An update on the plane crash in the French Alps. Saudi Arabia launches air strikes against Yemen rebel bases. And President Barack Obama slows U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Egypt is in turmoil as its new leader tries to hold onto power. President Morsi is calling for dialogue as protests in Cairo turn deadly. There are fears Syria’s besieged government is preparing to use chemical weapons. U. S. Secretary of State Clinton races the clock for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran claims to have captured a U. S. drone. And from Bangladesh, new details on the factory fire that claimed more than 100 lives. James Kitfield of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC and Matt Frei of the UK Channel 4 discuss the week’s top international stories, what happened and why.
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Center.
- James Kitfield senior correspondent for National Journal.
- Matt Frei Washington correspondent of the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.
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MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Egypt's president blames violent protests on infiltrators inside the opposition. The U.S. engages Russia in a bid for a political solution to Syria's civil war. And details are emerging regarding the deadly factory fire in Bangladesh.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of National Journal magazine, Nadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast TV and Matt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News. I invite you to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Diane.
MR. MATT FREIGood morning.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning.
REHMNadia, what's happening in Egypt?
BILBASSYWell, yesterday, President Morsi gave that anticipated speech and it didn't seem to calm down anyone. We have seen massive demonstration, as we speak now, in front of al-Ittihadiya Palace where the president resides and also in Tahrir Square. We have a committee called the Salvation Committee, which is basically the opposition parties, notably by Moussa, Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi as well, altogether refusing the dialogue that President Morsi has offered.
BILBASSYSo the situation looks like going towards a dead end. The demonstrators are demanding that the president should step down even, it just reminds us of the demonstrations we have seen during Mubarak time.
KITFIELDYou know, what worries me about this is that up until Morsi has displayed a pretty deaf touch and what we've seen here is he's overstepped the boundaries and he doesn't seem to be able to come back in any way that saves face so he's digging in his heels. Basically this draft constitution that he's forcing a referendum on the middle of the month, the 15th of December, is rejected by all the secularists, all the liberalists, all, you know, all the people who basically started the revolution.
KITFIELDAnd he's forcing it anyway and he's basically, this constitution gives the military even more autonomy than they had under Mubarak. So that, he has the military at his side but he doesn't have the people on his side and that sounds a whole lot like Mubarak so it's a very dicey situation right now.
FREIIt's interesting, Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel laureate, of course, former chief weapons inspector who was involved in the whole Iraq business, always warned that in the hot lava of Egypt's post-revolutionary transition it would be a big mistake to have a president first and then deal with the constitution. Then basically reinvent Egyptian society and that's precisely what's happened.
FREISo what you have is that the process of drawing up a new constitution, of finding a level playing field for all the institutions in society has been poisoned by power politics and then you get to the character of Morsi himself who, although as James said, had displayed a very deaf touched and ironically displayed that deafest of touches just a few days before he decided to issue his emergency decree, when he did all the right things over Gaza.
FREIAnd comes from a fairly secretive political background, the Muslim Brotherhood, living in the shadows, living basically outside the mainstream, now finds himself running Egypt but doesn't behave like the president of all Egyptians. He behaves like the president of the Muslim Brotherhood.
REHMWho are the infiltrators he's talking about, Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, he sounds like the previous regime. Whenever you have a massive revolt against you and against your policies you always the outsiders. These guys who belong to Western governments or conspiracy against the president and he sounded in the beginning when people, he was saying basically and the Muslim Brotherhood, to the degree that people around him, his own advisors, Diane, were resigning in protest.
BILBASSYAnd they were saying it's only a few people, don't worry about them. They will disappear and now people are having tents set up in the Tahrir Square saying we're not going to accept this. We, you have to change that, this decree that you give yourself all this power.
BILBASSYHe's saying yesterday in his speech that okay, once we have the referendum I'll resort back to where we were. But the problem is this referendum is illegal because he needs the judiciary and they should've already protested against him. So whatever he's doing he's really doomed.
FREIBut the real problem, I think, is also a lack of trust born out of a toxic environment that had been created by decades of Mubarak rule. So he doesn't trust the judiciary and he's right to not trust them completely because after all they dissolved the democratically elected assembly that was supposed with the drafting of a constitution earlier this year.
FREIHe doesn't trust the military but he fears them which is why he allowed in his new draft constitution or in his decree to have a military officer as the defense minister. So no civilian oversight of the army that would be a disaster given Egypt's background. And, which I think is really telling, in the process of drafting a new constitution up for vote that should've lasted a month, this guy basically...
BILBASSYThree months actually.
FREIOr three months, he crammed it through in one day.
