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Activist: Amid Executions and Torture, Syrians OK With Risks of No-Fly Zone

March 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syria's deputy oil minister appeared to defect from President Assad's regime in an online video Thursday, calling the opposition "the voice of righteousness." Ray Suarez, Syrian activist Danny Abdul Dayem and the International Crisis Group's Robert Malley discuss the hurdles of bringing aid to the country's rebels and civilians.
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RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, with the world debating the way forward in Syria, people there are using testimonial Web videos to get their stories out.

One of the best known, Danny Abdul Dayem, has documented the daily horrors of life in Homs for months.

And Danny Abdul Dayem joins us now. He slipped out of Homs and is currently travelling in the U.S., raising awareness about the situation in Syria. He joins us from Houston, where he’s meeting with a group of Syrian-Americans later tonight. And Robert Malley’s with me in Washington. He worked in the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and is now program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Danny Abdul Dayem, let me start with you. You have been in Syria quite recently. The army moved on Homs, especially neighborhood of Baba Amr, which you’re very familiar with. What’s the latest that you’re hearing from your hometown?

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM, Syrian activist: The latest I’m hearing is the Free Syrian Army left Baba Amr because they were bombarding the whole area randomly.

So, the Syrian army, the Assad regime’s army has entered in Baba Amr and they’re executing any guy they find. They have already executed more than 30 guys there. They have taken over all the kids. Anyone over 14 years old has been imprisoned and tortured. They’re stealing all the houses, stealing all the shops and burning down everything they find in that area.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s a hot debate in the United States and in the rest of the world about what happens next. What would you like to see and what would the people of Homs like to see happen next? What kind of aid from the rest of the world?

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: Well, what we would like to see is an intervention, an army intervention, a strike on Assad’s regime and a no-fly zone. We don’t need aid and humanitarian.

People are being killed there. We need support for the Free Syrian Army. This is what we have been asking for, for a long time. But what I am 100 percent sure is, no one’s going to do anything about this, and the Assad regime will hit us harder and harder with its air force.

What we are asking for is either say you’re going to help us or you’re not. Stop leaving us in the middle, dying like this. That’s not what our path is. That is not what’s going to happen to us.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, you’re watching the same situation that Danny is. Is what he’s suggesting going to work?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, he’s watching it. He watches it much — up closer than I have and that I ever will.

And obviously what we’re hearing is very moving. I think he put the question very well. Is there going to be real intervention, in other words, the kind of intervention that Sen. McCain spoke about and others spoke about, or not? Because the half-measures, arming the opposition, having a safe quarter or safe haven, those are really not going to change anything.

And so the real question is, are we at a position now where we could intervene massively, taking out the air defenses to create a no-fly zone? According to military experts, that’s weeks and weeks and weeks of constant sorties, with all the repercussions you could imagine in a country like Syria with civilian casualties because one of the way in which their air defenses, one of the most robust air defenses in the region, are intermingled with civilians, and what it would mean in terms of how Syria might react with the neighbors it has in Jordan and Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

That’s why the president said what he said. This is an extraordinarily difficult enterprise.

And we couldn’t do it. . .

RAY SUAREZ: So it sounds like you’re saying it would be very hard, very costly in human life. So what’s the alternative?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, there’s one alternative now. We may have to come to something much more drastic. But right now there’s an alternative, which is the diplomatic attempt that Secretary-General Kofi Annan is embarked on.

Every reason to be skeptical. Let’s give it a chance. Let’s see if in fact he can bring the Russians on board to send a very different message to the Syrians than the Russians have sent so far.

RAY SUAREZ: Danny, what do you think? Can diplomacy work at this stage in the game?

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: Diplomacy with the Assad regime will not work. He will only leave by force. We all know this. He will not leave by any peaceful talk or any politician talk.

He will only be — he will run away by — we need an attack on Syria. We need to save human lives and stop talking about this. People are dying. Thousands of people and children and women are dying every day, hundreds. Women are being raped. Kids are being killed. And we’re just sitting down here talking about politics.

