NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that the peace plan for Syria is not dead yet, but he may be alone in that view. Syrian forces continue to bombard and besiege cities they were supposed to have left by today, and after incidents on the borders of Lebanon and Turkey yesterday, a Turkish government spokesman said the conflict has entered a new stage.
Some believe we're on the cusp of a bloody civil war. Others worry about an even wider regional conflict. Some call for Libya-style intervention, and if Russia and China continue to block action by the U.N. Security Council for a coalition of the willing, where does this conflict end?
800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, why we continue to tell and retell the story of the Titanic 100 years on. Underwater explorer Robert Ballard will join us.
But first, what's next for Syria? We begin with Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, editor at large of the Daily Star. He joins us from his home in Beirut, and it's nice to have you back on the program.
RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you.
CONAN: In refusing to bury his six-point plan, Kofi Annan asked a rhetorical question in Turkey today: If this plan is not still on the table, what is? And that's a pretty good question.
KHOURI: Well, if the plan gets nowhere, then we're going to see a continuation of what we've seen in the last 10 months or so, which is escalating violence by several parties, the government, those in the opposition who are armed, who are very, very few, and then massive peaceful demonstrations by the majority of people who are opposing the government.
And stepped up involvement by a whole range of regional and international parties that are either trying to wind this thing down and find a political solution, get rid of the Assad regime for some people, and of course other people to escalate the resistance by the opposition by arming them and training them and funding them. And that's already started.
So we're likely to see a continuation of this trend until somebody cracks. And the government would possibly crack at some point if the economy goes bust, which is possible in some months. Or the opposition might crack at some point. That's less likely because the trend has been to have bigger and bigger demonstrations and more and more determined resistance.
And now that they're getting Saudi and Gulf funding, the armed - the army, resistance army fighting the government will be more organized, better equipped, better trained, and hopefully with a more coherent political agenda. So that's the trend that I think we're likely to see, and it's what we've seen in the last four or five months.
CONAN: We saw yesterday a Lebanese journalist shot and killed from across the border. We saw shots fired from Syria into Turkey, injuring several people there. This is - could this get even wider?
KHOURI: Possibly a little bit, but I don't think this is going to morph into a regional conflict. I think these are signals, possibly, that the Syrians are sending. There has been border tension for some time in Lebanon and Turkey, not so much directly. But the political deterioration, relations between Syria and Turkey, has been profound in the last five months.
And the Turks are now openly calling for the Assad regime to leave. So these are - you know, this is part of the language of confrontation and determination and militarization that the Syrians use. It's not going to really result in anything other than to firm up the determination of the Turks and others to get rid of the regime.
CONAN: In a piece you wrote that came out just the other day, you said it's common for people in the Middle East and overseas to view this conflict in Syria through any number of lenses, including an Iranian-Saudi proxy war or the conservative Arab monarchies versus Arab populist revolutionary and democracy movements and - or pro-American hegemony or anti-American resistance.
You take another view. You describe this piece as the counter-revolution in full swing.
KHOURI: Well, yes, the counter-revolution is wider than just what's going on in Syria. You know, what's happening in Egypt, to some extent, you've got, you know, Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, running for president if he's allowed to do so. You've got this new bizarre organization - well, I think it's bizarre, the security cooperation forum that the American government and the six GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the wealthy oil states just created, and Hillary Clinton was there launching it about five, six days ago.
This is probably the biggest sign we have that there is now going to be significant attempts to dampen down most of the serious revolutions around the region, like in Bahrain, for instance, and in Egypt and other places.
But at the same time, some people, like the American government, seem to be supporting the rebels against the Syrian government. So there's a lot of confusion. There's a lot of contradiction. But that's how politics works. I mean, this is, when you get politics on a global scale, these contradictions happen.
But the counter-revolution is there also with the Russians and the Chinese and the Syrian government and the Iranian government trying to beat back the revolt in Syria, in Yemen and Bahrain. So this is now a full-fledged counter-revolution across the region in different forms and different guises with different players.
And some of them, like the American government, supporting some revolutionaries and supporting anti-revolutionaries in other places.
CONAN: Supporting, in short, their interests.
