The Arab League sent observers to Syria about a month ago. Their mission: to bear witness to the escalating violence between soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad and armed opposition fighters.
The presence of the orange-vested observers was supposed to discourage the violent crackdown on protesters, but since they arrived in December, almost 1,000 Syrians have died. Overall, it is estimated that more than 5,400 people have been killed since the protests began last March.
On Sunday in Cairo, Arab League ministers extended the observers' mission for another month. Despite their efforts, the group of 22 Arab states has been criticized for its inability to prevent the violence.
NPR's Kelly McEvers, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the situation in Syria is definitely deteriorating: The currency is dropping in value, there are shortages of heating oil and checkpoints on the road.
"Basically, when the sun goes down, people will shutter themselves into their houses," McEvers says. "You see analysts and journalists say, 'We might approach a civil war.' My sense is that we're already there."
Everything the international community has done so far in Syria has had virtually no effect, says Steve Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The growing number of deaths has led to calls for some sort of Western intervention. Cook tells NPR's Raz that anything short of a direct intervention is unlikely to have a positive outcome.
"It is time to at least start a debate about what international intervention might look like," Cook says, "whether it's a no-fly zone ... whether it is arming the opposition [or] whether it is the introduction of troops in order to separate the opposition from the Syrian military."
Although he supports the Arab League's efforts with observers in Syria and the power of the people's movement, Cook says there are limits to what they can do.
"There is no indication that the [Assad] regime is on the verge of falling; there is no indication that they even believe they have a problem on their hands," he says. "The idea that the tightening of sanctions and travel bans and U.N. fact-finding missions seems [unlikely] likely to alter the calculations of the Assad family ... willing to use whatever means possible."
The hope for a more democratic and pluralist Syria, he says, will go for naught the longer the international community waits to take more robust action.
Believing In The People
Marwa Daoudy, a lecturer of politics and international relations of the Middle East at Oxford University, says the option of Western intervention is not one favored by the majority of Syrian people.
"They're just asking for the international community to force the regime to ensure safe passage for all U.N. humanitarian agencies," she tells NPR's Raz, "but not to have military troops or even no-fly zones."
Daoudy fears intervention could lead to a backlash. A no-fly zone, for example, would need to be enforced militarily. She says those Syrians still on the fence could end up siding with the regime if they feel their country is being pressured by foreign powers.
"That would completely delegitimize what has been, so far, a very powerful and legitimate movement which needs to bring change from within," she says.
The primary interest by those encouraging military intervention, Daoudy says, should be in weighing the long-term cost for the Syrian people.
To Cook's point that nothing in Syria has been effective so far, Daoudy notes that protests continue and Syrians continue to fight against the regime.
"One has to realize that the wall of fear has fallen in Syria," she says. "People are not afraid anymore ... and they are ready to die. These people still have a lot of power and I think popular power is very important to bringing lasting change in Syria."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
RAZ: This is from an amateur video shot just a few days ago in the rural Syrian town of Kiswe. In it, two men wearing bright orange jackets are being carried through the street on the shoulders of a large crowd.
The men in those jackets? Observers sent to Syria by the Arab League. They arrived about a month ago. Their mission: to bear witness to the escalating violence in Syria, violence between soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, armed opposition fighters. Now, since last March when the protest began in Syria, it's estimated that more than 5,400 people have been killed. The observer mission was supposed to discourage the crackdown, but since those observers arrived in December, almost 1,000 Syrians have died.
Now, earlier today in Cairo, Arab League ministers met and decided to extend that mission for another month. But so far, the group of 22 Arab states has been criticized for its inability to prevent the slaughter. And lately, some in the U.S. have been calling for intervention. That's our cover story today: ending the coming civil war in Syria.
Whose job is it, anyway? In a moment, the pros and cons of military intervention, but first to NPR's Kelly McEvers, who's in Beirut.
And, Kelly, as we just mentioned, the Arab League will extend its mission in Syria for another month. What will that actually mean for the people on the ground in the country?
