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As Assad Regime Accepts Russian Plan on Chemical Weapons, A Debate on Syria’s Path Forward

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As President Obama prepares to address the nation on his push for congressional backing of a military strike on Syria, the Assad regime has accepted a Russian initiative to put its chemical weapons under international control. Could the move stop a U.S. strike and bring the Syrian crisis closer to a diplomatic resolution? We host a debate on how to resolve the Syrian conflict between Rafif Jouejati of the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout Syria, and Rania Masri, Lebanese-based human rights activist and professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon.

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AARON MATÉ: We begin with Syria. Syria’s foreign minister has announced Syria has accepted a Russian proposal to surrender control over its chemical weapons. France responded by saying it would ask the U.N. Security Council to approve a resolution demanding that Syria place its chemical arms under international control. The Russian initiative was apparently sparked by remarks made by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday about what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to prevent a U.S. attack.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week—turn it over, all of it, without delay—and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.

AARON MATÉ: That was Secretary of State John Kerry speaking on Monday in London. A short while later in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared before reporters and seized on Kerry’s remarks.

FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] We don’t know if Syria agrees to it, but if putting chemical weapons in this country under international control averts the military strikes, then we will immediately get to work on this with Damascus. We also call on the Syrian leadership not only to put chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, but also to destroy it afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: While Syria’s foreign minister has announced Syria will accept the Russian proposal to surrender control over its chemical weapons, Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, dismissed the initiative as a diplomatic trick, saying it would “allow the regime to cause more death and destruction in Syria.”

In Washington, D.C., the State Department appeared to walk back Kerry’s statement, saying he was making a “hypothetical,” “rhetorical argument.” But as the day wore on, President Obama said he is open to exploring Russia’s proposal, and confirmed he had discussed it with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit last week. Speaking to PBS News, Obama said the Russian offer could mark a breakthrough, so long as it’s backed by the threat of military force.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If, in fact, there is a way to accomplish that diplomatically, that is overwhelmingly my preference. And, you know, I have instructed John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians and run this to ground. And if we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I’m all for it. But we’re going to have to see specifics. And I think it is reasonable to assume that we would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

AARON MATÉ: President Obama’s comments came as the push for military intervention faced new obstacles in Washington. As Congress returned from the summer recess to begin debating a U.S. strike on Syria, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he will delay a test vote on military authorization scheduled for Wednesday. In a new setback for the White House, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said she would oppose military authorization, and threw her support behind a proposal from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin to give the Assad regime 45 days to endorse the international ban on chemical weapons. In the House, a new whip count by The Washington Post shows a majority of congressmembers, 240, are either against or leaning against voting to authorize military strikes on Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Opinion polls continue to show a majority of Americans oppose military intervention. According to The New York Times, 56 percent of Americans are against Obama’s plan for military strikes, while 90 percent believe it will spark a more widespread war in the Middle East. As the debate over Syria takes a new turn, violence inside the country claimed the lives of at least 49 people Monday, including 25 around the capital Damascus.

For more on Syria, we’re joined now by two guests. We’re joined by Rafif Jouejati, English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout Syria, and Rania Masri, Lebanese-based human rights activist and professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. She joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Why don’t we begin in Washington, D.C., with Rafif Jouejati? What is your assessment of Syria saying they would accept Russia’s proposal, which came out after Secretary of State Kerry’s seemingly offhand remark, although it looks like President Obama said he has now discussed this with Russian President Vladimir Putin, putting chemical weapons—Syria putting their chemical weapons under international control?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Well, certainly, that’s a welcome move, but I think it’s a stall tactic. Let’s keep in mind that just last night Bashar al-Assad refused to confirm or deny that his regime actually possesses chemical weapons. So, apparently, this is an admission that they do possess them. And I’m reminded of other international initiatives, like the Kofi Annan plans one and two and the Lakhdar Brahimi U.N. plan, where the Assad regime agreed to pull back tanks from civilian areas and then failed to do so. So I’m not sure this really has any teeth.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response, Rania Masri, of these latest fast-moving developments, as President Obama is expected to address the nation tonight, and he was expected to make a push for war to a majority unconvinced country, the people of the United States?

RANIA MASRI: Yes, well, I think it strongly reveals both President Obama’s international isolation, with his only main ally supporting a bombing campaign against Syria being the Saudis, who have themselves funded many of these so-called rebels in Syria, and at the same time President Obama is facing increasing domestic opposition, from the Republicans to the Democrats, across the political spectrum.

What I see coming out of Russia actually is proof of the power of political settlements and of the importance of diplomacy. Given the horrendous consequences of a bombing campaign on Syria, and particularly on the Syrian people, and given the extraordinary need for a political settlement, this demonstration by the Russian government and the Syrian government shows a strong possibility towards the power of a political settlement.