BILBASSYOne night, absolutely.
REHMSo is he becoming an Islamist dictator?
KITFIELDYou know, it's a very good question. We're going to find out pretty quick. If he digs his heels in, decides he has a military on his side and can force this constitution down the throats of the Egyptians with no compromise with his opposition, he starts to look like that and that is the huge concern. I, you know, I still have, I will have misread him if he proceeds down that path.
KITFIELDI thought that he had a little more of a moderate view and, you know, there are reasons, as Matt says, that we basically, frustrated by the opposition. No one is used to these negotiations where you compromise in Egypt. So this is all new to them but if he forces this constitution down the throats of Egyptian people, he starts to look like that kind of a dictator.
REHMBut you're now getting people being killed so you've got a whole new level of concern.
BILBASSYAnd that's why, Diane, people say in this constitution of this degree is not going to pass because it's now with people's blood. You have six people dead, you have 400 wounded and this is not because of clashes to get rid of old regime. This is after a democratically elected government in office and they're acting like this.
BILBASSYNow, the army has promised that they're not going to open fire on demonstrators, they'll allow them to do that. But also being in Tahrir Square is not the strategy. The opposition has to do something. I mean, they can stand there for a month but then what. You cannot demand for the president to step down because he's just been re-elected. He didn't have the mandate that he allowed him to do what he's doing, to give himself so much power. But in the end they have to come to some kind of compromise.
BILBASSYEven if he shoved down this constitution down their throats he's going to leave a divided Egypt in a time of great turmoil and the U.S. now might even use the leverage of the IMF money that he badly needed to put Egypt back on track, to go forward.
FREIBut also not just great turmoil, but turmoil that is building up towards a really important deadline. On the 15th of December this country's supposed to go to vote, to vote on this new constitution. Now, how can that happen? How can vote, first of all, happen under neutral circumstances where it's a generally free vote? How can it happen without violence when you've got violence building up in, like sort of boils, in several parts of the country? And also whatever the result, whether it's either voted down or voted up, is it going to be accepted by the whole country? I mean, this is a terrible mess.
REHMI've just had notice here of the death of the receptionist who took the prank call at the hospital that got through to the duchess. She has committed suicide, no one is giving the reason.
FREIAt the hospital in London?
REHMAt the hospital in London. Goodness gracious.
FREIWell, I mean, this is appalling. I didn't, I mean, this is the first I've ever heard about it but clearly this person would've been under some pressure from the press, from the palace, maybe from her family.
REHMAs to why she allowed the call to go through?
FREIBut I don't, I haven't followed the story that closely but I can't imagine the pressure being so great that it would drive someone to do this.
REHMAnd no one is confirming that the reason was that but however, it does seem just appalling. Let's move onto Syria where there are reports that Bashar al-Assad may resort to using chemical weapons against rebels. What's the evidence?
KITFIELDThe intelligence apparatus has confirmed to a number of journalists and it's been reported that they have indications that he is weaponizing his Sarin gas, which is his most lethal of his chemical weapons, putting them into bombs that could be loaded onto aircraft, that's a very worrisome sign if it's true. I don't know that the intelligence is rock solid.
KITFIELDIt's certainly enough for the Obama Administration to do something which it has not done to date with Syria, which is to draw a clear red line that beyond which America would absolutely become involved. And that is, you know, we've said on this show for many months, Diane, that, you know, once the cost of doing nothing begin to outweigh the risks of doing something, we would get drawn to this conflict.
KITFIELDThat tipping point has been passed, you know, NATO is sending missiles to, I mean, air defense systems to Turkey for the border there. We are about to recognize the Syrian opposition, many of our allies and France already have. We are increasingly involved in this conflict because we are seeing it spill over, we're seeing it draw the region in and we're very worried.
KITFIELDNow we're seeing that Assad is starting to seriously lose power and lose, it's no longer a stalemate, he's losing and we worry very much about what happens the day after he goes. There's going to be a power vacuum and we don't want the wrong people to fill it.
REHMYou know, even as we worry about what happens the day after he goes, what about these poor children who are freezing in the streets who have no electricity, who have no food, who have nowhere to go, the cities are destroyed. Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, the World Food Program which is a UN organization has warned yesterday, there's a million Syrian refugees mainly women and children, are at the mercy of a harsh winter with no access to food or health facilities etc. And that's the tragedy, the human price if you want this civil war, whatever you want to call it. and the Syrian opposition actually and many Syrians that I have spoken to in the last weeks are livid about the fact that the West and the United States are only going to move if this regime uses chemical weapons.