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: What it means is that Arab League observers will continue to go around Syria. These are guys wearing orange vests driving from town to town trying to monitor whether or not the Syrian government is complying with a peace plan that it has agreed to, that it would pull most of the military from the streets, that it would engage in political dialogue with the protest movement that's been going on now since March, and that it would allow these observers and journalists to come in and monitor the situation.
The problem is since this observer mission started, you know, in some places, yeah, maybe the military vehicles are off the streets, but the killing has continued on the part mostly of the regime against the opposition movement. Hundreds of people have died.
RAZ: There are some estimates that more than five, perhaps 6,000 people, many civilians, have been killed in Syria over the past 10 months. You were in the country just about six weeks ago. What does it feel like in the streets of cities in Syria right now?
MCEVERS: The situation is definitely deteriorating. I mean, you have the currency dropping by the day. I'm hearing from people about shortages of heating oil. People can't keep themselves warm here during the winter. There are checkpoints on the road. Basically, when the sun goes down, people will shutter themselves into their houses. Honestly, Guy, what it's looking more and more like is a war. You know, you see analysts and journalists talking about, you know, we might approach a civil war. My sense is that we're already there.
RAZ: As we'll hear in a moment, there have been arguments made to intervene in Syria and, of course, those who vehemently oppose it. When you were there, did you see signs of human rights violations that would quite possibly rise to the level of supporting an intervention argument?
MCEVERS: You know, I'm definitely not a legal scholar, but what I can tell you is that the brutality is worse than anything you can possibly imagine, and most of it is on the part of the regime. But now that the opposition movement has armed itself, it's coming from that side too. It's really hard to overstate how brutal this conflict has become.
Because we haven't been able to go and cover it very often, we rely on secondhand accounts and autopsy videos. These are sort of a popular device by the opposition movement, is to do a video recounting of a dead body after the fact and to show the signs of torture and the way the person was killed. But it is definitely by far the most brutal of the Arab uprisings, and I think it's only going to get worse.
RAZ: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Kelly, thanks so much.
RAZ: Now, as we just mentioned, the U.N. estimates some 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since last March. That growing number has led to calls for some sort of intervention from the West. Here to talk more about what that intervention might look like is Steven Cook. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Steven Cook, welcome.
STEVEN COOK: A pleasure to be with you, Guy.
RAZ: And from Princeton University, we have Marwa Daoudy. She's a lecturer at the University of Oxford and currently a visiting scholar at Princeton. Marwa Daoudy, welcome.
MARWA DAOUDY: Thank you.
RAZ: First to you, Steven, what is, in your view, the arguments to support intervention in Syria right now?
COOK: Well, by and large, everything that the international community has done has had virtually no effect. As a result, if the international community - the United States, Europe, the Arab League - are true to their words, they're wanting to see a change in Syria, then it strikes me that anything we do short of intervening is not likely to have a positive outcome.
RAZ: So just to clarify, you believe that a military intervention is necessary.
COOK: Well, I'm not committed to one form or another of military intervention. Obviously, Syria is different from Libya, which is different from every other country. But it is time to at least start a debate about what international intervention might look like, whether it's a no-fly zone along the lines that was conducted in Libya, whether it is arming the Syrian opposition, whether it is the introduction of troops in order to separate the opposition from the Syrian military, which is engaged in a slaughter of the Syrian people.
RAZ: Marwa Daoudy, time to intervene in Syria militarily or, as Steven Cook suggests, by arming rebel groups and enforcing a no-fly zone?
DAOUDY: Well, I think this is not an option, which is favored by the majority of the Syrian people. In terms of the local coordination committees, which represent the fact that people who are dying today on the streets, they say clearly they don't want to substitute authoritarian rule by submission to foreign influence. They're just asking for the international community to force the regime to ensure safe passage for all U.N. humanitarian agencies, but not to have military coups or even no-fly zones. Because when we talk about no-fly zones, they have to be militarily enforced. And how will the Syrian people who have been so far a bit ambivalent about what was happening, the majority is still, you know, staying on the sidelines waiting to see how things turn.