KHOURI: Yeah, well, their interests, but without any consistency and often without any principles. But again, that's how politics works, and people in the Arab world do the same thing. We can, you know, make the same accusations against people in the Arab world or in Israel or some other countries. So this is nothing peculiar to the United States, but it's peculiar to the exercise of power.
And this is one of the reasons people are rising up and trying to overthrow their governments, because they don't want to be treated on the basis of double-standards, of hypocritical, self-serving, expedient, whimsical political decisions by big governments far away who decide that one Arab people should be free and another Arab people should not be free.
We've had enough of this. People have put up with it for three generations, and they want to, you know, to have something closer to Belgium or Switzerland or even the United States, where people can more or less live a decent life knowing that there's a single standard of law that applies to everybody.
And these kinds of double-standards will keep eliciting greater and greater reaction. So the counter-revolution will elicit greater revolutionary forces or rebellions, at least, and uprisings across the region.
CONAN: Let's get back to Syria and what you talked about, the rule of law. Joining us now, Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division for Human Rights Watch. He worked on a recent report entitled "In Cold Blood" and joins us now from his home in Beirut. And it's good to have you with us tonight.
NADIM HOURY: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And your report details mass killings. We've heard so much about the violence, and we've also heard how difficult it is to get confirmed reports of what happens. Your report details witnesses, eyewitness accounts of cold-blooded executions by Syrian government forces and Syrian government-sponsored militia of civilians, of injured fighters, many people, hundreds of people in the streets.
HOURY: Correct. I mean it is a challenge to gather information from Syria, but there are ways around it. For example, for this report all the cases we included were based on in-person interviews with people who managed to leave, sometimes days after the killing, to neighboring countries like Lebanon and Turkey.
Some of them were wounded and left to die but actually survived and were carried over the border. (technical difficulty) obviously corroborate information from multiple sources. The finding - you know, we focus on around 103 people who were killed over the last two months after the Syrian army retook their neighborhood or their town.
And they were killed not during fighting, not during shelling but actually in cold blood, either after they were found, you know, in the case of some of the fighters wounded, and they were shot point-blank, and we've had, you know, sometimes friends of these fighters who survived who told us the tale.
But also in other cases it was mostly civilians who remain in opposition strongholds like Baba Amr, like certain parts of Idlib, like Saraqeb in the north. And when the army went in, particularly the (unintelligible), we don't know which one, but basically one of the government forces went into that town, you know, these people were killed and were found often with bullets in their heads or in their bodies, shot at close range.
CONAN: And what does it say when these executions are carried out in broad daylight in front of witnesses?
HOURY: Look, I think it says two things. One, it is a testament to the absolute impunity under which the Syrian security forces and the Shabiha, this pro-government militia, have been operating under. And two, I think it is not - it is to send a message to the opposition and particularly to the opposition fighters that this will be your fate if you continue to oppose the government.
There's a clear attempt in Syria today to re-establish that wall of fear, to scare people back into their homes, to get them to stop the protests. I don't think it will be successful, but it's clearly, the regime is using the tactics that it has used in the past, which is shock and awe people and force them into accepting, you know, the rule of the Assads.
CONAN: And these are, as you describe them, war crimes. Would it be - would indictments on war crimes make it, the political situation, better or worse? Would it make people dig in their heels?
HOURY: I think - I mean they have already dug in their heels. I think justice is very important for the future of Syria and to ensure any stability. You know, these are crimes against humanity. We've been documenting them now for months. We've been documenting systematic torture, a systematic campaign of arbitrary arrests.
Today there is always - people always say, well, you know, if you push too much for justice, you will make any negotiation very complicated, likely to fail. But at the same time, if you don't actually ask for justice, you're likely to end up with unstable situations because today in Syria you've got more than 9,000 people killed.
There's a real thirst for justice, and if the international community does not call for it and is willing to cut a deal just for the sake of expediency, these people are going to seek revenge in their own ways, and you end up in this cycle of violence, and you cannot get out of it.
I think the key - you know, one has to remember it's been sort of a messy year and difficult year in the Arab world, but the initial uprising in Syria, like the one in Tunisia before it and the one in Egypt, was prompted by a profound sense of unfairness at the treatment of the Muhaberat, the feared security forces, services, of children in Daraa.
And so people want justice, and that cannot be set aside.