And I think it also reveals a great deal that those who claim to speak on behalf of the Syrian people here in the United States, be it either the Syrian National Coalition or the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, any of these so-called opposition forces here in the U.S., how they have been so adamant to support a bombing campaign against their own country. And yet, when we look into who they are, we see that they are actually puppets representing Saudi Arabia much more than they represent the people of Syria.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s get a response to that from Rafif Jouejati. Your assessment of Rania’s statement that exile Syrian groups are unfairly backing a bombing campaign?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I think many in the Syrian expatriate communities certainly do favor a military strike. This is not because they are puppets of the Saudi government, as Rania says. This is not because they don’t represent the Syrian people. I believe this is because many, many Syrians inside Syria—not in the United States, but inside Syria—feel that Assad will not stop unless he is stopped militarily. This is the man who is responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians. This is the regime that is responsible for the internal displacement of at least four million people, two million refugees abroad. So, Syrians, who are inside, are feeling that there is no hope but for a military strike.

RANIA MASRI: Actually, if I can respond to that, if I may—

AMY GOODMAN: Rania Masri.

RANIA MASRI: I did not claim that the Syrian expat community in the United States were puppets. I specifically said that those who claim to represent the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Forces are, be they George Sabra, who has gone on record as supporting Samir Geagea, a right-wing fascist and an ally of Israel, or Ahmad al-Jarba, who is a known convicted drug dealer and who is a strong supporter of the Saudis. This is clear.

As for your number of 100,000, again, it falls into this very detrimental binary. We’re very familiar with the crimes of the Syrian regime; however, to present it that the Syrian regimes are the only ones right now in Syria that are committing crimes of atrocity is false, and it’s not even supported by the pro-opposition Syrian Human Rights Observatory. And they, themselves—this pro-opposition Syrian Human Rights Observatory recognizes that 43 percent of that figure of 100,000 fatalities, 43 percent of them are Syrian army combatants.

And when we look at these rebel groups in Syria, we understand, even according to Secretary of State John Kerry, that 15 to 20 percent of them are known terrorists with affiliates to al-Qaeda or worse, and that the others, the so-called Free Syrian Army, actually work with al-Qaeda, as numerous, numerous statements from the so-called Free Syrian Army battalions have revealed, including this latest atrocity of the attack against Maaloula, one of the most ancient Christian villages in the world. We have this attack against Maaloula, which in no way can be regarded as an attack against a Syrian army strong post; it can only be seen what it is, an attack against Christians, because many of whom that are leading this armed fight against the Syrian regime are, unfortunately, Takfiris.

What is lost throughout all this binary presentation is the people of Syria themselves, the nonviolent civil society movements within Syria. The people of Syria themselves, they are the ones caught between the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda. And, unfortunately, it is their voices that are being lost, and it is their voices that we hear, through numerous networks, that have continued to say no to a bombing campaign, no to military intervention, yes to political negotiations, yes to humanitarian aid.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Rafif?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: Can I respond to that, because there are so many points that got convoluted in that statement?

First of all, it’s not the so-called Free Syrian Army; it is actually called the Free Syrian Army, which is a largely secular group. Certainly no one is disputing the presence of Islamist foreign jihadists in the country, but we recognize that these are a minority, and we recognize that Syrian civilians across the country have come out in protest against them, saying we will not trade one dictatorship for another.

Second of all, I do represent the nonviolent community, the civil society community, that is on the ground in Syria. The Local Coordination Committees has been documenting the deaths of the 100,000-plus civilian casualties. We also document the atrocities committed by members of the armed opposition. So I’m not excusing those, and I’m not saying there’s a binary argument here. We do say yes to humanitarian aid. We do say yes to stop the killing. But the LCC has said, if the international community is going to do something, let it stop the murderer, let it stop the massacres, let it stop the bombing campaigns against civilian communities, whether these campaigns are done via Scud missile, whether they’re done via barrel bombs at civilian bread lines in Aleppo, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. And then, another 9/11. It’s September 11, 1973, the day Salvador Allende was—died in the palace in Santiago, Chile, as the Pinochet forces rose to power. We’ll speak with one of the last men with him who survived, Juan Garcés, his closest adviser. We’re speaking with Rafif Jouejati, Syrian Local Coordination Committees, and Rania Masri, a professor in Lebanon, speaking to us from North Carolina. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: In his comments on Monday in London, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is not seeking war in Syria, just what he called an “unbelievably small” campaign of targeted strikes.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort, in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons, without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we’re talking about doing: unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

AMY GOODMAN: “Unbelievably small,” Rania Masri, professor in Lebanon, speaking to us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Does that reassure you, as a person who is opposed to a U.S. strike on Syria? What could it mean?

