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The movement to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has stretched on now for more than a year and a half. But the pace of events has quickened in recent weeks — violence is consuming major cities, the country’s prime minister defected to Jordan and Kofi Annan quit his position as United Nations special envoy to Syria. We chat with a local activist who is part of the opposition movement pushing for regime change about what happens next and the role he sees for the United States in Syria’s future.
- Mohammad Al Abdallah Executive Director, Syria Justice & Accountability Center
- Theodore Kattouf President, AMIDEAST; Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (2001-2003)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, why a fight about copyright is at the center of a worldwide effort to make books more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. But first, the battle for the future of Syria is growing more violent, more complicated. One of the top officials in President Bashar al Assad's government, the country's prime minister defected to Jordan on Monday. It's only one of the shoes that's dropped in the past week, which also included the resignation of the United Nations Peace Envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome lawmakers in the United States are pushing President Obama to get more involved as the death toll continues to climb throughout Syria, including in its major cities. Joining us to discuss where the movement is headed from here is Mohammad Al Abdallah. He is a Syrian human rights activist and author living in the Washington region. He's the executive director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center. Mohammad, good to see you again.
MR. MOHAMMAD AL-ABDALLAHThank you. Good to be with you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Theodore Kattouf. Ted Kattouf was the ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, a non-profit organization engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa. Ted Kattouf, thank you for joining us.
MR. THEODORE KATTOUFThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with yesterday's events. Syria's prime minister slipped out of the country on Monday. Riad Farid Hijab defected to Jordan. What does a defection like this one tell you about the hold that President Assad still has or does not have inside the country? Mr. Ambassador, I'll start with you.
KATTOUFWell, it tells me that the regime is over-stretched, that they cannot even keep tabs on their senior officials anymore and that there's very little they can do for their people other than to shell their neighborhoods and try to keep themselves in power. Having said that, I think we have to note that Mr. Hijab is not somebody whose departure, in and of itself, is going to shake internal dynamics of the regime. That regime is a security military regime. And he is not a security or military man. But on a psychological level it is a signal to many who've been sitting on the fence that events are getting away from the regime and that it may be time to consider sympathizing or joining the opposition.
NNAMDIYour own interpretation, Mohammad?
AL-ABDALLAHI think that it's clear the defection of the prime minister reflects that lots of officials inside the Assad regime understood today or now that he cannot survive. And that's why he started jumping from one boat to another boat. And the international policy reflects that it's more and more emphasized that the legitimacy of the opposition story about Assad is lying and he's killing his own people. If Riad Hijab is the prime minister of the reformed government that Assad reformed again.
AL-ABDALLAHAnd that puts Russia and China in a very embarrassing position. Here's a guy from the government who's prime minister, telling everybody in the world, Assad is killing his people and I’m not going to continue with him. That makes the opposition's version of the story more believable and more valuable.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Do what degree do you think the United States should be involved in the escalating unrest in Syria? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Ted Kattouf, on the international stage, however, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced last week that he would be stepping down as the U.N.'s peace envoy to Syria. He basically said that it had become impossible for the U.N. effort to compel a peaceful agreement between the regime and the opposition. What do you think is significant about Kofi Annan stepping away?
KATTOUFWell, at the very outset, perhaps being a little too cynical, I assumed that he would fail. And the reason I assumed he would fail, this Bashar Assad is only playing for time. And so he accepted this initiative with the idea that he would not honor its terms. And indeed, subsequent events showed that he was not willing to honor ceasefires or bring his troops back into the barracks or open real negotiations with a credible opposition for a transition, a transition that would lead him to give up power.
KATTOUFHe was never going to be willing to do that. And what was needed to be successful was a unified security council. And that would have meant Russia and China joining the three permanent western powers on the Security Council in being willing to authorize serious sanctions, maybe even up to and including the use of armed force to back up Kofi Annan's mission. And of course Russia and China were not even willing to go along with highly condemnatory language, let alone the use of armed force against Assad.
NNAMDIIndeed, you mentioned Russia and China already, Mohammad Al Abdallah. Assad has strong diplomatic allies in Russia and China it would appear. What avenues do you think can or should be pursued to change that dynamic?
AL-ABDALLAHI think what the international community did in forming the Friends of Syrian People, the group of the willing, is that I think -- but the unfortunate thing, it shifted from its own goal from being a pathway out of the U.N. Security Council to a donor's conference. Those people, more than 130 nations gathering and every time they're announcing more aids for Syria, but they're not doing any political steps, not concrete actions to stop the killing.
AL-ABDALLAHIf I want to comment on the resignation of Kofi Annan, I think the plan of Annan was born dead actually. It was impossible to implement. And not only Assad played with the initiative to gain time, U.S. and the U. N. and the international community played the same role, gaining more time because they don't want to get involved. Just like get behind Annan's initiative and have three or four months of diplomats work and observers going there. And almost everybody was a strong believer that it's not going to work.
NNAMDIEverybody except Kofi Annan, you think?