CONAN: Nadim Houry, thank you very much for your time, appreciate it.
HOURY: Thank you.
CONAN: Nadim Houry, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, with us by phone from his home in Beirut. You can find a link to the Human Rights Watch report "In Cold Blood" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. More with Rami Khouri of the Daily Star when we return. This is NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. By all accounts, Syria did not meet today's deadline to withdraw troops from cities and will not meet the deadline to - for a ceasefire on Thursday. The government of Bashar al-Assad has been given 48 more hours to comply. Many remain deeply skeptical, and the six-point peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan appears all but dead, even before it reached step one.
We're talking about what's next in Syria. Where does this conflict end? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, editor at large of the Daily Star. And let's see if we can get Bob(ph) on the line, Bob's calling us from Naples, Florida.
CONAN: Hi, Bob, go ahead, please.
BOB: My comment is: I think that all the people involved in these atrocities need to be held to account, not just Assad, all the way down to the guy in the street that pulls the trigger. When this is all over, they need to have a tribunal and bring them all in and prosecute all of them. That might get somebody in the future, the guy in the street that's doing the execution, to think that he might be held to account, too, not just the big dogs.
CONAN: Rami Khouri, that's the rule of justice. Is that likely to happen, and is that likely, even if it does, to change people's minds in Damascus?
KHOURI: Well, the evidence so far with the use of the International Criminal Court, for instance indicting the Libyan, the late Libyan leader, indicting the Sudanese president now and a couple of others around the region, hasn't deterred people, unfortunately. And there is no evidence yet that this will be the case.
Now, if people are actually taken to court, given a fair trial, and if the evidence is enough they're found guilty and they're imprisoned, perhaps this might deter people in the future, but that's unlikely to happen.
More likely is that some of these revolutions and uprisings will succeed in Tunisia and Egypt and other places, possibly, you will get democratic, reasonably democratic government with reasonably credible rule of law establishments. And that is what in the end is going to get rid of the impunity with which people just kill each other and use barbarism.
And I would just add one caveat to that, also, that it's not only the Arabs who need to be held accountable but foreign armies that invade the region, occupation forces like the Israelis and others, the Iranians, the Turks who send their troops around sometimes or who use military action or covert action. Everybody must be held accountable: Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Turks, Americans, British.
Otherwise, if this is selectively done, this isn't justice. It's a new form of colonialism, which treats some people with one law and another people with a lesser law. So really, universality is as critical as justice itself.
CONAN: One of the key players regarding Syria is Russia. Fyodor Lukyanov is editor in chief for the journal Russia in Global Affairs. His piece, "The Importance of Being Russia," ran in that publication on April 5. He joins us now by phone from Moscow. Nice to have you with us today.
FYODOR LUKYANOV: Yes, hello.
CONAN: The Syrian foreign minister is in Moscow today. The Russian government is urging them to comply with the U.N.-sponsored plan, sponsored by Kofi Annan. It does not look like that's going to happen. What happens next?
LUKYANOV: Yeah, I think the argumentation which Syrian foreign minister, he is from - his Russian counterpart, Mr. Lavrov, is very simple. This is the last chance to try to influence the situation, to negotiate a way out from the deadlock from Syria. If you will fail, you means Syrian government, then Russia will not be able to protect you anymore because in case of the failure of Annan's plan, it will be very difficult for Russian side to urge another attempt to establish a dialogue.
So I think Russian authorities and Mr. Lavrov, who is playing a key role in this whole Syrian affair, he is extremely clear to Syrian counterparts to say that this is really the last chance, this is not a joke.
CONAN: What is Russia's interest in its support, thus far, of the Assad regime?
LUKYANOV: You know, that's a long story because the whole Russian policy vis-a-vis Syria started from one kind of assumptions, and they were rather mercantilist ones, ones connected to Russian interest in contracts, arm sales, contracts with Syrian and Russian strategic interest in Syria, the base for Russian fleet there. But that was only in the beginning.
Now, recent period, recent weeks, maybe two months, it's not about Syria basically. Russia is not protecting Assad's regime. Russia is trying to prove that it is able to play important role in world affairs and that no one can solve any serious regional crisis beyond Russia, so bypassing Russia.
