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Uprisings, Questions Linger in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain

June 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fighting intensified Friday around the Middle East as governments tried to overpower uprisings around the region. Jeffrey Brown discusses what's next for the people and governments of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain with author and foreign policy analyst Robin Wright.

JEFFREY BROWN: We get more on the unrest throughout the region from Robin Wright, longtime reporter and author, now a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World” will be published next month.

Welcome back.

ROBIN WRIGHT, U.S. Institute of Peace: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you first, because — as you look at the state of play in these three nations, is there a thread, a common denominator some months into what we have been watching unfold?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, history is going to look back on this period for the common denominators, and that is the desire by an extraordinary range of people to stand up to geriatric autocrats, to stand up to extremists and to demand political openings.

But now three and four months into the unrest, you see different patterns evolving in the different countries. And you have the peaceful example of Tunisia and Egypt contrasted with the extraordinary, what’s becoming civil war in some of these countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: In these three countries that we’re focusing on today.

So, if you look at Yemen, for example, how significant is it that the opponents were able to reach the palace with shelling and wound Saleh today?

ROBIN WRIGHT: It’s important to understand that Yemen has now moved from the kind of peaceful demonstrations we saw in Egypt to more like the civil war we saw in Lebanon for 15 years, that it’s now less between peaceful protesters and the regime, and more between tribal factions and people who were once aligned politically between families, even, the supporters of President Saleh, and particularly the Al-Ahmar tribe.

And so it’s taking on a whole new dimension, particularly over the last two weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you. I mean, we — you use that term civil war of. We keep talking about moving towards civil war. In your sense, that what it is, or that — your — there’s no question that that is what it is becoming?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think that is what it is becoming.

We have to see how long this plays out, what role the international community, particularly the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, play. The international community has taken a united stand in saying that President Saleh must step down. And that’s different from a place like Lebanon, for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: And whatever we saw early on of youthful opponents demanding more openness, a la Egypt, Tunisia, that’s not what’s — they have been pushed aside?

ROBIN WRIGHT: They have been pushed aside, but they’re still players. They are not the dominant forces fighting each other, however.

And so the dynamics have shifted to, instead of two parties, you now have three. And the — those who are on the margins as of the last two weeks are the peaceful student protesters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if we move to Syria — and we said the demonstrations and the response only grow — how fragile do you think the situation is there, and how — again, these months in, how important now is Syria, as you watch the various countries?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Syria, in many ways, of the countries now experiencing unrest, is the most important, because…

JEFFREY BROWN: The most important, you think?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, because of its influence, whether it’s on the peace process with Israel, whether — on its influence in countries like Lebanon. Its — it borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, that it — its position, its political might, and the fact that it is the kind of last big socialist regime and allied so closely to Iran gives it heft, even though it doesn’t have oil resources.

So, what plays out in Syria is critically important. It — this is a place that has stunned, I think, people the most, because the Assad dynasty has been in power now for four decades. And it is a police state. It is as brutal and brittle a regime as you will find anyplace in the world. And it has managed still to use its military, but not to put down these people who are turning out in larger and larger numbers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, I mean, we heard Secretary Clinton there. And, yet, the U.S. and Western nations still have a wariness about what exactly they can do, I guess, in terms of more action.

ROBIN WRIGHT: There are limits, but it’s interesting that the language from Secretary Clinton looks increasingly like the language they used in run-up to President Mubarak and his demise, saying that he must move aside if he can’t reform.

There was a longtime hope that President Assad, a younger-generation leader, might be willing to deal with reform and introduce the kinds of openings that people are demanding. And he hasn’t. And so, the outside world is becoming increasingly tough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, moving to Bahrain now, because we mentioned the protests, but one thing we didn’t mention was there was an announcement today that the Formula 1 Grand Prix…


JEFFREY BROWN: … the race, which had been put aside for — for — because of the unrest, is now going to be reinstated later. So, on the one hand, you have the protests. On the other hand, it’s a little bit surreal to put those together.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Bahrain is the smallest of the countries facing unrest, a million citizens. They have many non-nationals, but only about a million. It’s a very small island in the Persian Gulf. And yet, it has become much bigger than its size or its population, because it brings in the issue of Iran: To what degree is there Iranian meddling?

I think it’s a canard, but there are many who are using that as justification for a crackdown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Saudi Arabia…

ROBIN WRIGHT: Saudi Arabia on the other hand, and the whole issue of oil.

The United States has the Fifth Fleet based there. So — and Bahrain has managed, through brutal force, to repress the rebellion. It’s surprising that people are still willing to come out. And so, it is in stark contrast to Syria and Yemen. But the fact that they have made this decision shows just how much force has played in quieting.

And that’s what — of course, what other regimes are hoping for, that they can return calm, so that they can bring back, whether it’s foreign investment, foreign — you know, international races, or tourists.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or grand prix racing, of all things, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Well, thanks for the update. Robin Wright, thanks. Thanks a lot.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.