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Leading Activist: Free Syrian Army Needs Weapons to Defend Citizens

March 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As rebels announced their withdrawal from Homs Thursday, Haitham Maleh, a judge and member of the Syrian National Council, said the country's opposition is united and the rebel Free Syrian Army needs weapons to defend residents. Also, Ray Suarez speaks with Time Magazine's Rania Abouzeid about Syria's humanitarian situation.
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RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today, I spoke with Haitham al-Maleh, a Syrian lawyer and judge who spent the last 50 years advocating for reforms in Damascus. He has been repeatedly jailed, most recently in 2010, for denouncing the Assad regime. He left Syria after he was released from prison last March.

We spoke to him from Istanbul, where he’s helping to lead the Syrian National Council.

I began by asking him if the Syrian opposition was united and able to speak with one voice.

HAITHAM AL-MALEH, Syrian National Council: All the opposition in Syria has only one interview — one view for future. They want to finish this regime.

They want to build democracy regime. They want to build a regime ruled by law, by — by power, parliament, ministers, justice and all the people must be equal under law.

RAY SUAREZ: Sir, a lot of the opposition groups have been talking about getting weapons into Syria, into the hands of the Free Syrian Army. Are there people who are ready to help pay for those weapons? And how do you get them into the country?

HAITHAM AL-MALEH: A lot of people need to send weapons to Free Syrian Army, because those defense, the people, the national people, the civilian people, this is surely their right to do it.

And a lot of people around Syria maybe from Jordan, from Lebanon, from Turkey, a lot of people know how they can take — they can take the weapons through the border.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that President Assad has tanks and ships, heavy weapons. Can you ever get enough weapons into the hands of the Free Syrian Army to be able to fight back against an army of 300,000 men?

HAITHAM AL-MALEH: We need to support the Free Syrian Army by medium weapons, because we cannot bring tanks and something like this or helicopter or something like this.

But if we give them medium weapons, they can finish this regime. And I think the Free Syrian Army will take the step to finish this regime and to protect the civilians, the people.

RAY SUAREZ: Haitham Al-Maleh with the Syrian National Council, thanks so much for joining us.

HAITHAM AL-MALEH: Thank you, too. Goodbye.

RAY SUAREZ: I also spoke with Rania Abouzeid, who’s been covering the conflict in Syria for Time Magazine. She’s in Beirut.

Rania, welcome back to the program.

Given the context of everything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks, is the Free Syrian Army’s retreat from Homs a big victory for Bashar al-Assad?

RANIA ABOUZEID, Time: Well, that remains to be seen.

The Free Syrian Army based in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs issued a statement online saying that they were making a tactical retreat to try and ease the suffering, basically, of the 4,000 civilians who’ve been under constant bombardment for weeks now.

They said that they basically didn’t have the weapons to defend these civilians and that’s one of the reasons they were pulling out. Now, based on these developments, the Syrian government appears to have given permission for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter Baba Amr tomorrow.

And according to the Syrian national news agency, they’ve said that the U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, is welcome in Syria, but that her earlier request to visit the besieged cities and towns in that country was rejected because — quote — “It was an inappropriate time for the Syrian government.”

RAY SUAREZ: Homs is a pretty big place, about a million people before all this started. Has word been getting out in the last several hours on the condition of civilians there?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Welcome, certainly the Red Cross and both the Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC are expected to evacuate many of the wounded who have been receiving quite rudimentary medical treatment, if we are to see all of these amateur videos that have been posted on YouTube.

Some of the doctors who are still in the cities say that they are — have been cleaning, washing and cutting up sacks of flour, basically, and using the fabric as bandages to try and tend to some of the wounds of these civilians and defectors who have come under constant bombardment now.

They say that for many of the wounded, they basically can’t do anything for them and that they’re just, you know, treating them as well as they can given the circumstances, and that they’re running shorts on all sorts of supplies.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a short time ago, I spoke with a leader of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, and he was very critical of the rest of the world for standing by and letting this happen to the people of Syria. Is there any help on the way?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, apart from the Red Cross that’s going in there tomorrow, that’s a question that a lot of the Syrians both inside the country and outside the country want answered.

Toward that end, the Syrian National Council which is the de facto political opposition group, held a press conference in Paris yesterday, and it said that it wants to offer all of its support to the Free Syrian Army, which is the loose band of defectors and armed civilians which have been protecting these protesters and many of these civilians from the loyalist forces.

The Syrian National Council said that it basically wants to organize, unify and arm the Free Syrian Army. The problem is that it doesn’t seem that they told the Free Syrian Army, because, just hours later, the head of that movement, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, was on Al-Jazeera, and he said that this decision to set up a military bureau to oversee the Free Syrian Army wasn’t coordinated with his group and that they wouldn’t be participating in this military advisory bureau.

So, you know, while the people of Syria are suffering what seem to be quite dire humanitarian circumstances, their political opposition, as well as the military opposition in exile continues to bicker. And that’s a source of much frustration for many of the Syrians, because, while the world is looking for somebody, they’re looking for a partner, and, you know, the United States has said this repeatedly, as well as other Western states.

They need the Syrian opposition to unify and to step up, so that any money, for example, any funds, any weapons that are going to be funneled into the country need to go through a unified body.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, before we go, Rania, you gave us an example of the divisions inside the opposition. What’s keeping them apart? Is it approach? Is it the eventual Syria they want to see, tactics in the short term? What are they arguing about?

RANIA ABOUZEID: All of the above.

You know, it’s a strategic division within the Syrian National Council, for example, between Islamists and seculars. You can’t discount egos. You can’t discount personalities. There are divisions between members of the Syrian opposition, those who were in exile for many years and those who remain in the country, between the youth activists and members of the military even within the Free Syrian Army.

This is a very loose band. You know, the commanders are localized. In most cases, they don’t take their orders from Colonel Riad al-Asaad in Turkey. They sometimes, you know, inform them of operations after the fact. So the divisions are varied and they’re many.

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

Rania, good to talk to you.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.