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Syrian opposition leader on Homs retreat, international aid and chances for a political solution

May 7, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
The war in Syria seems to be tipping in favor of Assad's forces, despite some rebel strongholds. Ties to extremists among some rebel factions have made the U.S. wary of offering military support. But the chief moderate political force opposing Assad, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, has been granted diplomatic status by the State Department. Margaret Warner interviews SOC representative Ahmad Jabra.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, to the civil war in Syria, as the human toll keeps mounting there. The leader of Syria’s main political opposition group comes to Washington with a plea.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: As Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year, with more than 150,000 dead and nearly 10 million displaced, the balance seems to be tipping in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Rebels began withdrawing from the Old City of Homs today, after a year under siege. And Syrian President Assad has set presidential elections for early June. Rebels still control swathes of northern and eastern Syria, but they are splintered, and some of the strongest are extremists with ties to al, including a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

It’s those ties that the Obama administration has cited as a reason for not openly arming the Syrian opposition. But, recently, some moderate rebel units have been filmed using heavy anti-tank weapons with American markings. Their source is unclear.

The chief moderate political force opposing Assad, the Syrian Opposition Coaltion, composed chiefly of exiles, is headed by Ahmad Jarba. Monday, the State Department announced it was granting the SOC enhanced diplomatic status here.

MARIE HARF, State Department Spokeswoman: The coalition has built an inclusive and moderate institution that has demonstrated its commitment to serving the interests and needs of the Syrian people, rejected extremism, and worked to advance a negotiated political transition in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. also announced $27 million more in nonlethal aid for SOC initiatives inside Syria.

Jarba is in the U.S. for his first official visit. I spoke to him this morning.

President Jarba, thank you for joining us.

AHMAD JARBA, President, Syrian Opposition Coalition (through interpreter): Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Rebel fighters are leaving Homs, which was the center of the revolt against Assad early on. U.S. officials are saying things are trending in the wrong direction in Syria.

Are you losing ground on the battlefield?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): Homs is the capital of the Syrian revolution. The people of Homs are real heroes.

They have paid the bill for freedom. Homs has been under siege for more than a year-and-a-half. No food or water or medicine was allowed inside. The siege became lethal. We want the civilians and the fighters to get out of Homs safely so their lives could be saved. This battle and this war sometimes advances and sometimes retreats.

Sometimes, we might lose ground, but our people, the Syrian people, are determined to win at the end and gain back the ground that we are losing.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about your battle on the other front against more extremist rebel groups? Are you losing ground there as well?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): The answer is no.

Originally, this land was liberated by our sons from the Assad forces. And then ISIS came over and took over these areas. In December last year, we started war against the ISIS. The battle is still ongoing. We were able to take four major provinces from ISIS. And the other provinces, the ISIS is still there. The war against ISIS is continuing and we are winning in that war.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States and the West have been saying for three years now they want to support the moderate Syrian opposition. What has their assistance amounted to in tangible terms?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): The United States is a main ally to the moderate opposition and the coalition, with the core group of Friends of Syria that helped us politically and also helped on the humanitarian level, with a lot of aid being provided by the United States, medicine, food, health care, education.

We are looking forward to more cooperation and enhancement of the United States’ aid.

MARGARET WARNER: You have been urging, though, a lot more in the way of military assistance to the rebel fighters. Are you disappointed in President Obama and the policy he’s pursued on Syria?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): On this, my first official visit, we’re looking forward to getting support in all aspects, including military.

The United States has a big interest in saving the Syrian people and the region. Syria is important geopolitically. And after three years of war, I think that additional support from the United States will be a key factor in opening a window for resolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that what you plan to tell President Obama if and when you meet him and his national security team, that you would like to see the U.S. provide more weapons, more training, more sophisticated weapons to the moderate rebel fighters on the ground?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): Yes, for sure.

We are going to talk to our friends, in transparency, frankly, and we’re going to ask for additional support. I think that the situation now is suitable for additional support in that particular area.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama 10 days ago in Manila defended his policy on Syria. He said, critics are saying I should have bombed to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria. Well, we’re getting rid of chemical weapons without bombing, and that the American public has no taste for more wars and military engagements anywhere.

What do you say to that?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): When the United States threatened to strike the regime, the regime quickly agreed to deliver and hand over the chemical weapons.

So, this gang, the Assad gang, doesn’t know anything other than the language of force. If the United States and President Obama had not threatened with force, Assad wouldn’t have handed over his chemical weapons.

But I want to be clear on something. We don’t want our friends in America to enter any war in Syria. We don’t want your American sons to come and fight in Syria, like Iraq and Afghanistan. We just want the weapons to defend ourselves.

The Assad regime is dropping barrel bombs on civilians, on our people, killing hundreds of people every day. And we don’t have any weapons to confront them. Again, we don’t want the United States to send its sons or its warplanes to fight in Syria. We just want weapons to defend ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: The Obama administration and Secretary Kerry were putting great stock in these Geneva peace talks that took place in January between the two sides. And they failed. Is that track essentially dead?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): Geneva failed because of the regime’s noncooperation. Now the process has failed.

Maybe you can say that it is dead, especially after Assad announced that he’s going to hold presidential elections to top the skulls of the Syrian dead.

MARGARET WARNER: Then where is the chance for a political resolution here? Or isn’t there one?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): I believe, yes, for sure, there is a political solution. And we have to find a political solution.

If the pressure on the ground is not there, Assad will not cooperate for a political solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster goes on. You have 200 people on average dying every day.

If you step back and look at this region, Lebanon went through a 15-year civil war. Iraq, you could argue, is just re-descending into what is turning into a 10-year civil war. Is that what may lie ahead for Syria?

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): The Syrians took to the streets for freedom and in order to build a democratic, pluralistic state. Now the only solution should start by the Assad family stepping down from ruling Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: But they’re unwilling to do that.

AHMAD JARBA (through interpreter): Syria is a beautiful country. It has multiple races and ethnicities and religions, Christians, Muslims, Alawis, and Druze, living together for thousands of years, until this regime took over.

If our friends had not let us down, this, the war wouldn’t have dragged for all these years. I am not afraid that the war will drag for years and years more, if our friends stay with us and support us to put real pressure on Assad to accept the political solutions. I can confirm now, if Assad goes, and when Assad goes, 85 percent of Syria’s problems will be over.

MARGARET WARNER: President Jarba, thank you.

AHMAD JARBA: Thank you. Thank you very much.