While I’m talking to you right now, I’m 100 percent sure people are being killed by the army. Women are being raped by the army and security forces. We need help, any kind of help.

RAY SUAREZ: But you just heard Robert Malley here in Washington suggest that the kind of intervention you’re suggesting would take weeks on its own, with significant loss of civilian life.

Are the people of Syria ready for that kind of risk?

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: I realize they’re dying on the ground now, but this could break things open in a way that is much larger.

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: I am 100 percent sure. And I know the Free Syrian Army. I met all the guys, high lieutenants.

We have no-fly zone in Syria. More than 70 percent of the army would defect with their tanks and their heavy artillery. They can’t defect now because the Assad force will bombard them with airstrikes.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, what’s the difference between this situation and the one we saw in Libya, where a well-equipped military force was able to strike against a substantial army?

ROBERT MALLEY: There’s a world of difference.

To begin with — I understand what’s being said, and I’m sure that there are many in Syria who are praying for this to happen, for outside intervention. But the kind of air defense that Syria has nothing to do with the kind of air defense that Libya had.

And it does mean weeks and weeks of bombardment. And that’s why Leon Panetta, that’s why the president are saying, if we’re going to go there, let’s measure what it means. It’s not simply — it’s not politics. This is not simply politics. This is real lives that would be at stake. This is whole regional balance that would be at stake. These are repercussions that was never the case in Libya.

Libya, you had an area that was already controlled by the opposition. You didn’t have a strong army, you didn’t have a strong air defense, you didn’t have outside allies. Libya was completely isolated. And Libya didn’t have the capacity to do the kind of mischief that this regime is doing right now in dreadful ways to its own people, but also it could do outside.

This is a much, much more central issue, which is why people are debating it as passionately as they are.

RAY SUAREZ: Danny Abdul Dayem, do you risk, if we get the kind of intervention that you’re asking for, setting a fire into the entire neighborhood, bringing Iran, which is one of Syria’s last friends, into the fighting, having instability that spills over into the neighboring countries?

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: All right, you just said Iran is one of the regime’s last friends, not our friends.

Iran is helping the regime and the Assad family to kill us. Also, Hezbollah from Lebanon are coming into Homs, and they are helping the regime killing us. They are not our friends. They are the regime’s friends, not our friends.

And there’s already a war going on right now. There is a war going on. People are saying, well, if we do this, there is going to be a war. What’s going on right now is, they’re hitting us with rocket launchers, helicopters. All the buildings have been hit. And it’s all been randomly. They’re not targeting the Free Syrian Army. They’re targeting everybody, the civilians, the Free Syrian Army, and everybody that lives in every single area.

We have a place next to Turkey called Idlib. We could do a free zone there and a no-fly zone over that only and get the arms and get a really strong Free Syrian Army there. We have the Free Syrian Army in Turkey. Why aren’t they getting any support whatsoever?

We have more than 600 troops in Turkey waiting for support so they can go back in their country. And no one is supporting them.

RAY SUAREZ: Rob Malley, you know people continue to die while the world figures out its next move. Give Danny some comfort.

ROBERT MALLEY: I don’t know that I can give some comfort.

I can say one thing on which I would think we would agree. Something has to be done to change the calculations of the Assad regime, because right now it does feel quite secure, obviously. And it seems, from its perspective, it’s doing quite well. Something has to change its calculus.

One way is what Danny is suggesting, which is massive military intervention. I don’t want to go through the reasons again because we have heard them. But it’s a very consequential decision. We went through a war already in Iraq, in Afghanistan. I’m not sure that the American public, I’m not sure that the U.S. administration wants to do it again.

The other option is to see if you could change the international balance of power by bringing Russia on a different side. It’s a long shot. At this point, I think it’s the best we can do.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley and Danny Abdul Dayem, gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.

DANNY ABDUL DAYEM: Thank you.