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Is Syria in a Civil War? Journalist Patrick Seale Debates Activist Rafif Jouejati on a Just Response

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Has a full-blown civil war broken out in Syria? Hervé Ladsous, the U.N. under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations, became the first senior U.N. official to make the assertion on Tuesday amid worsening violence across the country. The U.S. meanwhile is accusing Russia of arming the Syrian military while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending anti-tank missiles to the Syrian opposition through Turkey with the Obama administration’s backing. We host a debate between Syrian opposition activist Rafif Jouejati and longtime Middle East journalist Patrick Seale. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A top United Nations official said Tuesday the uprising in Syria has grown into a full-scale civil war. Hervé Ladsous, the U.N. under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations, said, quote, “Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas.” This marks the first time a senior U.N. official has declared Syria’s conflict a civil war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the situation is worsening in several parts of the country simultaneously. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 51 civilians as well as 12 soldiers were killed on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Turkey is reporting more than 2,000 Syrians have fled across the border in the last 48 hours.

This comes as more reports emerge that both the Syrian military and opposition rebels are receiving heavy arms from outside supporters. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of aiding the president—the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry, everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue. And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Russia has acknowledged sending arms but claims the weapons are only for self-defense. Meanwhile, Turkey has been smuggling powerful anti-tank missiles and other arms to Syrian opposition fighters in the Free Syria Army. The missiles are being financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to the New York Times, the United States was consulted about the arming of the rebels but did not take part directly in the weapons transfer.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the crisis in Syria, we’re joined by two guests. Rafif Jouejati is a Syrian-American opposition activist and the English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees. She’s joining us from Washington, D.C. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream is Patrick Seale, a leading writer on the Middle East. He’s author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East and, most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let us begin with Rafif Jouejati. Are we seeing a civil war in Syria?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I don’t know if I would characterize it as a civil war. It is really a case of a regime trying to repress a popular demand for freedom and democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, would you characterize it in the same way?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, I don’t think it matters really what we call it. It’s just an extremely dangerous situation, in my view, dangerous for everybody—dangerous for Syria, for Iran, its ally, dangerous for Lebanon, for Jordan, and dangerous for the United States, dangerous for the Gulf states. So it’s a very tricky moment, and I don’t think, quite frankly, the United States is helping to resolve the situation. It’s pursuing a high-risk strategy, and which we can talk about in a moment, if you like.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what is that high-risk strategy?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, look, there are two promising diplomatic initiatives in recent weeks in the region. One is led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and the other by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, who is mandated by both the Arab League and the U.N. to try and promote a peace plan for Syria.

Now, Catherine Ashton was pressing for a win-win deal between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1. That’s to say, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. They’ve held—they’ve had two meetings so far. The first one seemed very promising. But there’s another meeting coming up on the 18th of June in Moscow, and that doesn’t look good at all. Why? Because the United States has toughened its position. It doesn’t seem to want a win-win deal whereby Iran would give up its 20 percent enriched uranium but be allowed to keep low-enriched uranium for power generation. Now, why has the Americans—why has the United States adopted this position? It seems to be taking its cue from Israel. Obama, President Obama, either thinks that Iran is a rival to American hegemony in the Gulf, or he thinks, with the elections coming up in November, that he has to carry favor with Jewish voters. I fear the latter. Now, the—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rafif Jouejati, can I just ask you to respond to that? How do you feel the U.S. has been dealing with the conflict in Syria, and what would you like the U.S. to do differently?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Well, let me start by saying that to introduce notions of Jewish voters and the Obama re-election bid, I think, is to detract from the fact that there are more than 12,000 civilians shot dead by the Assad regime. I would say that the U.S. has been supportive in condemning the Assad violations of human rights, systematic violations. What I would like to see is for more pressure exerted on Russia to stop the flow of weapons, including those helicopters that are on their way, including things like the shipment of $100 million worth of weapons just a couple of weeks ago. I would like to see more pressure on Russia to stop the flow of arms. I’d like to see more pressure on the international community, in general, to deliver relief supplies, which are so desperately needed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: There are reports today, Rafif Jouejati, that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the rebels in Syria.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: So, there have been reports, and there were pledges of support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to the FSA, those weapons are—

AMY GOODMAN: We may have just lost Rafif Jouejati for a moment. We’re going to get her back. We’re speaking with Rafif Jouejati, who’s a member of the Syrian opposition. And we’re also speaking with Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East who wrote a book about Bashar al-Assad’s father called Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Rafif, I think we have you back, if you could continue.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Yes, so, I was saying that we also need the international community to step up its relief efforts. As you know, the Assad regime has prevented much-needed relief supplies from reaching residents, who are under continuous shelling and bombardment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Rafif Jouejati, can I just ask you to clarify who it is? If there are funds or arms going to the Syrian opposition, who is the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council and other affiliated groups?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: So, we’ve had pledges of support from various nations, but in reality, that support is not reaching the Free Syrian Army, which is only one part of the opposition. Instead, there are light weapons being smuggled across borders. So to say that the Free Syrian Army is heavily armed would imply that they are smuggling attack helicopters or tanks from Lebanon, and that would just be ridiculous.