RANIA MASRI: Well, I think it’s more important when we look at what has been discussed by Senator John McCain and others, and they were more talking about a 60- to 90-day bombing campaign. And even a relatively small—and what does that mean? What are the targets that they’re going to consider suitable targets for their objectives, given that militarily there cannot be deterrence for the use of chemical weapons militarily? It can only be achieved politically.

But I do want to say this in rebuttal to an earlier comment. I do say “the so-called Free Syrian Army,” because it is not an army with a clear hierarchy. It is a group of independent battalions operating under the same name. Check the reports from The Economist. Check the reports from Joshua Landis. I think what’s absolutely clear, we’re all united that we want to stop the violence in Syria. We’re all united that we want to have some semblance of peace and stability. And to do that, there needs to be pressure put on all sides in Syria, not only pressure put on the Syrian government, but pressure put on all the rebels themselves, who are also committing crimes, if not working directly with the terrorists.

And I think it’s very important to recognize that the main financier here of these rebel brigades in Syria is Bandar bin Sultan, the previous U.S. ambassador—the previous Saudi ambassador to the United States. And he was also the prime financier of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and of the Contras in Nicaragua. This is a man with a very long track record of encouraging groups to commit crimes and to commit war crimes. And this is not a man who has supported groups that represent the people themselves. So we need to put this into perspective.

And I also think that what’s happening right now forces the administration and forces those in Congress to come clean. If they are concerned with chemical weapons, they have a way out, very clearly, without any bombs being dropped. If they are concerned with regime change in Syria, then we will see their position. And again, we all know what the U.S. means when it says “regime change.” It never does regime change for democracy; it does regime change for implementation of different puppets.

AMY GOODMAN: Rafif Jouejati, your response to Rania Masri? And on this issue of Saudi backing, among others, Wall Street Journal did a major exposé on what Rania Masri was just saying, that the man in the U.S. who came to be known as “Bandar Bush,” the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, who famously shared a cigar with President Bush the day after the 9/11 attacks on the Truman Balcony, so close to the Bush family, they nicknamed him that, that he, in the last few years, is behind much of the support of the Saudi rebels and has been pushing the U.S. to wage a military strike against the Assad regime.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: I’m not going to apologize for Bandar bin Sultan. I’m not going to comment or support in any way any of the Gulf involvement in what is happening in Syria. I do want to go back to something Rania said. I do not read Joshua Landis because I make it a practice to not support regime shills and regime propagandists, so if that’s the literature she’s relying on—

RANIA MASRI: Well, then the [inaudible].

RAFIF JOUEJATI: —for her information, that’s really unfortunate.

But, let me go on and answer the specific question you asked, Amy, and that was about John Kerry’s statements and, I guess, sort of the movement of this very limited strike. And let me be clear: The LCC does not support a limited strike. As John Kerry said, this would be “unbelievably small.” And we don’t believe that an unbelievably small response is going to do anything to an unbelievably brutal dictator that is destroying the country, that is destroying civil society, that in fact has been the one to open the doors for the jihadists, that in fact is the one using chemical weapons against its own civilians.

RANIA MASRI: You know, I find it—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something, Rafif—

RANIA MASRI: I find it—

AMY GOODMAN: Rania Masri, just one sec. I want to ask Rafif, if war was not on the table—I mean, if a U.S. strike was not on the table, what do you think is a diplomatic solution to this incredibly bloody conflict?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure there is a clear-cut answer. We have a fundamental problem in that one of the parties that consistently vetoes any language in the U.N. also supplies weapons to the Assad regime. This is a major problem. We have the problem of Gulf countries supplying weapons to haphazard battalions on the ground, independent of the Free Syrian Army. So, I’m not sure what the diplomatic answer is. The other thing to consider is that, as I began with, several—18 months ago, when there were international initiatives, diplomatic initiatives on the table to stop the violence, the Assad regime failed to adhere to a single tenet of the peace plans that were put forward. So, we are—we always welcome a diplomatic solution. Of course this should be a political resolution. But how?

AARON MATÉ: Well, Rania Masri, what about this issue? What do you think is a possible solution?

RANIA MASRI: Well, first I want to say I find it not only criminal, but also ahistoric, to imagine that a U.S. bombing campaign lobbied against Syria or any other country would actually result in something humanitarian or something peaceful or something stable. Simply study history. Start with studying history. Look at Iraq. Look at—

RAFIF JOUEJATI: That’s not what I said, Rania.

RANIA MASRI: No, let me finish. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan. Look at all othes. I find it absolutely abhorrent that we would actually be calling for a larger than a limited military strike on Syria, one.