BILBASSYWhat about the 40,000 dead that's been shot by conventional weapons? That's okay? So we're only going to move because maybe these weapons will fall into the other hands. So it shows in a way the dilemma for the West, the hypocrisy that can expose and also what do we do when we have a human disaster on our hands and we're not doing much about it?
FREIIt's interesting, you know, when you talk to people in the administration or, indeed, in London or Berlin, Paris, they're beginning to panic and for two reasons. One is that, as President Assad perceives or is perceived to be perceiving that he's losing this war, what's he going to do next? So (speaks foreign language) in other words, "I will go down, everyone will go down with me."
FREIAnd that would mean basically, that's the plausible scenario where he uses chemical weapons. He effectively would become the first president as suicide bomber. Not with a vest strapped to him but using these weapons which he knows are his doom.
REHMShort break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Matt Frei, just before the break you were talking about what's happening in Syria.
FREIWell, I think -- I mean, the whole question of biological and chemical weapons is extremely troubling to just about everyone, especially of course the people on the ground who might be at the receiving end of this, but also how you deal with this. The point of having a red line, as Washington has announced, is that you hope that a redline would be sufficiently red for people in Syria never to contemplate using this stuff. And the latest satellite imaging and the movements of some of these weapons indicate that this might be different.
FREINow, so you have a redline. What do you do about it? The Israelis and the Americans know it's incredibly difficult to actually take out these chemical biological weapons depots, which there might be as many as 50 concealing as much as 1,000 tons of this stuff. Because if you use airstrikes you're going to blow them up and you're going to create precisely what you want to avoid, large toxic clouds moving across the landscape.
FREIThe other alternative is that you send in Special Forces in season. Well, that's boots on the ground. Obama doesn't want to do that. So it's a really difficult thing to actually deal with in practical military terms.
KITFIELDJust to add to that warning sign, you know, you talk about 50 depots. Last week or so rebellion has overrun six military installations. Now we don't know if any of those had these weapons or not but two of those bases were overrun by Al-Qaida linked groups that are now fighting as part of the rebellion. And another thing that is drawing the United States into this was the opposition coming increasingly radicalized as Al-Qaida and Iraq has flowed into Syria fighting on the side of the rebellion, fighting very effectively as they have because they had a lot of experience fighting us.
KITFIELDYou know, and I'll also say that, you know, when we went into Iraq we had 140,000 troops. It took months to secure all those weapon depots he had around that country. And in those months a lot of stuff disappeared and was used against us eventually. Same thing happened in Libya. So my comfort level, no matter what the scenario that happens here, they will be able to secure 50 weapon sites in a very fluid environment is very low.
KITFIELDAnd I think the Israelis are very concerned about this as well. I think their comfort level's very low because they know that Hezbollah's also operating inside Syria on the side of the Assad regime. Hezbollah is their sworn enemy on their border. And if Hezbollah get sarin gas, it could be very, very worrisome.
BILBASSYIn fact, the Pentagon came up with the reports last year to say that it needed 75,000 troops on the ground to secure these chemical weapons in Syria. Can you imagine? This is a serious thing but I think also the message that we keep hearing from the president, from the secretary of state all the time about this redline and the chemical weapons, a warning to the regime to secure them because they don't want them to fall into -- as Jim just said, into the opposition hands or to the Jihadist group. I mean, that's the biggest disaster that could've happened.
REHMBut is it true that these canisters are now being moved? That's the question.
BILBASSYWell, intelligence -- according to the intelligence, inverted comments, they're saying that they have seen something to indicate that they actually have mixed sarin gas to be used. But we're only relying on the intelligence reports and this -- the same intelligence that give us the same information about Iraq.
KITFIELDNot moved out of the bases. They're moved -- there's movement within the bases where they're stored and indications that they're being weaponized for possible use. There's no indication yet that they are traveling around or being consolidated for that matter, which might even be a good sign. So we don't know exactly what’s happened with these weapons but everyone, like I said, is very concerned.
FREIThe really alarming thing about this is that everyone's just waited too long. The West has waited too long to give the Syrian opposition the kind of recognition, which will not come. Next week in Marrakesh, Hillary Clinton's announced they will recognize the Syrian opposition. Brits have done it already and the French. But this should've come earlier because you want to foster some sort of coherence amongst your position because then you have a partner to deal with.
FREISecondly, you notice at the meeting last night Hillary Clinton talking to the UN Special Envoy but also to the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Lavrov. The Russians suddenly realize that their game is up. Assad is finished. And they are scrambling for some exit scenario. And they've realized that having backed him for all these months, years they don't have anyone, no (word?) on the opposition side. They're basically out of the game. So they're trying to stitch that up as well. It's a really, really very complicated situation in which everyone has protracted for too long.
