Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
Guest Host: Susan Page
A high-level defection in Syria divides the Assad regime’s inner circle, and the commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces there says violence has undermined their mission. In Pakistan, NATO supply routes to Afghanistan reopen after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the United States is sorry. The routes were closed after Pakistani soldiers were killed in a U.S. air strike last November. The United States and its allies impose sweeping new sanctions on Iran, and Tehran says the sanctions won’t affect nuclear negotiations. Palestinians may exhume the body of Yasser Arafat to investigate claims that he was poisoned. Guest host Susan Page speaks with Yochi Dreazen of National Journal Magazine, Nadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Centre and Mark Mardell of BBC North America Editor.
- Mark Mardell BBC North America editor.
- Yochi Dreazen senior national security correspondent, National Journal magazine.
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent, MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Centre.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting for Diane Rehm. A senior member of President Assad's regime defects from Syria as world powers discuss ways to end the 16 month old conflict there. Pakistan reopened supply routes after Secretary of State Hilary Clinton apologizes for the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz as sanctions cut deeper into its economy. And British bank Barclays admits to manipulating global interest rates.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about this week's top international stories, Yochi Dreazen of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East Broadcast Centre NBC and Mark Mardell of the BBC. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning.
MR. MARK MARDELLThank you.
PAGEWe'll also welcome our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, I think we have to start with the news out of Syria, what could be a very important defection. Nadia, tell us about it.
BILBASSYIn fact, it is very important because we are talking about a person who was very close to the Assad family and as Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, he just announced that he defected, that he is on his way to Paris. As I was walking to the studio, I received an email actually from him, which I found very strange and so I checked with a Syrian figure who is an opposition activist in London and he told me most likely that the Syrian opposition is already seizing on the fact that he has defected and they wanted to publicize his case, as it's confirmed 100 percent and he's expecting him to have a press conference once he arrived in Paris.
BILBASSYOf course, we heard that the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, already said and confirmed that. The fact, I think the significance of Mr. Tlas's defection is for a year he's been out of the army, he's been a leader of the elitist unit within the Republican Guards. His father has been instrumental in installing President Bashar Assad himself.
BILBASSYHe comes from a Sunni family not an Alawite and for a while he's been under the supervision of the Syrian government and Damascus. So he's been allowed -- he was not discharged from the army, but he was still in Damascus but not taking part, mainly because the army has used -- was resorting to bombardment in Reston, which is the town where he comes from.
BILBASSYSo the fact that he managed to escape after a year being inside Syria and now he's going to Paris because his father, the foreign defense minister was there, is very significant.
PAGEAnd what did it say in the email?
BILBASSYWell, he says, I, myself -- he names himself and he says basically, I cannot take part anymore of these crimes that the Syrian regime is committing. I have been a loyal member to my army unit. I expect more army officers of my rank and others to join me because this regime has been -- his hands have been covered in blood and we cannot stand -- we cannot afford but to stand with the people in Syria." And he's asking basically for more defection.
PAGEMark, how big a setback is this for President Assad?
MARDELLI think it is pretty big. It's a big crack in the regime. The guys defected appears to be a Sunni rather than Alawite so I don't know how much difference that makes. But America and her allies who want Assad to go seem to be relying on the regime cracking, crumbling, that people close to him thinking we're going to get it, we're going to be killed or brought before international justice unless we do something, rather than expecting the free Syrian army, the opposition, to win in any sort of military sense. So the West is putting a lot of weight on the regime crumbling and this does seem to be a very senior defection, somebody very close to the regime whose family have been instrumental kingmakers almost in the past.
PAGEThe AP has just moved a story out of Paris quoting Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as hailing the defection. She says, she cites and quote, "increasing stream of senior military defectors out of Syria." And she said, "Regime insiders in the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet." Yochi?
DREAZENYou know, I hate to throw a little bit of cold water onto this, but I think it's important to keep a couple of things in mind. The first, as Nadia indicated, this was not someone who was directly involved in the crackdown. That Clinton and others in the Obama Administration have been trying to say to those generals explicitly, we know who you are, we will come after you, you will face trials as war criminals.
DREAZENThey've been trying to get the generals who are actually leading the assaults with no success. The other thing is, when you talk to people on the Gulf who track defections, they'll tell that about 30,000 soldiers a month from Syrian army defect, but of those barely 3,000 join the Free Syrian army. And we talked to those same Gulf State Arabs, they tell three months, four months ago they were much more optimistic about the Free Syrian army becoming a coherent fighting force. They are much more optimistic about Assad falling in the short term future.
DREAZENTheir optimism is gone. Several of the Gulf States, instead of sending weapons, are now sending only money. The Turks and the Gulf States are trying to train these fighters into being -- having a better hierarchy, having a better sense of how to fight with only minimal success. I mean, we look at it, I think, this is not the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, this is not the fighters in Libya who became, in short order, a good force. This is a very ragtag bunch and when you have someone defecting who is not part of the actual onslaught on civilians, important yes, game-changer, no.
