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Syrians Debate: Will U.S. Attack Help the Opposition’s Struggle Against Assad?

StorySeptember 05, 2013
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As debate continues in Washington and worldwide over what action to take in Syria, we’re joined by two Syrian opposition activists with different takes on whether Congress should authorize military strikes. Joining us from London, Rim Turkmani of the Syrian political opposition group Building the Syrian State Current says the United States has a “historic opportunity” to help achieve a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria. “If the U.S. resorts to military power to end this, that means [it’s] failed politically,” Turkmani says. Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the Syrian Center Political and Strategic Studies, and former director of foreign relations at the Syrian National Council, says there are no other options to a military solution in Syria, in which U.S. involvement could prove decisive. “We don’t have other options,” Ziadeh says. “Otherwise, Assad will continue his killing machine.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the debate continues in Congress and worldwide over what action to be taken in Syria, we turn now to a debate between two members of the Syrian opposition on whether the U.S. Congress should authorize military strikes. On Wednesday, House Republican Congressman Mike McCaul of Texas questioned Secretary of State Kerry about the nature of the opposition in Syria.

REP. MICHAEL McCAUL: I think what gives the Congress great pause and the American people great pause is there’s no good outcome here. They don’t see a good side versus a bad side. They see Assad as a bad actor who has used chemical weapons. There’s no question about that. But then, who is the other side? Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time, and every time I get briefed on this, it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world to come to Syria for the fight. And my concern is, any strike against this regime, as bad as it is, will empower these radical Islamists, these extremists.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists. About somewhere maybe 15 to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys. There are many different groups—al-Nusra, al-Sham Ahrar. There are different entities. And sometimes they’re fighting each other, even now. The general belief, there is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idris is running the military arm of that. And our allies in this effort, our friends, from the Saudis to the Emiratis to the Qataris and others, are now, in a disciplined way, funneling assistance through General Idris and the moderate opposition, who are getting stronger as a result of it.

REP. MICHAEL McCAUL: And I get 40 seconds. But I—there are moderates there, but the briefings that I’ve received, unless I’ve gotten different ones or inaccurate briefings, is at 50 percent, and rising.


REP. MICHAEL McCAUL: The freedom—these fighters coming globally are not coming in as moderates. They’re coming in as jihadists, and that’s my concern.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Texas Republican Congressmember McCaul questioning Secretary of State John Kerry at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. And behind Kerry, throughout that hearing, you saw bloodied hands or red-stained hands behind him. The group CodePink had a line of people sitting silently with their hands up behind his head.

Well, right now in London we’re joined by Rim Turkmani, member of the Syrian political opposition group Building the Syrian State Current. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Radwan Ziadeh, the former director of foreign relations at the Syrian National Council, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And I’d like to begin with Radwan, Radwan Ziadeh in Washington. Do you support or oppose a U.S. strike on your country?

RADWAN ZIADEH: It’s not in this way. I think the question has to be reframed the way that you allow the Assad to continue the killings and to do more chemical attacks on the civilians, to allow the Assad to wage more massacres against the Syrian people, which more than 100,000 of people been killed, to pursue other options. All the options we’ve been tried with Assad—through negotiations, through political solution, through sanctions—none of—none of these actually convinced him to stop the killings machine he has started in March 2011. This is why using force as one of the options to protect the civilians became the last options we should go with it, because we don’t have other options. Otherwise, the Assad continue his killing machine. And maybe now Syria has became the largest humanitarian disaster in the world, with the number of the refugees to cross two million in the neighboring countries. This is why it’s became unmanageable crisis, unmanageable situation. And this is why we should not wait more and more. And this is why we support the Obama decision, we support the administration decision to use the force against the Assad regime to end the crisis and to open the political process for all the Syrians to participate to build a democratic Syria.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rim Turkmani, a member of the Syrian political opposition group Building the Syrian State Current, what is your perspective on President Obama’s proposal?

RIM TURKMANI: I think the U.S. is already a part of this conflict. It’s not exactly true what previous discussions have mentioned, that this is only a civil war. There is a complex layer of civil war and proxy international war and regional war. So I think, yes, Obama—President Obama does have responsibility here, and they need to be a player. And I think they have to help us to end this regime and to prevent the use of chemical weapon by any party.