CONAN: So Russia must be consulted. Russia must be counted in as a major player in the game. Nevertheless, Russia has come under tremendous pressure for, well, not to put too fine a point on it, for aiding and abetting in genocide.
LUKYANOV: Whether this is genocide or not, this is of course a discussion which should be conducted in legal terms. So Russian position from the beginning was that the approach taken by international community in the Syrian case and earlier in Libyan case was wrong conceptually because when it is a civil war in the country, and there is no doubt that we have elements, huge elements of civil war in Syria, it's absolutely wrong, conceptually wrong, and unfair from international community to intervene in civil war and one of (unintelligible).
And I think this is the position which at the end started to prevail because two months ago and one and a half months ago, Russia has been blamed to be completely isolated and alone. But now we see that Russia is playing big role, and Annan plan basically is a result of the product of Russian diplomacy.
CONAN: But you just told us a few minutes ago if the Annan plan fails, Russia can no longer block further action by the Security Council. Does that mean further action along the lines of Libya?
LUKYANOV: No, that's absolutely clear that Russia will never endorse any kind of Libyan scenario anymore. Russia can endorse a resolution which would apply harder sanctions on Syria, which would maybe even impose some kind of embargo.
But any kind of international intervention is out of question because of - by the way because of Libyan experience, because if you ask I think majority of people here in - I mean not only ordinary people but also strategic community about last year's decision to abstain during the war vote in Security Council and let the resolution on military intervention to go, this is the widespread view that that was a mistake because Russian goodwill has been totally abused by Arab countries and NATO, who - which concerns no-fly zone resolution into (unintelligible).
CONAN: Thanks very much for your time, Fyodor Lukyanov.
LUKYANOV: Thank you.
CONAN: Fyodor Lukyanov, with us from Moscow, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Still with us from Beirut is Rami Khouri, editor of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and editor at large of the Daily Star. And I wonder, Rami Khouri, we see steps being taken towards international - the internationalization of the conflict whether or not they are sponsored by the Security Council or not.
KHOURI: Well, yes, I think what's happened is there have been several attempts, going back about four or five months or so. You had unilateral diplomacy. The Turks and others tried unilaterally to step in and do something they couldn't. Then you had the Arab League take a couple of different steps, including monitors and other things. And then they went to the Security Council, and then the Security Council stepped in.
And then you had the Friends of Syria group created by, you know, American-led Turkish and others, who were critical of the Syrians, and this Friends of Syria group is now a major forum. And then recently the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, has unilaterally decided to provide funding for the Free Syrian Army.
So there are various elements of the international mechanisms that are being attempted to be used to either negotiate a transition to a more democratic system in Syrian and end the fighting, or to bring down the Syrian regime and do the transition that way.
But I think what's important, what we just heard from Moscow is very important because what you have happening in Syria today is three simultaneous battles or conflicts. The internal rebellion against Assad and his fighting back is one. The second one is the regional conflict which pits people in the Arab world against each other, and Iran supporting Syria and then most of the other Arabs who are critical of Syria. And the third one is the global one where the Russians and the Chinese are now playing an important role countering the American-led tendency to decide where regime changes happened, where wars happened.
And so these three simultaneous conflicts have converged together in Syria which is one reason why this is such an intense battle. It's not just about Syria's government and its opposition. It's an existential battle by forces in the region who see themselves as, you know, cooked ducks if they don't win this battle and the other side wins.
And then globally, the big powers are also really worried that if they step back and fall down that their long-term interests will be damaged. And then these three things are going to keep happening together for some months probably until a breakthrough happens somewhere.
CONAN: Let's get Blake(ph) on the line. And Blake is with us from San Antonio.
BLAKE: Hi. Just something I never heard discussed in all of this is that I'm very sure that there's a significant portion of a stratum in Syrian society that depends on the survival of the Assad regime, and so he must be under enormous internal pressure to not fail.
CONAN: Who are Assad's supporters in Syria, Rami Khouri?
KHOURI: Well, you know, the Syrian regime is like the Ceausescu regime in Romania for those of us old enough to remember where there's probably a couple of million people in Syrian who will fight and maybe fight to the death to keep the regime in power because they benefit from it enormously. These are members of the armed forces that are close to the Syrian government, members of the Alawite community from which Assad comes, a minority group in Syria.