REHMSo how does the fact that Russia is shifting affect Assad's thinking?
KITFIELDWell, here's the most positive scenario, and I think, you know, something to be watched very closely for. If there's an exile deal where Assad goes to Russia -- I mean, it's the only place in the world left probably who would take him -- if they can help sort of lead to some sort of soft landing that does not end in retribution massacres -- because believe me, all the inner circle from Assad's now looking at their back, looking at their families, same with his top military people. They want a way out that doesn't mean their demise
KITFIELDSo, you know, that's best case scenario is that Russia helps engineer some exile for Assad and some soft landing. You know, short of that it looks a lot like Libya. This guy's, you know, going to end up strung up someplace but what -- we're going to have very little influence over what happens the day after he falls. And that's a very worrisome scenario.
FREIIt looks like Libya -- sorry, but also in many ways it's worse. I mean, as we've heard so often before, Syria explodes, Libya implodes, right? Then you have a Kurdish situation at the moment. You know, the Kurdish situation, for want of a better word, but you have Kurdish minorities in Turkey, in Iraq and in Syria and to some extent in Iran all yearning for some sort of independence as a result of the moving bits in the puzzle at the moment is also very explosive. And it gets the Turks even more involved. I mean, you know, there has to be some sort of comprehensive settlement, which is unlikely.
FREIWe talked about Egypt half an hour ago, which is on the brink of civil war. The situation in Syria is full scale balkanization but with chemical biological weapons and nuclear weapons next door.
REHMA number of you have mentioned Iran. What about this drone that Iran claims to have captured and saying it's a U.S. drone? Nadia.
BILBASSYThe Iranians are saying -- this is part of psychological warfare between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue. And therefore every time they have a drone flying into, the American say international space, the Iranians are saying in our space and we have the right to shoot it down. So far with this particular drone that the Americans are saying so far it's not true. We did not lose any drones.
REHMCould it have been a CIA drone, James?
KITFIELDYeah, of course. We had a CIA drone Predator, a much more sophisticated drone, you know, taken down or dropped out of the skies over Iran earlier so...
REHMAnd what if that's confirmed?
KITFIELDThis latest case has not been confirmed. In fact the U.S. military is coming out and saying it's not ours. It's a small naval drone. It's in the arsenal of a number of parties now...
REHMWhere else would it have come from?
KITFIELDOh, it could come from Qatar, it could come from any of the Gulf states. It could've come from any of Iran's neighbors who worry about Iran who have this in their arsenal. What I will say though is this is not part of a psychological war. We are involved in a shadow war with Iran. We have been over the last couple years. That involves cyber -- very sophisticated cyber attacks. It involves the assassination of Iranian scientists. It involves assassination plots from Iran on U.S. soil. This is not assassination of Israel diplomats overseas. This is not a psychological war. We are involved in a shadow war with Iran.
KITFIELDAnd believe me, it's going to heat up this year because this year is a crucial year. Israel has laid down its own redline. This year by the summer they will pass the tipping point where the Israelis think they have to act.
REHMTell me about the new settlements that Israel is planning, Matt.
FREIWell, settlements have become sort of like Lego blocks on the map in a diplomatic political cold war, sometimes hot ware between Israel and the Palestinians. So literally, I think it was the day or two days after the Palestinians got their vote at the General Assembly of the United Nations, which of course Israel and the U.S. condemned, the Israelis announced that they would build not a 100, not a 1,000 but 3,000 -- 3,000 new settlements.
FREIAnd crucially some of the planning would go ahead in an area called E1, which is a neighborhood between Jerusalem and East Jerusalem which the Palestinians hope will be their future capital and an existing settlement called Maaleh Adumim. So basically if you build those settlements in this area E1 it would make the already fairly uncontiguous Palestinian state even less so on the West Bank.
FREISo it's -- and they're not even -- I mean, the bulldozers aren't there, they're not kind of laying the groundwork. They're just sending people with scopes to plan this, you know, this potential building. It's essentially a snub. I mean, they don't actually, it is thought, intend to build there but they're just sending a signal that this might happen. So this is a political highly charged game that just adds fuel to the existing fire.
BILBASSYIt will kill any real chance of a two-state solution, which I don't really understand how Prime Minister Netanyahu thinks. Because ultimately the choices for him is to have one set solution which he will never accept or to have all these Palestinians -- 4 million of them, with absolutely no rights and you will have an apartheid state.
