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Can Arab League Monitors Quell Violence In Syria?


This week, Arab League observers entered Syria to monitor the government's pledge to end the crackdown on protesters and withdraw armed forces from besieged cities. Many in the opposition say the monitors will operate under the government's thumb and that the entire exercise is just a show designed to prop up a regime that's already lost its legitimacy.

We'd like to hear from you if this is a credibility test. What will it take for the Arab monitors and indeed the Syrian government to pass? 800-989-8225. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rami Khouri joins us now to talk about the Arab League observers. He's director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and joins us from his home in Beirut. Rami, always good to have you on the program.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. Glad to be with you again.

CONAN: Thousands of protesters gathered earlier today as Arab League observers entered the crucial city of Homs, where so much fighting has under - has gone under way. And there are reports that the Syrian government pulled its armored columns out of that city just in advance of that, yet tear gas filled the city today.

KHOURI: Yes, the reports that are coming out of Syria today from various sources are a little bit conflicting, but what seems to be happening is that this is just the first day, so things may change. But it seems that where the observers or the monitors are going - they went to five cities today, five teams of 10 people each. And in Homs and in other places, what seems to be happening is as they go to a neighborhood, the government forces that may be there pull out. And then - or there's a very few of them left, and they observe the monitors go in and they take a look, and then the monitors leave and things can change.

So the monitors are going to certain spots in certain cities observing. They're monitors. That's all they are. They're not a fact-finding mission. They're not an investigating mission. They just go and look, and they're supposed to verify if the Syrian government is complying with terms of the agreement that the Arab League and the Syrian government signed, which calls on the government to pull its troops out of the center of the cities and release prisoners and stop using military force against peaceful demonstrators. So it's really going to be hard to see if the monitors can really be everywhere at once. There's demonstrations all over the country, and the first day really was rather mixed in the verdict that we saw.

CONAN: The monitors are according to that agreement are supposed to be - go wherever they want, whenever they want, yet, of course, they are also reliant on the Syrian government for their own security and for transportation.

KHOURI: Right. And this is again part of the reason why many people are skeptical about this whole operation. They can go wherever they want. In some cases, they get somewhere and it might be a dangerous place. There might be some shooting. The government is giving them transport. You might tell them this isn't a good place to go now, so we have to just give this is a little bit more time. It's only been going on for one day to be fair to everybody. But the whole operation is one that the Arab League feels has some diplomatic importance, but many of the people on the opposition in Syria and elsewhere are quite skeptical about it.

And the people on the ground, obviously, want the monitors to come in and do their job because the people demonstrating on the ground peacefully, those who are peaceful, which is the overwhelming majority it seems, want the monitors there because the monitors provide a little bit of protection they feel and will be able to report back and say, well, here's what we saw. But there's a tug of war going on between the government of Syria and the demonstrators, each of which wants these monitors to play a slightly different role.

CONAN: Is there any indication the monitors might go to a place like Homs and stay there for a little while?

KHOURI: Oh, yes, and for sure they will. In fact, today, I think the group that went to Homs, the leader of the group went back to Damascus, but members - other members of the group stayed in Homs. And the - I think the plan is that there will eventually be 500 monitors. There's only 50 now in the country, and over the next week or 10 days, they'll build up to about 500. And that should give them a lot more coverage in the country.

The real question that most people are asking is, will this lead - it'll probably lead to a slight toning down of the violence, but will it lead to a serious political process that might bring an end to both the massive demonstrations and the government using violence against the demonstrators? And there are people who are fighting against the government, and shooting and killing government forces, small numbers here and there. But there are certainly are some of those. It's clear.

Will this whole process come to an end and shift into a diplomatic or political negotiation to end this crisis and perhaps turn the page in Syria and move to a different political system. Most people are pretty skeptical about that, but we just have to wait and see. Nobody can tell how these things will go. It really depends on how the Syrian government and Bashar al-Assad and the group of people around him who run the country, how they analyze their situation.

If they feel they can ride this out and put down the protests, they'll just keep doing what they're doing. If they feel that they're really cornered and their days are up, then they might possibly shift into a diplomatic strategy, if there's still a chance to do that. Nobody knows.

CONAN: The opposition has a vote in this too. Is there any indication that as the monitors arrive and spread out through the country, they will step up their peaceful protests as a way of forcing the government's hand?

KHOURI: Oh, I think there's no doubt that that will continue. And there's been, you know, new developments in the last two months or so, which is you've got some numbers of soldiers - it's hard to tell how many. Some people say 20,000. Some people say five to 10,000. But a good number of people have defected from the Syrian military, and some of them have now joined the Free Syrian Army that is fighting against the Syrian government and military. And it's possible that you might get an end to that kind of military resistance, but peaceful demonstrations, I think, will certainly continue. And as long as they're peaceful, I think that they will keep growing.