In terms of who constitutes the Syrian opposition, you have the Syrian National Council, which is an umbrella organization that encompasses, I would say, the majority of opposition groups. And then you’ve got the armed portion of it, which is the Free Syrian Army, which is composed primarily of defected soldiers who refused orders to shoot unarmed civilians.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How many people have defected from the Syrian army to the Free Syrian Army?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: It’s difficult to give precise numbers, because some of this is obviously quite secretive, but the estimates are ranging in the 40,000 area at this point, with defections every day. Just yesterday, there were three high-ranking officials who defected from the Syrian air force.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Seale, can you say a little about your sense of who constitutes the opposition and whether the opposition is sufficiently united?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, as we all know, the opposition is deeply divided. The strongest, best funded, best organized element in it are the Muslim Brothers. Now, they have a longstanding grievance against the Assad regime, father and son, going back over 30 years—indeed, ever since the Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria in 1963—Ba’ath Party, which is a secular movement. And from that moment on, some elements of the Muslim Brothers went underground, started taking arms, and mounted a terrorist campaign against the Syrian regime in the late six—in the late ’70s, culminating in the seizure of Hama, which the state then retook with great loss of life. Now, after that, the Muslim Brothers were banned. Membership was punishable by death. So they have a great deal to want revenge for from this regime.

Now, in addition to the Muslim Brothers, which are the many, many strands of them in Syria and outside Syria, there are also large numbers now of armed Islamic extremists, jihadis, so-called Arab fighters coming in from neighboring countries but also from countries further afield, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from Tunisia. Now, these people, a lot of them coming from Iraq, where they’ve been carrying out suicide operations, which they’re replicating now in Syria—gross acts of terror. Now, this is the problem. The number two man in al-Qaeda, Abu Yahya al-Libi, whom the Americans claim to have killed the other day, has just issued a video accusing Bashar al-Assad. So, does the United States want to be on the side of al-Qaeda?

AMY GOODMAN: Let us bring Rafif Jouejati into this description Patrick Seale has of the opposition, of which you are a part.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Yeah. So let me start by correcting Mr. Seale on just a couple of things. First of all, I would say that the majority of the Syrian population has a grudge against the Assad family, which took power in a military coup and has retained power for more than 42 years through violence and repression. So I would say it’s not just Islamic fundamentalists who desire to see this regime toppled. It is the majority of the population. Second of all, on the ground, the network of activists, the LCC has one of the largest network of activists. It is a decidedly secular organization. The opposition, the SNC, the LCC, all of the different various groups that do fall under the SNC umbrella, have condemned any al-Qaeda operations. Now, certainly, al-Qaeda is a rogue organization that thrives on chaos. And had Bashar al-Assad retained any stability in the country, we might not be seeing the kind of chaos that allows certain elements to slip through borders.

AMY GOODMAN: Rafif, did your father work for Hafez al-Assad?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: My father served the Syrian government from independence from the French all the way until his death nine years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So he worked under Hafez al-Assad. What was his position on Bashar al-Assad’s father?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: He—my father believed in service to his nation and not particularly to a regime. He was never a member of the Ba’ath Party. He wanted to serve his country. He believed in a free and independent Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the U.S. expelled the top Syrian diplomat in Washington following the massacre of over a hundred people in Houla. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland spoke in late May, blaming Iran for the massacre.