You have some other small minority groups possibly here and there who are close to the government because they fear that an overthrow of the government may lead to ethnic tensions. You have the business people. You have the civil servants and the security forces members. So there's all kinds of people. Remember, this regime has been in power between Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, for 42 years. And that's a long time. And these regimes build up huge groups of supporters and dependents who depend on them.
And they, you know, a lot of these guys really believe they're fighting a noble cause by defending the regime, and that's why they do it so ferociously. And a lot of this barbarism that goes on is actually done with great sincerity by those who do it because they feel this is - the best thing for Syria is to keep this regime in power. So there are supporters of the regime. But like the Ceausescu supporters, they're doomed. These guys have no future because a overwhelming majority of Syrians, it seems, want the regime to change.
And I think this is now matched by a strong majority of the Arab world and around the world as a whole, and that's why I think the regime has had it, but it's just a question of how does it exit.
CONAN: Blake, thanks very much for the call.
BLAKE: Thank you. That's a very thorough answer.
CONAN: We're talking with Rami Khouri of the Beirut Daily Star. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Nour(ph), and Nour is with us from Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
NOUR: Actually, Berks County.
CONAN: Oh, Berks County, forgive me.
NOUR: All right. Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. Hi. Thank you. Thank you both for having this show. I'm a Syrian-American. I grew up in the United States. My parents decided to leave Syria when Hafez al-Assad was in power. And, of course, the heir apparent was always his son Bassel. It was not Bashar. Bassel was killed. And then when Bashar came into power, my parents decided to move back to Syria. We're Christian. And I have to say that we've had a nice life.
I mean, I go back - I had been going back and forth, yeah, every holiday to celebrate. In Syria, we've never had - we have friends who are of all ethnic backgrounds - Alawites, Shia, Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Armenians in the north. And it's - I have to say we've had religion - freedom of religion. And things actually have been quite good under Bashar al-Assad. And to tell you the truth, it's - what started at Homs kind of took everyone by surprise. People think that everyone is in favor of a change of government, but I'm not.
I'm afraid of what's going to happen afterwards. The people in the streets are Islamists. And we don't want an Islamic country. It is a secular government. Yeah, it's not perfect. The curse of the Middle East is in its rulers, unfortunately. I'll tell you whatever is going to come after him is going to be far much worse. Look at what's happening in Egypt. The Islamic brotherhood said they'd never float a candidate for president. Now, they're doing it. They will always go back on their words. It's a shame. But it's true.
But we have - and so the majority that I know - and I know a lot of people in Damascus. They're just hunkered down in the houses right now, and they're afraid to go in the streets, but they're supporting Bashar al-Assad.
CONAN: Nour, I don't mean to cut you off, but we wanted to give Rami Khouri a chance to respond. And, yes, the record for Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities has not always been happy as these regimes have changed in many Arab states.
KHOURI: Well, we haven't really had many experiences in regime changes. And what Nour is saying is correct to a certain extent where you do have a lot of people, as I said, interior who support the regime, some of them because they feel that a different regime might actually not give everybody the same opportunities. But the problem is that, like in Iraq, it was the same thing. You had Christians who could do everything they want - Jews, Christian. And I'm a Christian myself and - but the fact is that an overwhelming majority of the entire population had no real civil rights or political rights or equal opportunity.
And there was massive deterioration in quality, in economic access to resources and job opportunities. And this is one of the reasons why this uprising is so widely supported. I think about the Islamists taking over across the Arab world, I think one of the things that we have to really follow very closely now, including the Muslim brothers in Syria who made some statements recently, the groups in Tunisia, the Nahda Party that is sharing in the coalition that won the elections, they're all coming out now with very clear statements about their commitment to secular governments.
These are Muslim people. The majority of the Arabs are Muslim. Like the majority of Americans, they are Christians and - but they recognize the rights of the people who are a different minority. And they're committed to a secular government. And this is something that has to be monitored very, very closely...
CONAN: Rami Khouri, thanks very much. I'm afraid we're out of time. But we thank you very much for your time today.
KHOURI: OK. Glad to be with you.
CONAN: Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut and The Daily Star. Former senator and Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum just announced he's suspending his campaign. Stay with NPR News. We'll have more on that in just a minute or so. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.