AL-ABDALLAHI think Kofi Annan was from the people who believed from the beginning it's not going to work. I expected, personally, he was going to quit after Geneva meeting, after that very big press release that the Russians and the Americans put together. That is two opposite views in the same press release. And Annan was very embarrassed with the media. He was unable to explain to them what this language mean. Is Assad going to continue to be part of the transition or he's going to be out of the transition? I expected he would defect or not defect, he would quit on that level.
NNAMDIMohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and author living in the Washington area. He's the executive director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center. He joins us in studio along with Theodore Kattouf who was the ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, a nonprofit engaged in international education training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa.
NNAMDII go to the phones. Here is Benjamin, in Bethesda, Md. Benjamin, your turn.
BENJAMINHi, good to be here with you, Kojo. I would love to see the United States go into Syria and stop all this murder and killing and slaughter of innocents, but unfortunately, at this point, we just have no moral credibility. I mean, take aside the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, we're propping up dictatorial regimes across the Middle East, like in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And the rest of the world just doesn't take us very seriously anymore.
NNAMDIWell, the rest of the world seemed to take the U.S. and NATO seriously in Libya. What's different here?
BENJAMINWell, they took us seriously in Libya, but then they backed away, didn't they? The Arab League wasn't so thrilled with what we did there. And I just don't feel like people really believe that we're out to do good in the world anymore.
NNAMDISo you think the U.S. is in a better position if it does nothing here?
BENJAMINI’m sorry, what was that?
NNAMDIYou think the U.S. best policy here is to do nothing, a policy of non-intervention?
BENJAMINNo. I mean, I think that probably the best thing to do is to go into Syria. And it's so complicated, who knows what happens if we do go in or who ends up in power. So I can understand Obama wanting to sit back on this, especially in an election year.
NNAMDIBenjamin, I'm glad you raised that issue 'cause I'd like to pursue it. But allow me to start where we were a year ago with you, Mohammad Al Abdallah. You said on this broadcast a year ago that if President Obama called on Assad to step down these would be magic words for the opposition movement in Syria. He did end up going that far. What effect do you think that statement and American policy has had so far? And what involvement would you like to see from the United States and President Obama now, one year later?
AL-ABDALLAHHe did say that, but the unfortunate thing, the U.S. foreign policy did not really enhance any position for them. Did not enhance the opposition, did not enhance these words of Assad should stepping down. The unfortunate thing with Syria is there is no international community in Syria. There is different policies from E.U., from the U.S. There is some different comments coming from time-to-time. There's no one coherent foreign policy towards Syria. They did not work with the Turks very well. There are lots of complicated things.
AL-ABDALLAHAnd I want to comment a little bit on Benjamin's question, nobody asking the U.S. to invade Syria, clearly. No troops on the ground. We have a scenario and it happened in Sarajevo before and in Libya, where as the NATO helped from the Air Force, using Air Force only without sending troops on the ground. The longer things go, the more messy and more bad conclusions we going to end up. Lots of radicals people, more radicalization, the opposition fighters and the country going to be open for everybody's intervention, not only the U.S. And the bad thing of the U.S. not getting involved with arming process, they cannot influence this arming. Now, who influenced the arming process for the opposition are the country was funding this. And the U.S. is not of those. And those people…
NNAMDIShould it be?
AL-ABDALLAHOf course they should be. They should control, they should oversee, they should get involved because the radicals who's being armed by different countries, they would listen only to the source of their arms, not to the U.S.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the radicals. Ted Kattouf, please.
KATTOUFYeah, I’m not going to be able to totally agree with Mr. Abdallah. We have reports. The Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks are all close friends of the United States. And we have the ability to have very regular and frank dialog with the leaderships of those states. And there are numerous reports out there in the media that there are U.S. -- let's not mince words. There are CIA representatives on the ground who are working with the Turks and the others to try to ensure that the arms that are being financed go to groups that are Syrian patriots, more secular in nature, people who want to see real reform occur in Syria and not authoritarian groups linked to al Qaida or linked to extreme Salafi or Brotherhood groups.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that because, Mohammad, how would you respond to the criticism that I guess still hampers the opposition movement, that American policymakers still aren't completely sure who you are and what kind of country you'd be replacing Assad's regime with? Because apparently the policymakers feel it's difficult to get a read on the opposition.
AL-ABDALLAHThat's very legitimate concern and it's -- honestly, I'm one of the people who's very critical to the opposition. And I can't blame them a lot for not being united. But from the other hand, look at what's happened with the NTC, National Transitional Council in Libya? Get quickly recognized by the international community and that prevented another group of merging and making leadership next to each other and fighting internally. Not recognizing the Syrian National council quickly and not supporting it financially and politically quickly, that's led to forming more groups and groups and groups.
AL-ABDALLAHAnd this having internal fights between them and that the credibility without position and terrible position is damaged by that. Of course the position of responsibility in this and they blame and that's for sure. But let me ask back to Ambassador Kattouf like the CIA overseeing this, but is that what's happening? Is that what is going on with those secular groups? No. There is video showing the opposite of this, seeing the arms between the hands of radicals, of people who's having Al-Qaida flags, people who's calling for creating Islamic state.