VICTORIA NULAND: This morning, we called in Syrian chargé d’affaires Zuheir Jabbour and informed him that he is no longer welcome in the United States and gave him 72 hours to depart. We took this action in response to the massacre in the village of Houla—absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women shot at point-blank range by regime thugs, the Shabiha, aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go to this issue of Iran after break. That was Victoria Nuland, State Department spokesperson. We’re speaking with Rafif Jouejati, an activist and member of the Syrian opposition. She’s in Washington. Patrick Seale, leading British writer on the Middle East, is joining us from the south of France. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Rafif Jouejati, activist and member of the Syrian opposition, speaking to us from Washington, D.C., and Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East, wrote a biography of Bashar al-Assad’s father called Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, and, most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East. We just heard a clip of the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, blaming Iran. Can you respond, Patrick Seale?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, the point about that massacre at Houla, the real responsibility has not been established. Ms. Nuland and others have immediately blamed the regime’s notorious Shabiha thugs, but a very serious German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the leading West German newspaper, German newspaper, has recently published a report quoting its sources on the ground saying this is not the case, that the massacre was conducted by anti-Assad Sunni militias, who then filmed their victims and posted videos on the internet blaming the regime. Now, this clearly demands an investigation, internal investigation, to establish what the truth is. The fact is that both sides have committed atrocious crimes.

Ms. Jouejati is quite right in saying that the population, or part of it, has serious grievances against the Assad regime over the years—police brutality, favoritism for certain communities, a lack of freedom, the neglect after the great drought of recent years in Syria, and many other things. Of course they have grievances. But the problem now is no longer a purely local one. It’s become a regional one. The Syrian crisis cannot be separated from the tremendous pressures being put on Iran. The United States seems to have adopted Israel’s position, to attempt to bring down both regimes, the regime in Tehran and the regime in Damascus. Now, you may have noticed that President Shimon Peres of Israel, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself have all in recent days called for the overthrow of the Syrian regime. I mean, Netanyahu wants to bring down the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah resistance axis, which has dented Israel’s supremacy in recent years. So this has become a regional conflict.

Now, some Arab states—Saudi Arabia and Qatar—also seem to see the crisis in sectarian terms. They think that Iran, a Shia power, could challenge Sunni primacy in the region. But you saw—your program began, at around—a few minutes ago, with the massacres in Iraq of Shia civilians. Now, who do you think triggered that sectarian conflict? It was the United States, with its invasion of Iraq in 2002, which led to the collapse of the state to a sectarian civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced. Do they want the same thing to happen in Syria? Hasn’t Syria suffered enough? Shouldn’t the West and Russia join in imposing a ceasefire on both sides, instead of fueling the flames? The United States is said to be coordinating the flow of money, intelligence and weapons to the rebels, and then complaining that Russia is doing the same for the regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask—let me just ask Rafif Jouejati to respond both on Victoria Nuland’s comments about Iran’s involvement and who should be held responsible, or who is responsible, for the Houla massacre.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Absolutely. Let’s start with the Houla massacre. There are satellite images of regime tank positions stationed all around the area. Logically, by any reasonable calculation, only the regime would have had access to that area in such numbers. There was intense shelling on the area just before the Shabiha went in. They didn’t just shoot children. They practically beheaded them. Children were stabbed repeatedly. In many other instances of Shabiha violence, they have actually set fire to their victims. So, that’s on the Houla massacre. The regime bears full responsibility. And when Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech just days after it, he said that not even monsters could have carried out this attack. And I believe, by “not even monsters,” he was speaking about his own Shabiha.

With regard to the German article, Mr. Seale, I did read it. The reporter did not cite any credible sources. What we have gotten from Houla residents, those who remain, were eyewitness accounts of what has happened. So, I would discredit that article 100 percent.

In terms of Iran, Iran has, since the very beginning, been supporting the Assad regime through infusions of cash when the sanctions began to take effect in Syria. They have provided military equipment. They have provided surveillance technology. It is the very surveillance technology that enabled the Assad regime to blow up the house where Marie Colvin was when she was killed, the journalist who was killed as she was uploading information. Iran has been recently bragging about its support for the Assad regime. I don’t think we want to go too far and muddy the waters by talking about what Israel’s ambitions may be. What we’re talking about is a popular revolution that the regime is trying to repress through massive military force.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask more about Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s role in the conflict. The Independent of London reported today Syrian rebel groups had received multiple shipments of arms, including Kalashnikov assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weaponry. The weapons were paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and smuggled through Turkey. Patrick Seale, the significance of who’s on what side here and Russia sending helicopters to Bashar al-Assad?

PATRICK SEALE: This the trouble. I mean, there’s so much foreign intervention, with each of the external actors pursuing its own strategic goals. Now, the opposition, the rebels, know, I believe, that they cannot hope to defeat the Syrian army on the ground. Their whole strategy has been to try and trigger a Western military intervention. Now that’s been slow in coming. Now, to trigger such an intervention, they have either perpetrated massacres themselves — and I stick with the report from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — or they try and provoke the regime into massacres. Now, what that German newspaper said was that rebels attacked some checkpoints manned by the army, and in the firefight that followed, which lasted about 90 minutes, the massacre took place. And they contacted many sources on the ground, which Mrs. Jouejati dismisses, and says—and said—they reported that the killing was done by anti-Assad Sunni militants. Now, I’m not saying one thing or the other; I’m saying that this should be investigated.