DAOUDY: If they feel the country is being aggressed by foreign powers, they might just side with the regime. And in that case, in my view, that would completely delegitimize what has been so far a very powerful and legitimate movement, which needs, in fact, to bring change from within.
RAZ: Steven Cook, to that point, I mean, absent a U.N. mandate as there was in Libya, absent a Arab League backing as there was in Libya. If there was some kind of intervention, couldn't that create a backlash, as Marwa Daoudy suggests?
COOK: A couple of things. The suggestion that we should at least entertain the idea of international intervention in Syria comes after nine months of efforts to alter the behavior of the Assad regime. Those who are moving towards a discussion of international intervention are outraged by the moral ambivalence of people when it comes to the slaughter of people who have risen up to demand peaceful change.
RAZ: But if there is - if there have been rumblings in the Arab League, including from the Qataris, why doesn't it make more sense for Western countries to simply encourage the Arab League to try to resolve this?
COOK: Well, it absolutely does make a tremendous amount of sense. The Arab League has sought to, and its observers have observed an increase in the rate of killing of Syrian people while they've been there. But there are limits to what the Arab League can do. To me, either we consider seriously the question of international intervention or we need to reconcile ourselves to the continuation of the Assad regime and the killing of many more thousands of Syrians.
RAZ: Marwa Daoudy, at a certain point when you consider how many people have been killed, do you have to intervene? I mean, does it get to a place where it just has to be stopped somehow?
DAOUDY: I would just like to specify that rejecting foreign military intervention does not imply standing with the Assad regime or agreeing with the situation. This is a very brutal regime, which has killed so far close to 6,000 civilians, recognized civilians. There might be many more casualties in that sense.
And I would like to say, answering to Steve Cook's point about that nothing has been effective so far. Well, the peaceful demonstrations have continued. It's been more than 10 months. They keep on demonstrating. They keep on fighting against the regime. I mean, one has to realize that the wall of fear has fallen in Syria. People are not afraid anymore to confront the security services, to go to the streets, and they're ready to die. And these people have still a lot of power. And I think popular power is very important in bringing lasting change in Syria.
RAZ: Steven Cook, is the regime - I mean, is it inevitable?
COOK: I think it's more of a hope than it is anything else. There's no indication that the regime is on the verge of falling. There's no indication that they even believe that they have a problem on their hands. If you look at Bashar Assad's four speeches, in the last one that he gave on January 10th, he didn't even offer reform, which is in the previous speeches. However hollow they were, he didn't offer those reforms.
But the idea that tightening of sanctions and travel bans and U.N. fact-finding missions seems to me not likely to alter the calculations of the Assad family, which is engaged in a struggle and willing to use whatever means possible. And Marwa Daoudy's hopes for a more democratic and pluralist Syria will go for naught the longer that the international community waits to take more robust action against the Assad regime.
RAZ: Marwa, last word to you. We have just a few moments left.
DAOUDY: Well, I would answer to Steve Cook that he seems to forget the results of the Iraq War even in terms of American casualties, in terms of the legacy that is left in Iraq today, and there is some sort, I would say, international consensus that was...
COOK: I'm not a supporter of the Iraq War. I'm just pointing out the analogy between...
DAOUDY: No, but you made the parallel with Saddam Hussein.
COOK: ...the lengthy sanctions having no effect on dictators who want to remain in power. That's not...
DAOUDY: Right. But the - I'd like to remind you also that in the case of South Africa, international pressure, international sanctions brought about peaceful transition to what has been so far a very lasting transition to democracy...
COOK: Well, how long did that take?
DAOUDY: ...I think there are other examples. And it's not wishful thinking. It's just thinking of weighing the cost of military intervention in the long-term for the Syrian people, and that should be the primary interest. And again, one has to listen to what the Syrian people ask for. And again, I'll go back to the local coordination committees who represent the revolutionaries on the ground, and they do not call for a military intervention.
RAZ: Marwa Daoudy is a visiting scholar at Princeton University and a lecturer at the University of Oxford. Marwa, thank you so much.
DAOUDY: Thank you very much for inviting me.
RAZ: We also spoke with Steven Cook. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Steven Cook, thank you.
COOK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.