AL-ABDALLAHAnd honestly when you knew what condition to deliver me work bands or arms and saying if you're not secular, I'm going to say yes, I am secular. Give me the arms. And then while I listen to you...
KATTOUFIt's a -- there's no doubt it's a problem, but look, arms are not in short supply in the Middle East. We had a major war in Iraq that only now the U.S. recently has withdrawn its troops from. There are arms all over Iraq. There are arms all over Lebanon. And groups that don't mean anybody well such as Al-Qaida type groups can easily find weapons. And we know that they have funders, often wealthy people, including unfortunately in the Gulf and elsewhere who think somehow these people are doing good for Islam when to my mind they're doing just the opposite.
NNAMDIWell, Ted Kattouf, a lot of country in the Middle East, Syria and like those countries has complicated demographics. When we spoke with you last in May of last year you told us that minorities in countries throughout these so called Arab Spring were scared to death, to use your words. When you look at the situation playing out in Syria now, what concerns do you have about minority populations there?
KATTOUFWell, I have very much the same concerns I had over a year ago. And it's not because I believe the bulk of the opposition is not well intentioned or I believe that, you know, they have an agenda to kill minorities. But Bashar al-Assad and his regime have carried out what can only be characterized as international war crimes. Intentions and hatred are understandably running high. And when people are put under this kind of horrible stress -- we're all capable of good. We're all capable of evil. And I'm afraid that people sometimes can't distinguish, you know, that well, this person is innocent, that person isn't.
KATTOUFAnd we saw in Iraq, for instance, the Christians were the weakest minority in Iraq. They didn't have really much of a role to play on any side, and yet Al-Qaida type elements immediately went after them as a way of raising tensions, as a way of fueling fear and sharpening sectarian differences. And they're capable of doing the same things in Syria with the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze. These are minorities whose religious beliefs are anathema to the Salafis.
NNAMDIMohammad al-Abdallah, what do you think can best be done to protect the rights of minorities in a place like Syria even as the opposition is not clear to the United States or to other countries who presumably would like to render some assistance?
AL-ABDALLAHI want to differentiate between the faith that I believe the Alawites would face because they're going to face some retaliation actions. And just be honest and talk about it. It's going to happen.
NNAMDIThe Alawites are a minority population, but it also happens to be the religion to which the president, Bashar Assad, belongs and the...
AL-ABDALLAHBut not the Christians, not the Drews. The Christian position is great. They're not fighting with Assad. They're involving with health and aid to -- financial aid to the protestors. They're now having ten schools as shelters in Aleppo to house the refugees and their family civilians who's taking refuge from the neighborhood and the shelling. So their position is much better. But in order to protect everybody we should put an end and quick and to the killing now. Because the longer it goes, more retaliation actions we're going to see and more death tolls, the numbers going higher.
AL-ABDALLAHAnd another thing I want to mention is quickly hold accountable who is involved with these atrocities because only holding the perpetrators accountable that will calm down a little bit the feelings with the victims. Without that, everybody will go up...
NNAMDIGot time for one more call. Here's John in Fairfax, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNOh, hi, Kojo, everybody. The world has reached a point where it needs to be able to have a court that has subpoena power to bring international war criminals to justice. If the United States would join the ICC and give them subpoena power backed up by drone missiles to issue a cease and desist seize fire. And...
NNAMDIWell, let me see what Mohammad Al Abdallah thinks about that. The U.S. joins the ICC, which some people believe is not going to happen besides, that there -- that President Bashar Assad is an international criminal, we can go get him. We can send in drones in order to strike without having...
AL-ABDALLAHNo, serious, the Syrian government have not joined so we need a security council resolution in order to go after Assad or to refer him to the ICC. And the Russians and the Chinese won't let this happen clearly. So it's not only the U.N. -- the U.S. responsibility.
KATTOUFWell, I have -- Kojo, I have a rather sadly ironic story. When I was ambassador, the U.S. was discouraging countries for voting for the ICC and I received instructions to go in and see the Syrian foreign minister. Then he was deputy foreign minister Walid al-Muallem and now foreign minister and argue against Syria joining the International Criminal Court.
NNAMDIThat's indeed an irony.
KATTOUFIt is an irony. So -- and, you know, Muallem looked at me and said well, we'll take it under advisement.
AL-ABDALLAHClearly he did.
NNAMDISo clearly, John, that's not the road we're going down. As for the road that we will be going down, it's a story that we will continue to follow. Ted Kattouf, thank you for joining us.
KATTOUFThanks for having me.
NNAMDITheodore Kattouf was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003. He's now the president and CEO of AMIDEAST, a nonprofit engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa. Mohammad Al Abdallah, thank you for joining us.
AL-ABDALLAHThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and author living in the Washington region. He's the executive director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, why a fight about copyright is at the center of a worldwide effort to make books more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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