BILBASSYYes, I agree with that. It's not the game changer because -- but psychologically that somebody who defended the regime was part and parcel of the regime and installing Bashar Assad himself and the fact that his father who was the former foreign minister is based in Paris and he might even have something to say that might encourage some more defection. But yes, it's not going to change much because unfortunately, the opposition is very divided.
BILBASSYWe have seen this scenario unfolded in Geneva and in Cairo and today in Paris to a certain extent. As you know, this Friends of Syria conference that's taking place in Paris and they've seen some serious things come out of it. Basically, Secretary Clinton warning China and Russia, saying to them and to the other countries, 100 countries were participating today that you cannot sit on the fence that you have to do something.
BILBASSYThe fact that China and Russia got away with it so far with supporting the Assad regime is because there is no price to pay. So they wanted them to do something and also we heard that they wanted to go to the UN Security Council to try and to activate the Chapter 7, which is ultimately not just a serious economic sanction, but also allows military force to be used should they resort to that.
PAGEAt this Friends of Syria conference in Paris, Hilary Clinton earlier today called on Russia and China to quote, "get off the sidelines and help end this Syrian conflict." Do you see any signs that's going to happen, Mark?
MARDELLWell, it's interesting, the language she used reflected a certain degree of frustration. She said, I don't believe they're paying a price. No, they're not paying a price so where does that get us. How are they going to actually be pushed into paying a price? I don't see that and I think that it is part of America coming to terms with the new world order where China and Russia have their own agenda. They aren't so concerned about dictators and civil rights and aren't so fussed when they see things like this going on in the world. And it doesn't seem, as far as I could see in anything she was saying, there was a suggestion of how Russia and China would be made to pay a price and, of course, because of the UN Security Council, unless they change their mind, it's very difficult to put additional pressure on Syria.
PAGEThe foreign minister in Iraq announced this week that al-Qaida terrorists are flowing from Iraq to Syria. Do we think that's true, Yochi?
DREAZENI mean, that's been sort of the specter hanging over this for quite some time, as it was in Libya. And you know, one of the concerns about not knowing who the rebel groups are, who's in the free Syrian army is precisely that, a fear that you could have, if not al-Qaida, someone of that same ilk filter into the fight. Whenever there's a suicide bombing in Damascus or truck bombing, there's always the concern that maybe this is the work of al-Qaida rather than the free Syrian army.
DREAZENA quick thing to add to the point a moment ago, the one piece of leverage that exists really is oil sales to Russia and China. I mean, China is ferocious in needing oil. And in the Gulf States there's some talk -- it's so slow moving, but some talk we're trying to figure out, can they use their oil sales, to China especially, as a point of leverage. So far, there's no sign need of willingness or of that having much of an impact.
PAGEJerry sent us an email from Dover, NH. And he writes, "I do not understand why the Arab League countries do not expel the Russia and Chinese ambassadors. Surely that would force their hands on resolving the Syrian situation." Nadia, what do you think?
BILBASSYWell, look, for a while, Russia hasn't been a big player that, like the United States, in the Arab world. I mean, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have been there, but basically their relationship has been the strongest is with the Syrian regime because they have these arms treaties, they supply them with arms and they have this military base in Tartus. But apart from that, who cares about the Russians if the Arab Spring go and erupt and say we are against the Russians.
BILBASSYIt doesn't really, it's not the same as the Americans when if something happened like this, the Americans have their influence and they have their prestige on line. It's a different game. But maybe if they expel them, something will happen. I think what Secretary Clinton was saying today it's not just us, means the friends of Syria. And by the way, somebody told me that if we have a Friends of Syria like this, God knows what you'll do if you have enemies.
BILBASSYSo and actually I read an interesting tweet today that said, "For every 1,000 Syrian dead, there is one conference." So she was saying today, it's not just us, the West, Turkey and the United States but the 100 countries that participate in today, every single one of them trying to pressurize Syria, I mean, China and Russia, maybe something could happen.
PAGEYou know, the opposition's been more divided than we had hoped and President Assad has been more willing to use brutal tactics to stay in power than I think many expected, Mark.
MARDELLYes, I mean, there doesn't seem any hesitation about using those sort of strong tactics and the condemnation throughout the world doesn't seem to have moved him at all. And as a British journalist, it's interesting looking at our TV coverage, which is very strong and people in Britain do feel, you know, can we let this go on? There isn't so much on the American networks.
MARDELLThere certainly isn't anything I detect here about people saying, we must do something about this. This is so horrific, we must act. That sort of pressure that you did get building over Libya, I mean, there are other complications, of course, that means people would really be adverse to doing anything militarily against Syria. But there doesn't seem sort of that world pressure to deal with it. So yes, people who are aware of it are horrified that he hasn't been put off in anyway. But there isn't a pressure to deal with it.
DREAZENYou know, one part of this that I think doesn't get the attention it should -- and I agree 100 percent that it's sort of absent from American TV, is the sectarian issue in Syria. I lived in Iraq during the worst of the civil war where you had Sunnis taking their neighbors out, shooting them and Shiite doing the same. I've talked to Israeli officials in particular who think that a civil war in Syria would dwarf in bloodshed a civil war in Iraq.
