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Syrian Forces Attack Civilians in Hama as U.N. Security Council Wavers on Condemning Crackdown

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Syrian forces are pushing toward the center of the restive city of Hama as they continue an offensive in which an estimated 140 people have been killed. Residents say they saw explosions Wednesday morning and lines of tanks heading into the city. Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, called on Tuesday for a rapid end to violence in Syria but said direct U.S. involvement was unlikely. The U.N. Security Council met Tuesday to discuss the crisis but failed to reach an agreement. With foreign media and observers banned from Syria, we speak with Nadim Houry, the Beirut-based senior researcher on Syria and Lebanon for Human Rights Watch. “We need a strong Security Council resolution at this stage,” Houry says. “[But] there is no support for military action. People inside Syria do not want to see any form of military intervention. They think it will make the situation worse.” Instead, Houry calls on Syria to grant access to independent observers, journalists, and a U.N. fact-finding mission. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Syria, where government forces are pushing towards the center of the city of Hama as they continue an offensive in which at least 150 people, it’s believed, have been killed. Residents told the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights they saw explosions Wednesday morning and lines of tanks heading into the city.
Another resident told Reuters, quote, “All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama,” he said.

Hama’s central square has hosted some of the largest demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Activists estimate at least 1,700 civilians have been killed in Syria since the mostly peaceful protests began in March.

The chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, called Tuesday for a rapid end to violence in Syria but said direct U.S. involvement is unlikely. Mullen said the U.S. would exert diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to implement reforms.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: There’s no indication whatsoever that the Americans are—that we would get involved directly with respect to this. I think, politically and diplomatically, we want to bring as much pressure as we possibly can to effect the change that so many countries are calling for.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Italy recalled its ambassador from Syria yesterday in protest against the repression exercised by the Syrian regime. The Foreign Minister Under Secretary in Italy urged other European Union members to do the same.

STEFANIA CRAXI: [translated] I am in contact with Minister Frattini, who is currently exploring all the most fitting possible moves, and who has decided to recall our ambassador for consultation, as to send a message of condemnation for the unacceptable repression carried out by the Syrian regime.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Security Council convened a lengthy session on the crisis in Syria Tuesday but failed to reach an agreement.

To discuss the situation in Syria, we’re going to Beirut, Lebanon, where we’re joined by Nadim Houry, the senior researcher on Syria and Lebanon for Human Rights Watch. He’s director of their Beirut office.

What is the latest you understand is happening in Syria, foreign reporters not allowed in, Nadim?

NADIM HOURY: Yes, good morning.

As you mentioned in your report, since the early hours today, Hama is cut off—internet, phone, electricity. We have been trying now for hours to get through to our contacts in that city, and we have not managed. We’re still hoping that some of those who have their satellite phones will eventually open them, and we can reach them.

What we have been able to get are these secondary reports, people driving on the highway or near Hama describing smoke coming out of certain neighborhoods. You know, we’ve also read the Reuters reports and others, that the tanks seem to actually have made it to the center of the city, the famous Assi Square, the Orontes Square, where we have seen that footage of all those massive protests.

But Hama is not the only city under attack. There are a number of small towns around Damascus, places like Zabadani, which have also—coming under attack, as well as cities in the east of Syria, like Deir ez-Zor and others.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the reaction is—today, the U.N. Security Council is expected to have a second meeting on Syria—and what Human Rights Watch thinks needs to be done?

NADIM HOURY: You know, we need—we need a strong Security Council resolution at this stage. You know, at this—there is no support for military action. People inside Syria do not want to see any form of military intervention. They think that it will make the situation worse. So what we are focusing right now are on three key elements: one, a unanimous international condemnation of the violence by the security forces, by the Syrian regime; two, a clear demand for access for independent observers, journalists, but also a U.N. fact-finding commission, which was mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate the human rights violations in Syria, but which has not been allowed into the country; and finally, you know—[no audio]


NADIM HOURY: —push for accountability by referring the Syrian violations to the International Criminal Court.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to one of your colleagues at Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch saying the Syrian people are having to pay the price for the failures of intervention in Libya, as you just pointed out. Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch suggested the international community must act to stop the violence in Syria.

