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Assad Running out of Friends, but China, Russia Still Among Allies

February 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As violence continued Tuesday in Homs, Syria, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov visited with top Syrian leaders in Damascus. Ray Suarez discusses Syria's ongoing bloodshed and President Assad's remaining allies with Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine.
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RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined by Rania Abouzeid, who’s been covering the Syrian story for Time magazine. She’s in Istanbul, Turkey, where leaders of the anti-Assad opposition have set up headquarters.

Rania, welcome back to the program.

The Russians announced their arrival in Damascus and their intention to act as mediators. Has there been any response to that overture from the opposition in Turkey?

RANIA ABOUZEID, Time: Well, not officially, not at this point.

However, it’s the same — it’s the same thing. The opposition says that the Russian government is merely buying Assad more time for him to continue his killing spree across the country. We heard once again pledges by the Syrian president for reforms.

And the Russian foreign minister was touting an upcoming constitutional referendum as some sort of measure of President Assad’s willingness to enact those reforms. However, this is the same talk that we have been hearing for months. And according to all of these amateur videos and the quite gruesome images that we are seeing coming out of Syria, it hasn’t changed what has effectively become a war zone across the country.

One wonders why the Russian government has so closely aligned itself with a regime that most observers say is bound to fall. The only question is when and how many other people are going to die in the meantime.Rania Abouzeid, Time Magazine

RAY SUAREZ: Rania, is it significant that the temple of operations against Syrian civilians didn’t calm down at all during the Russian visit?

RANIA ABOUZEID: No, it certainly didn’t. If anything, it seems to have escalated.

As your report mentioned, Homs has been bombarded for the past four days. And it has been bombarded for weeks and indeed months before that. Syrian opposition members speak of horrific death tolls. I mean, we’re talking about 50, 60, 70, sometimes 80 and higher, you know, death tolls of — sometimes, it hits the triple digits. So we are talking about what seems to be a killing field in Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: There are reports coming out of Syria of overtures from the Russian delegation that would indicate they’re trying to find a way out for Bashar al-Assad. Do they really still back his legitimacy at this point? Do they think he can hang on until 2014?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, that’s a question that everybody is trying to answer.

I mean at the end of the day, Russia’s interests in Syria are strategic. They’re not personal. So, one wonders why the Russian government has so closely aligned itself with a regime that most observers say is bound to fall. The only question is when and how many other people are going to die in the meantime.

RAY SUAREZ: France and Italy have followed the United States and the United Kingdom in pulling their ambassadors back from Damascus. If they’ve got Russia and China, can Syria sort of soldier on as the rest of the world is abandoning it?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, don’t forget that they also — they also have Iran. And they have the Lebanese — Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as well.

So, you know, Assad is running out of friends, but he still has quite powerful allies. And he certainly hopes that he can hold on until the presidential elections. However, it’s a question of whether or not the Syrian opposition is — I mean, we’re already seeing that the Syrian opposition is becoming more militarized.

And, certainly, after the double-veto a few days ago, the Syrian opposition, all of its varied forms, feels quite abandoned. That seems to be the word that we have been hearing most often from activists on the ground, as well as from members of the FSA that I have talked to recently. It’s the same word: abandonment.

And you see in some of these amateur videos that are posted online, the chants are, “God, you are the only one who is still with us.” So there’s a real sense of desperation and also a sense that, you know, they must continue this fight, because, as one activist told me, “We’re dead anyway. Either we die free or we simply die, because the security forces will hunt us down.”

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit more about the state of the opposition. You talked about they’re feeling abandoned inside Syria.

What about outside the country, as they use diplomatic efforts to try to consolidate the support from around the world? Are they succeeding? Are they seen as a logical next step in the other capitals of the world?

RANIA ABOUZEID: First of all, I think they have to consolidate their own ranks. You know, the Syrian opposition is quite fragmented. The Syrian National Council has presented itself as the de facto opposition group, an umbrella group, if you like, but it has its own problems.

You know, some people say that it has a very heavy Islamist tilt. Others say that it’s mainly comprised of exiles who haven’t set foot in Syria for many years and that they don’t speak for the men and women who are on the streets of Damascus and other cities actually like Homs and other areas in Syria who are living under this bombardment and who are dying in the streets.

So this Syrian opposition in all of its varied forms needs to get its own house in order. And that is a very serious concern, because, you know, the people in the streets are demanding it. And certainly Western governments and others, Arab governments as well, are looking for more from the Syrian opposition.

RAY SUAREZ: Rania Abouzeid of Time magazine joined us from Istanbul.

Thanks for talking to us.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.