DREAZENAnd you think in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Their fear now is what you're beginning to see is not just the Syrian army but the sort of gangs of Alawite thugs moving into villages and slaughtering, them one by one. And if you have an ongoing Alawite on Sunni issue where it's not just the Syrian army, that raises the specter of a very, very bloody civil war.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the situation in Iran where a new round of oil sanctions from the West has slashed exports. We'll talk about what effect that's had. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Mark Mardell of BBC North America, Nadia Bilbassy, senior US correspondent for MBC TV. That's the Middle East Broadcast Center. And Yochi Dreazen, he's senior national security correspondent for National Journal. Well, a new set of sanctions have gone into effect against Iran. Are they hurting, Mark?
MARDELLYes, I think they are. Iran gets 80 percent of its revenue from oil and the latest sanctions as well as the American ones against banks are on July the 1st the European Union stopped taking oil supplies in most cases and also took moves against insuring shipping that might be carrying oil. So it seems that Iran has lost 3 billion in revenue, that oil production is lowest in 25 years. And where this matters it does seem to be having an effect on ordinary Iranians, that the prices in the markets, particularly of fruit and sugar and meat, have rocketed up.
MARDELLNow some websites you'll find Iranians poopooing this and saying, well really it isn't that serious. It's not threatening the whole economy. Yes, things have gone up. But what I'm hearing certainly from my colleagues in the BBC's Persian services that it is pretty serious. People are moaning and groaning about it. And then finally enough, one – a survey that we reported said 63 percent of Iranians wanted policy to change because of the sanctions.
MARDELLNow immediately the Iranian TV said the BBC had hacked into their website and altered the figures which really said it was only 24 percent. But we dismiss that as a ludicrous claim and are sticking by those figures.
PAGESo it's having an effect -- is it going to get the desired result, Yochi?
DREAZENYou know, it's two things just to -- I think to visualize quickly as we talk about these numbers. Right now Iranian ships, they can't move anywhere. So what you have is these big, big oil tankers just floating up and down through the gulf without any ability to travel. So you think about the cost of it and you think of just this weird image of these ships moving back and forth and nowhere to go.
DREAZENThe other thing I want to add -- Mark's point I think was dead on -- but we think in this country we go crazy when oil prices are high. In Iran they go crazy when oil prices are low. And already they had set their budget presuming oil prices of about $120. Now it was $80 at its low. It's back to about 100. But even before the sanctions when oil prices are so much lower than they had wanted them to be already they're taking a hit.
DREAZENI think the question overall of this is how much pain is Khamenei, who really runs the country -- how much pain is he willing to have his people suffer? If he's willing to have them keep suffering for the nuclear program this won't have much of an impact. If at some point he says -- they say to him enough and he says enough that's where you see the policy change. But I think the question is how much pain will he be willing to have his people absorb.
PAGEAnd, Nadia, what is your sense of the answer to that question?
BILBASSYWell, I mean, just at one point apparently the price of bread in Iran has jumped 16 times from 2010. And mainly because of the -- I mean, as much as we talk about the economic sanction, that it does have an effect despite that some Iranian official dismiss it as we will survive it because we have been under sanction since basically the revolution of 1979. It does have an effect on them.
BILBASSYAnd partly also because of mismanagement of the Iranian government under Ahmadinejad. I mean, there's so much of huge subsidies that the state -- basically they subsidize certain commodity, now they're withdrawing it. There was so much spending since 2005 when the price of oil is going up. But now Iran is losing and they're losing in a big way. Part of this sanction effect that came into effect on July 1 by the EU is basically -- it's not just, as you said, hitting the oil section and reducing the cost, that Secretary Clinton said they losing $8 billion this quarter. But also most of the maritime insurance for the cargo ships are done by the Europeans.
BILBASSYSo who's going to risk now sending the oil ships under this insurance that basically under sanction now? So they losing from that sector as well. So the only countries I think is China and India now saying to the Iranian that they're still taking oil, you have to insure it. So the cost is really, really high. Also it's gonna hit, as well, the transportation sector because Iran air used to do that as well. So there's so many ways that now they've been surrounded.
BILBASSYAnd hence we've seen this bravado of the Iranians saying, we going to attack, we going to close the Strait of Hormuz. We've seen this missile exercise by the republican guards. It's all meant for domestic consumption as well as much as for the international community to say we're not going to take this sanction lying down. We're going to fight back.
MARDELLI think that's the difficult thing to predict. It's a double-edged sword whether you get people saying, look, this policy's got to change. It's hurting me so much in my daily life it's got to change, or whether they say, this makes me proud of my nation. We're not going to be pushed around. Let's actually go ahead. It shows we need nuclear weapons.
PAGEBut from the poll that you cite the Iranians...
MARDELLThat would suggest people are beginning to get fed up, yeah.
PAGE...pretty much feel like all politics is local in Iran like everywhere. We've seen a U.S. military buildup in the region as well, Yochi. What is the United States doing?