Now, Mrs. Jouejati is, I think, mistaken in not seeing the wider context of this Syrian—tragic Syrian struggle. And the only way to resolve it is not by force of arms. The only way to resolve it is by diplomacy. That is why it is a great mistake to sabotage Kofi Annan’s mission, as I’m afraid the United States is doing. It pays lip service to his peace mission while conniving in the arming of the opposition. The West and the Russians should combine in imposing a ceasefire on both sides and bringing both sides to the table. That is the only way to save what is left of Syria.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rafif Jouejati, can you—can you respond to that? Would you agree with Patrick Seale’s assessment that what the rebels are trying to do is trigger military intervention?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Absolutely not. I think the calls for military intervention came at a time when the civilian population was being so heavily shelled that they had nobody to turn to, and the last resort was to call for foreign intervention. I would maintain the revolution began peacefully, and it would have stayed peaceful had the Assad regime not started firing on protesters, firing on mourners attending the funerals of protesters who had been killed the day before, kidnapping, detaining, torturing children. Let’s remember Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who was 13 years old, who was detained, tortured, mutilated and returned to his village as an example. The Free Syrian Army is composed of defected soldiers, who did not wish to shoot at unarmed civilians. Let’s go back to the roots of the revolution and see how it has progressed from March 2011. Let’s also take a look at the weapons that Russia is shipping to Syria. Let’s talk about foreign intervention and the intervention that Assad has allowed to enter the country in the form of Russian and Iranian support.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you want to see happen now, Rafif?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I would love to see the Annan peace plan take effect. I would love to see the Assad regime respect a single tenet of that six-point plan, starting with a full pullback of military equipment and troops, and perhaps ending with independent media and foreign journalists allowed to enter to investigate and report on what is actually happening.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rafif, can you explain why the former head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, was forced to resign last month and tell us a little bit about the new head, Abdul Basit Sieda? Did Ghalioun’s resignation have something to do with calls for intervention?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I really can’t speak for the Syrian National Council. My speculation is that Burhan Ghalioun had originally been seen as a consensus builder and was having a challenge in actually building consensus. Now, we have to remember that the Syrian National Council, A, is a relatively new organization and, B, populated by people who have been politically and intellectually repressed for more than five decades. So there are some growing pains. There is some dysfunction, certainly. I don’t think anybody would dispute that. With Burhan Ghalioun stepping down—and it was voluntarily, by the way—he offered to resign as soon as a suitable replacement was found. The council decided it had found a suitable replacement, and he was elected. Now, Mr. Abdul Basit appears to be a consensus builder, appears to enjoy popularity with the very important Kurdish minority. And we hope that, under his leadership, the Syrian National Council can reorganize and overcome some of the difficulties it was facing in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, finally, Patrick Seale?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, Ms. Jouejati doesn’t seem to be in close touch with the Syrian National Council or the opposition. Its official policy is to call for a foreign intervention. It knows it can’t do the job by itself. That’s why—that’s why these rebels are trying desperately to provoke the regime into massacres. Now, the regime’s strategy is the very contrary: it will not tolerate pockets of armed rebels on its territory, so it’s going all-out to exterminate them. So the more the rebels are armed, the more bloodshed there will be, and the more a great need is to support Kofi Annan in every possible way to encourage the holding of a big international conference in Moscow, perhaps, with both sides represented. Stop the bloodshed and start talking—that’s what the international community should insist upon.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Amy, I’d like to respond to that, if I may.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, and we’re wrapping up right now.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Very quickly. I will tell Mr. Seale that, while I am in Washington, D.C., I am in daily contact with activists on the ground.

PATRICK SEALE: But you don’t seem to know that the policy is to trigger—

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I represent the largest network of activists on the ground in Syria. And the Syrian National Council called for military intervention in response to the people who were being shelled by regime forces, not to further any ulterior motives, but to respond to what the people were asking for.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Rafif Jouejati, we want to thank you very much for being with us, activist and member of the Syrian opposition. Patrick Seale, leading British writer on the Middle East, he’s speaking to us from the south of France—she, from Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we look at the numbers, the fact that more soldiers are taking their own lives, U.S. soldiers, than are dying on the battlefield today. Stay with us.

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