However, I think this is a historic opportunity in front of President Obama and the U.S. to demonstrate its political and diplomatic power. We all know that the U.S. is strong militarily. You know, you can measure that physically. But nobody can measure the political and diplomatic power and the force for peace, except in such times, in the times of international crisis. And if the U.S. resort to military power to end this, then that means basically that they failed politically. I would like President Obama to live up to the speech he delivered in Cairo shortly after he won, you know, his first elections, when he promised new relations with the Arab world and the Muslim world. And I would like to see, you know, such new relations, but I don’t see them coming through bombs. I want them to come through peace and diplomacy.

And that is not going to happen in Syria by complicating the already ongoing war with a new player, with a new strategy, that has a new—different aim to the rest of the parties, and is not even aiming to end this regime. And in my view, this is not all about Syrians at all. I mean, there is—as I said, there is a proxy war here. It’s very much about Russia and Iran and China, which hardly been mentioned in the discussions I heard earlier in your program. So, yeah, I would like to see America demonstrating its diplomatic and political power internationally, and protecting its red line in different ways.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Radwan Ziadeh, what about these questions that were raised by members of Congress about the composition of the opposition, of the influence of jihadists, not only within Syria, but flocking from around the world to Syria, on the opposition movement?

RADWAN ZIADEH: I mean, there is a lot of exaggeration in the media about the presence of the jihadists, of the Islamists. What’s happened in Syria being described wrongly as a civil war, because let’s have one example of the civil war in Peru as example, which between the security forces and Shining Path from 1980 to 2000. That’s left at least, for 20 years, 60,000 been killed. We have—in Syria, less than two years, we have more than 100,000. Why the number of casualties in Syria it’s higher, higher than any other normal civil war in other countries? Because the use of the air force from the Assad regime, the use of the chemical attacks, and the use, of course, of the missiles long range—long-range missiles, rockets.

And this is why it’s—the casualties or the civilians who’s been killed in these attacks by the Assad regime, it’s, we can say, 90 or 95 percent of the civilians, of the casualties. And this is why it’s an important to focus on this aspect rather than to focus on the issues—on the minor issues, the rising of jihadists, Islamists and all of that. The people who are fighting against the Assad regime, 90, 95 percent or 99 percent are Syrians, are Syrians who are, some of them, even doctors, engineers, who are taking arms to defend themselves, to defend their towns and cities against the Assad regime—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—I want to—

RADWAN ZIADEH: —and against the Assad militias.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to David Shedd, who we played in a previous segment, the deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA. It’s like the Pentagon’s CIA. He spoke in July at the Aspen Security Forum about the Syrian opposition.

DAVID SHEDD: I count no less than 1,200 disparate groups in the opposition. And so, to a large extent, the conditions of Syria benefit those who have a tendency toward or are actually in the far extreme, because what happens is, they go for the space and organization and certainly what they view as their mission vis-à-vis the Bashar Assad regime and its proxy fighters with Hezbollah and so forth. They are the most effective end of that spectrum of those 1,200 groups. They are increasingly stronger within the opposition in their relative capabilities against the regime. That is not a statement on the flow and the ebb that pertains to how the regime is doing against the opposition. But within the opposition, I think, to your question, I think the al-Nusra Front is gaining in strength and is a case of serious concern for us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s David Shedd, the deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Rim Turkmani, can you respond?

RIM TURKMANI: Sure. No, it’s true that al-Qaeda exists now in Syria, and they proudly announce themselves, and they’re very active, and they’re very strong. And the regime actually avoids attacking them. So, the regime would, for example, rocket civilian areas in Aleppo and leave the headquarters of al-Qaeda, which are very—their coordinations are very well known. They will leave them safe. So, the regime is obviously benefiting from their existence.