DREAZENI was actually a bit surprised by that story, to be totally honest with you. One, my former colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, to be frank, had written that story quite some time ago. But this has been public. I mean, you've had at Senate hearings for months the talk of the buildup. You know, what you're seeing in fact of it is more minesweepers in case Iran were to try to mine the Straits of Hormuz.
DREAZENBut you've also seen a massive increase in the number of U.S. personnel in and around Iran so -- in Kuwait and Qatar and Bahrain, all over the gulf, in UAE and Israel even, some of the radar systems that are being installed there. You're just seeing a massive increase from about 12 to 15,000 to about 30 or 40,000. So you have more people on the ground, more minesweepers, more carrier battle groups passing in and through the straits.
DREAZENAnd what you're seeing is on the navy side and the ground personnel side and the air force side, a very -- it's not just a message. It's smashing a gong to say we're here. We're not going anywhere and we'll hit you hard. If you try to sink a ship, block the straits, missile one of our bases we're here to respond in force.
MARDELLBut I just wondered how much of a message it is rather than a serious military option. I'm sure the Americans obviously could do something pretty serious but the headlines are good. Double the number of minesweepers from four to eight, a new and amphibious warfare ship sent there, one that was meant to be scrapped last year. So when you look behind it it's not exactly, you know, preparing for war. It is saying to the Iranians, if you start getting silly -- the parliament has said that we should block the Straits of Hormuz if the sanctions go on and made those sort of threats, but we can deal with it.
MARDELLAnd again, you get sort of the rhetoric from an unnamed official, don't even think about sending their fast boats out. We'll put them at the bottom of the gulf. A named vice admiral says they're being very professional and courteous. So I think there's a bit of distance between two positions here.
BILBASSYI agree actually. There so much rhetoric here and some say even on election year that Obama Administration want to send a message to Israel as well that they serious about Iran. And we are ready for any military option, etcetera. But I think you absolutely right, Mark, in terms of like what -- it's not going to expect any military confrontation but there's going to be tension. And this tension could be sparked by an incident like it happened in 1988.
BILBASSYAnd the fact that we have a failure of the negotiation on the nuclear fall now after the talks in Baghdad and then in Moscow and now in Istanbul that they keeping them on a very, very low level to talk about technical things. And this last round in Istanbul dragged on for 13 hours and they agreed in the end to talk. So this is the final results that we have. Not the P5 plus 1 and the Iranians are not willing to come and say we failed. So the fact that you have actually -- you don't have any concrete results in terms of the talk and you have this kind of tension that might lead to spark an incident. Who knows? But serious confrontation? No.
DREAZENYou know, I loved not only Mark's point, but the way he said it. The buildup there I think matters the most which doesn't get the attention here that it does there, is in the Gulf States. The U.S., in terms of its weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, which just had the biggest weapons purchase in history, the UAE which had one of the biggest itself in history. You're talking dozens and dozens and dozens of our most advanced fighters, massive amounts of new radar and antimissile systems.
DREAZENSo Mark's point is right that you have four to eight American mine sweepers, but you have more than 100 new top of the line American-made war planes in and around Iran. The thought being that if there's going to be any kind of confrontation, it's likelier to be the Gulf States than it is to be us.
MARDELLAnd one thing that struck me was that when they were carrying out their profit seven exercises, the Iranians showing what they could do with their missiles, and they said they could hit 35 American bases within range in Israel as well. Now some people would dispute those claims, but it does reinforce the point that if Israel wanted to take action, if they wanted to bomb the reactors, it's not just a question of sending a couple of planes across. You've got to take out all their air defenses first. It's a very big operation, you know, so that -- I mean, that's not what we're directly talking about. But that's the end game. It's a very serious operation.
BILBASSYRight. And the Iranians said they're going to retaliate against American interests and the Gulf States. And let's not forget the fifth fleet, which is in Bahrain. It's only 120 miles away from Iran. And even Israel itself is 600 miles away. So -- and this Jihad missile, Jihad III is capable of reaching I think 1,400 miles away from Iranian water.
PAGEYochi, for seven months, the supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan have been closed in a standoff between the United States and Pakistan. Hillary Clinton finally broke this stalemate on Tuesday by saying one word, sorry. What was happening?
DREAZENIt was sort of an amazing thing and I found it frankly, again, sort of baffling. You know, this was a clear U.S. mistake. Whether there were Pakistani troops firing as well, this was the U.S. killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, not just Pakistani soldiers, but the frontier corp. who are meant to be the kind of frontline preventing Haqqani fighters, other Pakistani militants from crossing to Afghanistan. This was a U.S. mistake and the U.S. did every possible permutation of the word sorry except for, we apologize. We express regret. We express remorse.
DREAZENI mean, it reminded me -- I know that this was something you had covered, but the Clinton era, you know, what is the meaning of the word is. This was what is the meaning of the word we apologize and we just couldn't get there. And it had real impact. I mean, the cost of shipping through routes other than Pakistan is much, much higher. Relationships, as you know, were already bad because of the bin Laden raid. This made them worse over a word. Finally that word was uttered but why they waited so long is beyond me.
