezbollah is very smart and they know this, and they're clearly planning options: If this happens, what are they going to do? They are not going to just sit around and watch this in Al Jazeera and CNN. They're going to, say, they're planning a bit, some strategic options. They're still supporting the Shiite government. They're probably look for another alternative ways to have - hook up with Iran for...

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Rami Khouri, as always, thanks very much for your time. And thanks as well to Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma and KGOU in Norman. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.