REED BRODY: The Syrian people are paying the price for what is perceived as an endless intervention in Libya. And so, China and Russia and these countries are saying, “Oh, no, we’re not signing up again,” but the problem is that by refusing to act, they are allowing the massacres to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. Nadim Houry? Nadim?

NADIM HOURY: Yes. Oh, the—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you further talk about the dynamics—

NADIM HOURY: Sure, yeah, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: —and why these countries are saying you should not be involved?

NADIM HOURY: There is definitely—what Reed is mentioning is very correct. I mean, we have held meetings with officials not only in Russia and China, but also officials from countries like South Africa, India and Brazil. And they’re looking at Syria from the optics of Libya: “This is a messy situation. There’s not a lot we can do. So we’re not going to do anything.” But that is—you know, this sort of apathy, this sort of hiding, is, in a way, giving free hand to the Syrian authorities to continue with their crackdown.

And what we’re trying to say is, even short of military intervention, even if this is not on the table and this is not desirable at this stage, there are other things that you could do. And, you know, let’s not let this failure of diplomatic imagination, you know, give the Syrian regime the [no audio] killing its own citizens. You know, things like pushing for access for journalists can provide protection for serious protesters. Things like allowing a U.N. fact-finding commission into the country can act as a deterrent for officers who may fear that one day they will face international justice.

You know, these are all things that can help, but unfortunately—and the blame here is not just for Russia and China, but as well for countries like South Africa, Brazil and India—is they’re sort of saying, “Oh, it’s all messy. Look at what’s going on in Libya. So we’re not going to do anything.” And the Syrian authorities are capitalizing on this. They are aware that the international community is divided. And the fact that almost five months after the protest movement started, [no audio] Syria, even though now the death toll is over 1,600 people, 1,600 protesters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on a connection to Beirut, so bear with us on the Democracy Now! video stream. But it’s very important to get this information, as it’s so difficult to get information out directly from Syria. And the pressure on the human rights activists and the protesters, Nadim Houry, if you could talk about that inside and the people you’re talking to?

NADIM HOURY: You know, it’s been amazing. I mean, the resiliency of the Syrian people has simply been incredible, because they have detained now more than 15,000 people. You know, a majority of them have been subject to ill-treatment and torture. We have spoken to some people who were detained for weeks, came out of detention, and went back to protesting the same day. For some of the activists who have gone into hiding, [no audio] relatives. Razan Zaitouneh, one of the prominent women who have become, you know, a human rights activist, and she’s gone into hiding. They’ve detained her husband and her brother-in-law, simply to exert pressure on her.

This is, you know, truly incredible. The security services are using any means to stop the protests, to stop the gatherings, but it is failing, because so many Syrians have decided, “Enough.” As one activist told me, their bullets, the bullets of the security services, are only doing one thing: destroying our wall of fear. Now that is what is happening in Syria. But the fear is that as long—you know, that the price in blood has been incredibly high and that the international community has simply watched in silence and in apathy. And this has been going on for five months. You know, the fear—yes, transitions are messy, but people have to recognize the hope, the courage that is going on. And now is not the time to get cold feet. One has to stand for principles. And those principles are freedom for the people that want it, the right to free assembly, and to actually push for accountability for these violations. And I think today it’s very telling. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, is on trial. And I think that’s a message that President Assad should well heed.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Nadim Houry, for being with us from Beirut, Lebanon, on Democracy Now! video stream, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria, director of the Beirut office. At the end of the broadcast, we’re going to touch base with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo. He has just been to the trial, attempting to get in, the first day of the trial of the former dictator of Egypt, of Hosni Mubarak, and his two sons. But first we’ll go to Israel. Stay with us.

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