PAGEThe word sorry was uttered although not the word apologize. Barbara has sent us an email to this point. She says, "The government -- the U.S. government, that is, very carefully avoided using the word apologize in its expression of regret to Pakistan because it claimed Pakistani operatives had fired first. I've heard NPR repeat it that the government apologized. It did not. It's a subtle distinction and yet sorry turned out to be enough." Nadia.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. Well, it reminds me of a song actually which says sorry is the hardest word to say. And this is true. I had conversations with high level Pakistani officials who said actually the word sorry as we spell it S-O-R-R-Y is enough. And it took the U.S. government almost a year, you know, from November 11, 2000 -- November 25, 2011 'til now to say it.
BILBASSYSo basically for the Pakistanis they wanted the U.S. government to apologize, whether they said I am very sorry, apologize for the death or they're saying like, accept our apology. But basically they uttered the word sorry and that was good enough for them because they have the military, you have the political leadership. They have this anti -- they have the Pakistani public who are largely anti-American. So for them just to open these routes without having an apology, and a serious apology -- and by the way, they also said they could have accepted from Hillary Clinton or from Leon Panetta -- it doesn't have to be -- but senior U.S. official have to say sorry.
BILBASSYAnd now they secured that it's very important for the Americans, not just because of the supply route now but basically for the exit strategy of trying to find an alternative route through Central Asia that's going to cost them $10 million a month extra. And also it's not guaranteed that it's -- the road is very dangerous, etcetera. So for them if they thinking of exit strategy they should also think this route is very, very important for NATO and for the American forces.
PAGEBut, Yochi, was this all about U.S. domestic politics? I mean, the title of Mitt Romney's book is "No Apology." And one of the cases he makes against President Obama is that he's gone, Romney says, around the world apologizing. Is that why it got -- took seven months to get to this point?
DREAZENIt's a great question and I suspect there's probably some truth to that. I think the other part of this is both sides want to find a way of stepping back. I mean, both sides, they're dependant on us for money for military aid. We're dependant on them. You know, Nadia's point about exit route, there's also the exit strategy. We know that there's going to be some accommodation with the Taliban. We know Pakistan is going to be crucial in bringing the Taliban to the table or not. So it's not just an exit about physically. It's an exit strategy writ large.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking calls, 1-800-433-8850. Well, Mark, does this fix it? Does this fix the relationship between the United States and Pakistan?
MARDELLAbsolutely not. I mean, I think -- I mean, Yochi makes a great point, but this was -- this shouldn't have been hard. This wasn't apologize for coming in and killing bin Laden. This was apologizing for killing, by mistake, troops. And it does make me think it really is about domestic concerns in two ways. One, Obama didn't want to say sorry for the reasons that have been stated in an election year. Two, it's about getting out of Afghanistan. It's about ending the war there and it's easier to do with these supply routes open.
MARDELLSo does it fix the bigger problems about do we use drones, do we share intelligence, do you the Pakistan government deal with the militants? Absolutely, it doesn't get anywhere near that. I mean, a cartoon in The Nation, a big Pakistani newspaper, showed the foreign minister throwing Pakistani demands in a grave marked self respect. That's the way it's seen in Pakistan. I don't think it -- you know, it's moving in a direction that is obviously positive rather than negative in terms of solving some of the problems. But I don't think it gets anywhere near the heart of the issue.
PAGEMike from Baltimore sends us an email that says, "I've never understood why it took so long for the United States to apologize for the bombing of the Pakistani troops. It seems like a no-brainer. We killed people we shouldn't have killed." Let's go to the phones. We'll talk first to Abdul. He's calling us from Dallas. Abdul, thanks for holding on. Abdul, are you there?
ABDULSo my question is about the defection, the Syrian general defection. I disagree it's -- I know somebody said it's a big deal, but actually it's a real big deal. The reason is because his dad actually knows all the generals -- all the big generals and he, you know, pretty much hired most of them.
PAGENow, Abdul, are you from Syria yourself?
PAGEAnd do you know these people?
PAGETell us how you know them.
ABDULWell, his dad was defense minister forever. And we were close to the family.
PAGEAnd do you see this as a kind of game-changer?
ABDULYeah, I think so.
PAGEAll right. Abdul, thanks very much for your call. Nadia.
BILBASSYWell, I agree. The fact that I keep saying that the significance or the defection of Manaf Tlas is because of his name and his father's name, it's basically he was a defense minister for almost 40 years and he knows all the secrets of the regime. And he does have persuasive power over other generals maybe. So maybe -- a game changer -- maybe I agree with Yochi. It's not going to alter the military situation on the ground but maybe a game changer in terms of it will encourage more defection in the long run, especially on the high ranking like him.
PAGEYou know, I have to say you listen to the International Hour of the News Roundup and Nadia gets an email from the defector right before we go on the air. And we get a caller from Dallas whose family knows this family. I really think this is a remarkable thing. Anyway, Yochi, a comment on this.