Part two, we need to recognize—and I have to continue to repeating this—yes, the Syrian army has committed crimes, but so has the so-called Free Syrian Army and the terrorists that they work with. And don’t just quote me on that or Joshua Landis, but quote the United Nations, when we have a U.N. independent panel that was released—they released a report earlier this year in which they said—and I quote—”It’s impossible to choose good guys among the groups of Syrian rebels and send weapons to them.” I think we need to stand clear here and say no to violence committed by any party.

And to do that, there is a very strong political solution. The United States can put pressure on its allies in the region—namely, the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks—to halt the flood of weapons that’s coming in from Sudan and Libya via Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan to these rebels, halt that, push the Russians to then put pressure on the Syrians, get the Syrians themselves to the negotiating table. We all agree that the only solution can be a political settlement. Kerry has said so. Secretary of Defense Hagel had said so. Any bombing campaign will only result in reducing whatever political capital there is, and providing that political settlement will only give power to extremism on all sides in Syria and will only kill more and more Syrians and result in more and more displacement. This is what we need to be calling for: a halt to the arms trade, stronger demand for political diplomacy, for political negotiations, increased support for humanitarian support for the Syrians, and absolutely no bombing of any kind, limited or expanded.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just read this latest from the CBS. “The French foreign minister [has] said … France will float a resolution [at] the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and dismantle it. It was unclear whether France’s fresh push for a U.N. resolution was spawned by the Russian proposal, but the terms given seemed similar.”

CBS is also reporting, “Laurent Fabius said France, a permanent member of the 15-nation U.N. body, would start the resolution process [today]. He said the proposal would be under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter — which would back up the resolution with a threat of force if not applied — and would 'condemn' a chemical weapons attack in Syria on Aug. 21.”

So, let’s bring this full circle to where we began. Rafif, with this latest news, do you see any hope?

RAFIF JOUEJATI: You know, I always have to have hope, because the people on the ground always have hope. I do want to point out to Rania that she’s trying to create a debate where none exists. I’m not defending crimes perpetrated by the opposition, and I’m not—and I’m not condoning in any way any of their negative actions. But to come full circle, the point of a political resolution is to hope that the regime, the perpetrator of the majority of the crimes, would come to that political resolution. And I don’t think the Assad regime is capable or willing to engage in any sort of political resolution that has it negotiating itself out of power.

AARON MATÉ: Rania Masri, I wanted to ask you about the comments of Alon Pinkas. He’s the former Israeli consul general in New York. And speaking to The New York Times last week, Pinkas described his take on how Israel is viewing the conflict in Syria. He said, quote, “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win—we’ll settle for a tie. Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the [strategic] thinking here.”


AARON MATÉ: “As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.” Are you worried that that is basically the international approach to Syria right now, is let them bleed?

RANIA MASRI: Well, I mean, I take issue with the term “international,” because we do have very different state parties here. I think it is one of the objectives of the U.S. government, yes, and of course its allies, be they in Israel or be they in the Gulf, that, yes, one of the objectives is to continue to have them, quote, “kill each other,” as was the objective of the U.S. government during the Iraq-Iran War. Yes, I do see that as being one of the objectives, the continuous destruction of Syria as a country and of its people, on all sides, yes.

But I also want to raise this issue. And I’m not just creating a debate for the objective of debate, but I’m actually understanding what’s being said by the other party. While we sit here and we’re opposed to the use of chemical weapons—and, I would argue, opposed to the use of all weapons, not just chemical weapons—it’s important to point out that according to statements made by the United Nations itself, they’ve released statements that, quote, they have “strong suspicion” that the rebels themselves have access and have used sarin gas. And these statements were made earlier this year. So, again, I just want to say that what we need to be working on is a full halt of the arms trade.

Now, with regards to the French proposal, one thing that scares me, as an expert to what the United States did to Iraq during the 13 years of sanctions, is once we put a threat—once we make a statement related to weapons of mass destruction—any way, shape or form—and we back it up with a threat of weapons and a threat of a bombing campaign or a threat of further economic sanctions, we know who will end up getting punished by these. And the people that will end up being punished are the people that have no voice and that are completely vulnerable and that are the Syrian people itself. So, with regards to this resolution that the French are proposing in the United Nations, I think it is wise so long as it is not backed up by a threat of a bombing campaign. Again, we need to be unequivocal here and say absolutely no bombing campaign by anyone under any circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, but of course the conversation continues. President Obama will address the nation tonight. Tomorrow we’ll spend the hour with Professor Noam Chomsky to get his response. Rania Masri is a Lebanese-based human rights activist, professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. She joined us from Raleigh, North Carolina. And we’ve been speaking with Rafif Jouejati, the English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout Syria. She is based in Washington, D.C.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the other 9/11, 40 years ago, the one that took out Salvador Allende in Chile as the Pinochet forces rose to power. Stay with us.

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