And there's no doubt that huge numbers of people in Syria that are critical of the government and want it to leave. And it's important to note the escalating nature of this process over the last seven to eight months or so, that initial demonstrators back in March and April were saying we want reform. And then they started saying, we want the government to fall. And then they were saying recently, we want the president to be put on trial. Or we want the president to be shot or killed or put to death.

And escalating demands over time in line with the escalating violence has been used against the demonstrators and the deterioration of the whole situation because in some places in Syria, you're starting to get very dangerous signs of people killing each other based on their ethnic or sectarian identification. And the fear is that you'll end up with a big civil war. I don't think that's going to happen myself, but this is a fear that many people talk about. So this is an escalating process.

It's been escalating for months and months. And there's no way that it's just going to quiet down. People don't expect this to be resolved quickly through political means. But the monitors represent an important step here with the Arab League stepping in diplomatically and taking this first step. The more important thing about the monitors is that they are part of a diplomatic process that the Arab League initiated about two months ago, which also said if this agreement is not implemented to stop the violence and shift to the political course, then the Arab League will ask for other things to happen, like perhaps calling an international assistance or going to the International Criminal Court or going to the U.N. or something like that. So this is part of a longer term process.

And you have - also, today and the last few days, you have people in Homs, in Idlib and other cities in Syria, demonstrators asking for international protection, more than just the monitors. They want international protection. So there is a continued escalation of the conflict and the various political and diplomatic dimensions of it as well.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, also editor-at-large for the Beirut-based Daily Star. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR news.

And let me ask you about another development. Twin car bombs exploded last week in Damascus outside the intelligence building: 40 people killed, over 100 injured. The Syrian government says terrorists associated with the opposition did it. Others say the government did it itself. Any resolution to that? That seems to be a very serious escalation no matter who did it.

KHOURI: Well, definitely, it's a serious escalation. And the real sad part of it, besides the people being killed and injured, is that there are three or four plausible candidates that you could say did this. And this is one of the great tragedies of the modernized world, that a great city and a great culture like Syria or Damascus has been relegated to this situation where massive bombings and large numbers of people killed and injured happen and nobody knows who did it, and different people are plausible candidates.

I, personally - I have a hard time thinking the government did it because if it was the government, they certainly wouldn't bomb their own security services. They might bomb something else. But it's hard to see the government. The government says al-Qaida-type people did it, and they accuse terrorist of being among the demonstrators. The - many in the opposition say the government did it.

It could be perhaps government security people who were leaving, who were defecting and turning against the government. There's all kinds of possibilities, and we just have to, again, wait and see if history gives us some answers to these things. And, unfortunately, situations like this in the Arab world often go unanswered, unexplained.

They certainly wouldn't bomb their own security services. They might bomb something else. But it's hard to see the government - this government says (unintelligible) people but it - and they accused terrorist of being among the demonstrators. The - many in the oppositions say the government did it. It could be perhaps government security people who were leaving, who were defecting and turning against the government. There's all kinds of possibilities and we just have to, again, wait and see if history gives us some answers to these things. And, unfortunately, situations like this in the Arab World often go unanswered, unexplained.

CONAN: Is there something - any one thing you're looking at to see whether the mission of these Arab monitors - Arab League monitors is going to be credible?

KHOURI: Yes. I will - personally, I would be looking at - if there are Syrian troops that withdraw from the center of the cities, which is part of the agreement with the Arab League, if they actually stay out of the center of the cities, or if they just withdraw when the monitors are there, and then when the monitors leave they go back, then we're talking about a very unserious process. There's another thing to look for, which is if the government troops pull out and the demonstrators continue to demonstrate peacefully, will there be other people who then go and shoot the demonstrators, plain-clothed people or thugs that are working against the demonstrators for the government, which is the accusation that the demonstrators make?

We have to see these things as they occur. In other words, is there a real winding down of the military part of this conflict and a shift into a political phase? Or are we just seeing a transition from one kind of fighting to another kind of fighting? But I think the presence of the tanks and the troops in the middle of the cities is probably the easiest first sign to look out for.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, thanks as always for your time.

KHOURI: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, again, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Tomorrow, we'll be in Des Moines. Join us for a conversation about kids and agricultural work. The Labor Department wants to ban kids from doing some of the more dangerous jobs which some farmers fear will threaten their way of life. Join us for that. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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