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Distrustful of U.S. Motives, Many in the Arab World Oppose Syria Military Strike

September 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner reports from Cairo, where she has been gathering reaction from Egyptians and from around the Mideast on the crisis in Syria. She talks to Jeffrey Brown about the "unanimity" of opposition she's encountered against a possible U.S. military strike.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now another take on the question of military intervention in Syria. It comes from our own Margaret Warner, who is in Cairo tonight, getting reaction from there and around the Mideast.

I spoke to her a short time ago.

Margaret, welcome.

So, tell us about the reaction you have been getting from people there so far about a possible U.S. strike against Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, I have only been here 24 hours, and I have to say, I have been surprised at the unanimity with which people here are opposed to the idea of a U.S. military strike on Syria, despite the fact that some people here believe Assad probably did use chemical weapons.

People here say it will just cause more instability in the region. And they mention everything from more refugees to strengthening jihadi forces inside the rebel forces in Syria. And there’s really — at the root of it, there’s really great distrust of the United States, both its past actions in the Middle East and its motives for even considering this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re saying they might well believe that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but this really comes down to their feelings first and foremost about the U.S.?

MARGARET WARNER: It really does, Jeff.

Some people said to me, you got it wrong — the United States got it wrong about Iraq. You told the world there were weapons of mass destruction being made, and they were not. So, there are many people here who even doubt the intelligence that the Obama administration has presented with such kind of authority and confidence this time.

So I would say that’s a larger group. But I spoke to a young man last night who actually believes Bashar Assad did it. He said, we saw all those bodies on television. But, still, he does not — nobody here that I have spoken to — I don’t mean there isn’t anybody — trusts the United States and wants the United States to intervene once again in another Arab country.

They all point to the example of Iraq in a second way, which is the United States went in to rid Iraq of a dictator, and look what we got. Look what this region got, which is Iraq in disarray, sectarian violence within Iraq, and now, as we know, exporting jihadi elements back into Syria, Sunni extremists.

And Egypt is dealing with their own jihadi elements in the Sinai. So, whether it’s for practical reasons or on the level of trust in the United States’ motives, I just didn’t hear anyone who had confidence that the United States could act effectively and was doing it really with the region’s interests at heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about, Margaret, the president’s announcement this weekend that, while he wants to do it, he would go to Congress, which will delay things for a bit? What kind of reaction, if any, you did get on that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, on that, it really — to the average man on the street, that had barely penetrated.

To people, former parliamentarians, people who are political activists — I’m thinking of three different people of that sort I spoke to — they were split. One person said to me, you know, that really conveys a certain weakness. Obama may — President Obama may say it’s because of the American democratic system. And we know the reasons he gave.

But here, in some quarters, it was seen as a sign of weakness, but another person, an activist, a pro-democracy activist, said, well, actually I think it — to restrain yourself when you say you have the power and believe you have the power shows strength, not weakness.

There is a little bit of a split on that, but, really, that’s not the important prism through which people here are looking at it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president of course is hoping for support from that part of the world, particularly through the Arab League. Where do things stand for that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, not encouragingly for the Obama administration, because, as you said, the Obama administration hoped that, just as just with the action in Libya, they would be acting in concert not only with some European partners, but with the Arab League.

The Arab League last week I think it was met and said, essentially, held Assad, said Assad should be held to account, and was critical of Assad, stopped short of military action. This week, starting yesterday, they had an emergency meeting which they moved up from later in the week to reconsider the question.

But what came out, the first readings looked like, oh, they’re now really calling on the international community to do something. But when you look at the text — and I spoke to people both in the Egyptian government and in the Arab League — they say the important thing about the today’s announcement was, yes, we’re calling on the United Nations and the international community to take some sort of deterrent action or deterrent measures against the use of chemical weapons by the regime, but — but the only basis, the only legal basis for military action is under either the U.N. charter of self-defense or by a vote of the Security Council, which, as one Egyptian official admitted to me, for practical — in a practical sense, that’s not going to happen because of Russia’s opposition.

And so it is interesting that — on two points. One, Egypt has long been an ally of the United States, is not acting in concert with the U.S. here. Egypt was the first to came out last week and say they were opposed to the use of force. And, secondly, that Marwan Muasher, who is the former foreign minister of Jordan, said to me today, it’s interesting that the only Arab leaders in the full-throated way calling for U.S. military action are the ones without elected parliaments.

That is, they are the governments that don’t feel they have to be responsive to their people, and that is some of these Gulf kingdoms, and that whether it’s Jordan or Egypt and other states which do have aroused publics now, and since the Arab spring, an even more activist public, they are not willing to go there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret Warner in Cairo for us tonight, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s much more online, where we continue our Syria coverage, including on our World page a dispatch from Margaret in Cairo.