However, I would like to point out that, whether al-Qaeda or non-al-Qaeda, the opponents of the regime are not only the armed groups. I would like to remind everybody, in the first six months nearly a million Syrians, if not more, demonstrated against the president, Assad, and those—only a small part of them joined the armed uprising. So, many of them went back home when the whole thing turned to a violent confrontation. By ending this war, we are going to shed light again on these nonviolent protesters, and they will become a much, much stronger player than any other player in all al-Qaeda. And this is the only way you can combat these al-Qaeda groups, by the social good power inside the society. You’re not going to end them by, you know, dropping bombs on them by the U.S.

It’s pointless to ignore them, like Radwan Ziadeh is trying to do. They exist. They’re extremely dangerous. And they’re going to oppose any authority. Whichever regime comes after Assad regime, these groups are going to be a opponent to it, and they’re going to fight it. They’re going to be a problem. They have a global agenda. But I would like to unleash the positive power of the Syrian society that we’ve seen, when the opportunity opened up for it, to stand up for this al-Qaeda mentality, which is very, very foreign to the very moderate and open-minded Syrian mentality that I know.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Radwan Ziadeh, I’d like to ask you about the role of the neighbors of Syria—Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Jordan. These countries, what has been their role in the continuing conflict in your country?

RADWAN ZIADEH: Just before, to mention here, what’s the difficulties in Syria, where actually the number of the casualties is much higher than other normal civil wars, because it’s happened in the civilian areas, like in Aleppo, as example, which a city, one of the historical cities in the world. And the fight actually within its—all cities and within—in the buildings and neighborhoods. And this is why the destruction is much, much higher than what we see in other—in other conflict areas.

And this is why the neighboring countries—what’s happened in Syria, the crisis in Syria, not only split the Security Council, also split the neighbors of Syria. Some countries who joined and support the Assad regime, like Iraq, the Iraqi government, and Hezbollah, a militia in Lebanon, would send fighters to fight along with the Assad side, and there is no much mention on that in the media. Those, they are fanatic, they are radical Shia group fighting with the Assad regime. And on other side you have Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which, of course, they have an impact—an effect of what’s happened in Syria. I mean that what’s happened in Syria can spill over very easily to other weak states, like what’s happened in Lebanon. Until now, they are having difficulties to form government, because they have a split within the society, some of them the pro-Assad, others the support the Syrian people and the revolution. And maybe Turkey is the only country who has actually supported the Syria refugees with at least support from international community. I think this is why the responsibility more here on international community to support all of these countries to be able to provide the Syria refugees with the high international standards of respect and dignity, provide them with the food, water, shelter and all of these issues. It’s much needed, especially in Lebanon and Jordan.

AMY GOODMAN: Rim Turkmani, I wanted to ask about the role of Saudi Arabia. Ahmad Jarba, the new president of the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, who was raised by Kerry on Tuesday when he was speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the credible leader of the Syrian opposition, is very close to Saudi Arabia. And, of course, Saudi Arabia is funding a lot of what’s going on with the rebels. Can you comment on this?

RIM TURKMANI: Yeah, I mean, al-Jarba is a leader of one group of the opposition, a group that is based outside Syria. He doesn’t represent the views of the Syrian inside Syria. At the end of the day, this promised military attack is going to affect, first and foremost, the Syrians inside Syria. And it will be the views of those people inside that I will be interested the most, not of al-Jarba or anybody else outside the country. And when I’m representing my views—you know, that’s all after talking to lots of people inside the country—I represent a political group that is mainly based inside Syria. Its leader still lives in Damascus. And they are very strongly against the regime and against this strike. And we’ve been actually against the way the U.S. interfered politically with this conflict from day one.

We thought there is a great opportunity in front of the U.S. here to play a very strong, brave political role. But what they demonstrated from day one is a failure to read the situation well. And you can judge that by the statement of Hillary Clinton by—she kept repeating, “Assad’s days are numbered. Assad’s days are numbered.” And then it turned out that her days were numbered, and Assad stayed. I mean, isn’t that also something that shakes the U.S. credibility, its political credibility and potential? I think yes. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Rim Turkmani, we’re going to have to leave it there.

RIM TURKMANI: —the U.S. conclude to be a very weak political player in this conflict. And I think it’s time for it to change that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Rim Turkmani is a member of the Syrian political opposition, Building the Syrian State Current. And I also want to thank our guest in Washington, Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.

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