DREAZENNow, I mean, I also agree with you that they have people who know the people defecting. It is incredible 'cause obviously we're sitting in Washington. Sometimes it's hard to ourselves know. I think the question will be, when do you start seeing Alawite generals defect? When do you start seeing the Alawite inner circle defect? Not the Sunni close to the family, but slightly outer ring? And right now you're not seeing that. It may be that, as Nadia suggested, as the caller suggested, you will see that because of his father, because of his own family's prominence, but you're not seeing it yet. And that, to me, is the much bigger hurdle to jump.
MARDELLYes, I think it is. And the point that we were making earlier that I think everybody wants to avoid -- everybody in the West wants to avoid this degenerating into a sectarian civil war. I mean, colleagues -- I've been talking to colleagues of mine from the BBC who just come back from there and have been covering this conflict for since it began. And they were saying that initially there was no sign of that. Now it is becoming sectarian and people are saying that it worries them.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break and when we come back, we'll talk about the scandal that's involved Barclays Bank. We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and read your emails. You can send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today and we have the second hour, the International Hour our Friday News Roundup. With me in the studio, Nadia Bilbassy, senior U.S. correspondent for Middle East Broadcast Center, Yochi Dreazen, senior national security correspondent for National Journal and Mark Mardell, an editor with the BBC North America. You know we've got an email from Alex who notes that he is 10 years old writing us from Chevy Chase, Md. Thanks for listening, Alex. He asks "does the recent defection of the Syrian general help the rebels in any way and what happens to the pilots and this general after they defect?"
BILBASSYWell, that's very sweet actually. I'm so happy that a 10-year-old is listening to the program. I'm trying to get my 20-year-old listening and they won't. What happened is yes, ultimately it will help the rebels and once they defect they will have political asylum. So say, for example, Manaf Tlas, if he goes to France probably he will apply for a political asylum. That means the country or the host will protect him so no harm will come to him. But the fact that he defected he doesn't want to part of the regime is basically is a good thing if I'm trying to make it simple for a 10-year-old to understand the answer.
PAGEWe had lots of news in London, Mark. As the chief executive of Barclay's, Bob Diamond, resigned after the bank admitted to manipulating interest rates. What was going on?
MARDELLWell, Barclay's which is one of Britain's biggest and most successful banks was found guilty of between 2005 and 2008 of fixing something called the LIBOR rate. That stands for London Interbanking Offered Rate and what it is basically is that 18 banks in London get together regularly and say what they would pay for being loaned dollars for three months. And that then is -- you take off the top four and the bottom four and take an average. It's important because it says, A, how successful a bank is, B, how much money it's actually going to make on that day.
MARDELLAnd they were fined 290 million pounds. That wasn't enough. The chairman had to resign. That wasn't enough. The chief operating officer had to resign. Still people weren't satisfied. So in the end, as you say, Bob Diamond who everybody saw as a very good boss, who steered Barclay's through some very difficult times had to go. It's really bad for the City of London. Obviously people in Britain as in America don't really like or trust banks at the moment. And this says to people that they are fiddling -- 'cause the top people say we knew nothing about it, it was rogue traders and all that.
MARDELLBut it says that this old boys' network in the City of London where "course we can trust each other old chap, we've known each other for years" just doesn't work anymore. You need strict regulation at least that's what a lot of people would argue.
PAGEWell, is this kind of interest rate manipulation something that Barclay's alone was doing, Yochi, or is it broader?
DREAZENI mean the presumption is no. The presumption is that many of the other banks, as Mark pointed out, these 18 were involved in it, as well. What's interesting to me watching it from the U.S. side is this is potentially systemic, institutional corruption on a mass scale. I mean, this would be the equivalent of every U.S. investment bank not only colluding with each other but then trying to influence a rate which is not just used in England. The LIBOR rate -- this helps to help set currency interest rate bond yields across the world. People look to that rate here. They look to it in Asia.
DREAZENSo this isn't just something confined to the City of London. This has global impact. This might be -- we've been waiting since the economic collapse for there to be an enormous number of bankers put into jail. I mean in the U.S. there's still a populist rage, we'd like to see it too. This could be it. I mean, this could be it in London and this could have repercussions here, as well.
PAGEWill there be do you think prosecutions, Nadia?
BILBASSYI actually watched a clip of Prime Minister David Cameron addressing the House of Commons and he was furious. He was saying basically that this culture of entitlement to bonuses, you know, millions of dollars that these COOs has to give themselves. And he also talks about this risk of management. They've taken so much risk, has to end. And he said he's going to treat the white crimes exactly as a street crime.
MARDELLAnd the reason he's doing that is because the opposition, the Labour Party, well, they were in power at the time, so some people are blaming them and saying you gave them a nod and a wink via the Bank of England. So the conservatives are trying to say that about Labour. But also Labour in general terms. They're trying to say about Cameron and his people, well, you know, you're that crowd. You're the posh guys who went to private schools who are friends with the bankers who for years have done everything the bankers want.
MARDELLSo it's become intensely political. I mean the exchanges in the House of Commons which, you know, you might have heard get pretty heated. They were the most heated really since the election this week on this subject. It's hot political potato domestically in Britain but also it makes a difference because at this moment Europe is trying to say we need new banking rules. And Britain is saying, well, we're not part of the Euro, we don't really need such strict rules. And of course, people are leaping on this and saying, this proves you need the rules more than anybody else.
PAGEAnd Reuter's has just moved a story which they mark exclusive that says that the German markets regulator is conducting a special probe of the Deutsche Bank as part of a wider investigation into possible manipulation of the London situation two people familiar with the matter said on Friday.
DREAZENI mean, this goes against this sort of institutional corruption. I mean, these are not sort of small banks that have a branch on the corner and that's it. These are the world's biggest banks, many of which are either headquartered in London or have the bulk of their operations there. And to answer your question from before I do think there'll be prosecutions. I mean this is not just a white collar crime sort of fiddling numbers. This is active collusion on again a mass scale.
PAGECould this make the financial situation that's already so perilous in Europe worse?
MARDELLYes, it could. If trust goes from banks, that could be a very difficult moment. And I think it is fascinating the idea that this could unravel. I've heard regulators say privately that, you know, actually Barclay's weren't the really bad guys they were the better guys because they came forward, they coughed up, they admitted to it. There are certainly other British banks are being investigated now. If the Deutsche Bank is being investigated and possibly this is was going on in America as well. We have no evidence for that but this is the suspicion. That it was going all over.
MARDELLAnd we've seen with these financial crisis, it's very difficult to predict where one incident goes. You know, how would you get from this leading to a prosecution to a further collapse. I can't exactly tell you the route, but you know that when something critical happens, it can all start unraveling in a very dangerous way.
PAGEMeanwhile, we saw efforts in Europe and in China to cut interest rates to try to guard against a possible global recession. The European Central Bank this week cut interest rates. Will this be effective do you think, Yochi?
DREAZENI mean they're trying to do what we've done here. I mean, as you know, the interest rates in the U.S. are basically zero. So the cost of borrowing money doesn't exist. China is doing the same. England has already done this. So far it has not worked. And frankly, as you saw from the jobs numbers, which I know you discussed earlier, it hasn't worked here either.
BILBASSYIt might be the last measure because especially with the European Central Bank that if they have cut the interest rate now to 0.75 and what if the economic situation has worsened -- what else do they have? So I don't know if it's going to work. I mean basically it's like a measure that they have to take and it shows that the bank has some kind of power still more than the politician when it comes to trying to save the economy. But everybody feeling the brunt of this economic recession worldwide.
BILBASSYI mean China is slowing down. It seems the situation in Europe especially with the crisis in Greece and elsewhere in Europe and now in the U.S., as well with today numbers in the job market that has not even gone up more than expected so interest, I mean, unemployment rate is 8.2 percent in the U.S.
PAGEWe've seen the Federal Reserve keep U.S. interest rates at a record low level and also take other steps that have been even bolder, like quantitative easing. Do we expect more? Is it possible for the Europeans Central Bank to do more if this rate cut does not work, Mark?
MARDELLWell they could lower them even further but it's the biggest rate cut they've ever made. They're now at 3/4s of a percent. So, you know, they could get as low as -- the state they could get as low as Britain. But I think the problem is they would say, people who like this move say, well it would be even worse if we didn't do this. But all the evidence is the money that's really -- I mean the whole idea behind this is put more money back in the system. Encourage people to spend, encourage people to borrow.
MARDELLAll the evidence is that the money pools within banks, within financial institutions is there. But nothing is done with it. It's not spent in the real economy. And that is hugely worrying. That the -- and the reason they've done this in Europe is because the economic data suggests that nothing is going to get better until at least the very end of this year. So all over the world we're seeing a more gloomy outlook on the economy and nothing really producing those green shoots of growth that we'd all like to see.
PAGELet's go to the phones. We'll talk to Bruce. He's calling us from Florida. Hi Bruce.
BRUCEHello. Just a quick comment. Not to beat a dead horse. Back to Iran. I'm duel citizen of Israel and the U.S. and served in the military there. And I think some understanding of Middle East mentality. Our self-declared experts in the West, Middle East experts and pundits and commentators simply don't understand the mentality of the Middle East. Iran, the mullahs, the regime up there will never throw their arms up in despair and tell the West, sorry you're right we can't handle it anymore.
BRUCETheir fanatic religious mullahs want to go down in history as the first generation of Muslim leaders who inflict serious damage on Israel. We all know they tried to do it before and failed. They want to do it no matter what the cost is to their own people. So we need to literally choke them militarily as well as sanctions. These economic sanctions are great, I love them but they are just not enough. They're continuing dragging us for the past 40 years with the so-called negotiation about nuclear weapons and here we are minutes away from their accomplishing their goals.
PAGEAll right. Bruce, thank you so much for your call. Yochi?
DREAZENYou know, if I could take them sort of in pieces. I always get a little bit wary when there's talk of the Middle East mentality. One, it lumps Arabs and Persians. Two, it lumps Shia with Sunni within the Arab world so I would just be a little bit cautious on that.
MARDELLIt doesn't seem to include Israel ever.
DREAZENExactly, right. I would agree with that too. But the sanctions have not worked. I mean they are hitting hard they have not yet stopped the program. As we were talking about earlier it's not clear that the Iranian government will decided hey, enough is enough. That said there's nothing about Iran's behavior that suggests irrationality. I mean you could argue that getting a nuclear weapon as with the case with North Korea and Pakistan gives you a shield.
DREAZENIran has not attacked Israel. They're very careful about turning the dial up or down. So this idea that they're these religious fundamentalists who want to go down in this apocalyptic blaze of glory -- I just don't think is backed up by evidence.
PAGEThe AP reports about an hour ago that Mexico's official vote count has ended and it does show a victory for the candidate we expected. Nadia tell us about him.
BILBASSYYes, his name Enrique Pena Nieto. And he is basically making a comeback for a party called the PRI which is the Institutional Revolutionary Party that has nominated Mexico's political life since 1924 basically. They lost the election in 2000, now he's coming back. He's very photogenic candidate that people talk about him. And his wife was also a movie star in some kind of telenovelas soap opera. So together and with his kids -- he has some kids from out of wedlock and some kids from previous marriage -- together they make this picture perfect of what the presidential candidate and his wife and his kids should look like.
BILBASSYBut there has been accusations especially from the left that the votes has been rigged. And it's the same actually accusation that we had with Felipe Calderon before. The thing about Mexico it there is a law in the election that says basically we're not going to do a recount unless the margin is like 1 percent. Now the margin between these two candidates is almost 5 percent so they're not going to do the recount although they did some of it in certain polls. So he won by 38 percent and we expect him to be the President of Mexico.
PAGEGo ahead Mark.
MARDELLWell I was going to say there are serious recounts. 25 million votes are being recounted. And there's stories that people -- which I don't think anybody questions -- that people were given vouchers for grocery stores worth about $7.50 sometimes higher than that. Some people say that was vote buying others say it was just a demonstration of affection towards the electorate. I talked to people who -- my colleagues out there who say that they -- the one municipality where there was 840 votes cast for PRI this party that won. Were there only 650 voters?
MARDELLThey talked to people who queued for hours and when they got there they said oh sorry we've run out of ballot papers. So I think there were irregularities. But there's an irony within an irony here because obviously there's allegations of corruption. This party in its rule for years and years as you said of Mexico for most of three quarters of the 20th century was known for corruption. And so in this sense that this goes against the modern, new image of the bright guy with the soap star wife that they're trying to establish.
MARDELLBut in another sense some people have asked were the Mexican people actually voting for a bit more corruption. A bit less of the war on drugs. A bit more of an accommodation with the big bosses now 'cause PRI denied this and said there's no deals. But they are saying let's go after kidnapping rather than drug dealing.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. Let's go to Tim. He's been holding on from Northville, MI. Tim hi.
TIMHi how are you?
TIMGood. Question. Great topics. Basically we invest our time and energy, you know, in the interest for the fall of the Bashar regime. While, you know, the opposition has three heads. And everyone doesn't see eye-to-eye. Just recently they were in a big argument. How can we invest in backing these oppositions when we really have no idea how radical they are and is Syria, which, you know, the majority of the people do back Bashar al-Assad.
TIMAre they better off with the opposition or are we better off with the opposition where there are some terrorists involved in that. And also how can we, you know, back the fall of Syria so much while Bahrain has been doing the same thing to its Shia people and none of us seem to even care or pay any attention to it.
PAGETim thanks so much for your call.
MARDELLIt's the old American problem, isn't it? That you want people desperately to have democracy and choose and then oh, they choose the wrong guys. I mean it's -- I'm putting it in a jokey way but it's a genuine danger that you don't know what you're going to get. And I think that you're going to get generally out of the Arab Spring regimes that are less friendly to America perhaps.
PAGENadia, Palestinians are thinking about exhuming the body of former PLO Chairman, Yassir Arrafat. Why?
BILBASSYWell because El Jazzera English has done an investigation that took them nine months. And basically for the first time ever the belongings of Chairman Arrafat which is, you know, his toothbrush, his signature kind of keffiyeh and his underwear even was given by his widow, Suha Arrafat, to a El Jazzera team to investigate. And this team has took this belongings to a forensic lab in Switzerland and they discovered after nine months of investigation that actually it has traces of polonium-210 which is what they unsupported means that this polonium has been manufactured in a nuclear lab.
BILBASSYSo they decided now confirming the ever-suspected theory which is ripe all the time that Arrafat was poisoned. And what the Americans and Israelis wanted him out of the scene because they saw him as an obstacle. He didn't die naturally so now his wife is saying we're running out of time because this polonium apparently has -- every certain years it decays and we have the traces less and less as we go along. So now the Palestinian Authority said we have absolutely no religious or moral problems of exhuming his body and hand over his body to prove that actually Chairman Arrafat was poisoned.
PAGEIt sounds like a spy novel. I want to thank our panel for being with us this hour. Nadia Bilbassy from MBC-TV. Mark Mardell from the BBC. Yochi Dreazen from National Journal. Thank you all for being with us.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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