BILBASSYAnd recently, actually in the last week, they had in the Saban Center they had this dialogue. And they already habilitated the foreign minister Lieberman who basically had been seen as an extremist within this Israeli government. And he advocated for the transfer of Palestinians. And he was saying, you don't understand. The problem with the Palestinians is economy. If you make the GDP of Palestinians $10,000 then that's it, we solve it. And actually it forces upon himself to come and ask him, then what after, what's next.
BILBASSYSo the Israelis, I don't know, sometimes they shoot themselves in the foot by declaring this. I don't know if they're going to go ahead and do it but the peace process effectively is dead. And this administration is not going to spend any political capital on a situation that they see a division within the Palestinians and an extreme right wing Israeli government. Where we go from there, I don't know.
KITFIELDIf you want to consider what a dysfunctional negative spiral this conflict between the Palestinians and Israel's on, consider the fact that what drove Abbas to the UN to go for this sort of meaningless non-member state status was that the settlement activity and for punishment for that he gets more settlements. And this sort of negative spiral is what we've seen. I have been to E1 and I can tell you it's amazing. It's a barren sort of couple of hillsides with a lot of infrastructure, very pristine roads, a huge police headquarters complex. It looks like it's been prepared for expansion.
KITFIELDAnd if you do that it's not only that it makes a future Palestinian state less contiguous, it basically says East Jerusalem could never be the capital of Palestine state because it will -- East Jerusalem will be cut off itself from the West Bank. So it makes the Jerusalem issue, which I've always thought was the most difficult and the one that is most implacable here, it takes it off the table in a way that I absolutely agree would kill the solution.
FREII couldn't agree more. And I think -- I mean, really there is a complete lack of leadership from the U.S. on this. I can see why because, you know, there are not many points to be gained. It's a lousy investment. But without the U.S. taking full leadership responsibility for this and especially with an election in Israel around the corner in the middle of January, you're just not going to get the kind of solution, the kind of head banging that you need. And unfortunately because of events elsewhere in the neighborhood ultimately the Israelis will lose out on this one.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. And the problem for the U.S. government or the U.S. administration is if you think that you can leave the Middle East as it is and the status quo can prevail they are wrong because the situation can always get worse, as the situation in Gaza recently has indicated. All of a sudden, we have almost a full scale war between Gaza and Israel. And also to add to James' point, it shows that the moderate who is willing to negotiate with Israel have absolutely nothing.
BILBASSYAnd the extremists who fire these missiles at Israel can actually have a peace deal and be treated as a states people. And all the foreign ministers of Arab government flooded to Gaza to be seen as supportive of them. And the Egyptian president mediating with Hamas and Israel actually do negotiate with Hamas, maybe not directly but they do negotiate with them through other government. And in return maybe they will lift the blockade or ease the blockade to show that violence maybe some have some fruit.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Ruby, you're on the air.
RUBYI wanted to know, since we're bombing the rebels in even a roundabout way and we have intelligence on the ground, we are the ones that have promoted this action and revolt in Syria. If these chemical weapons are taken by the rebels and somehow get used, are we liable -- is any country that's been promoting these rebels, are we liable then for the war crimes that will be committed?
FREIWell, I think first of all let's get a couple of things straight. I don't think that we created the situation. This action was created internally by President Assad refusing to bow to a reform agenda which had been set by the Arab Spring, which was manifested on the streets of Damascus and elsewhere, and which he decided not to deal with.
FREISecondly, whether we are arming the rebels or not, it depends what you're talking about. I mean, clearly there are some arms going in from countries like Qatar. It is thought that the Saudis are sending arms in. Those arms might be getting bigger and more effective. I don't really know of any evidence that the United States or Britain have been sending in any weapons. They've been sending in communications equipment which is incredibly important. So satellite, for instance, sent in courtesy of the U.S. or Britain, were able to work for the rebels even after they had shut down -- the governor shut down the internet last week.
FREISo these things are vital in a war. You could argue that, you know, a walkie-talkie is as potent as a gun. However, actual weaponry being sent in by the U.S., I've not seen any evidence of that.
REHMAll right. To Indianapolis. Hi, Mohammad, you're on the air.
MOHAMMADThank you so very much. My question is what can the western strategy of regime change expect if it continues to back the Arab Spring -- so called Arab Spring, you know, revolts and we back the leaders into a corner and they have witnessed the fate of Gadhafi, they witnessed the fate of Hussein, that witnessed the fate of Osama bin laden. And many of these people have gas and nuclear weapons. What can we expect if we back them up into a hole and they don't have anywhere to go?
KITFIELDAs your listeners often do, it raises a very interesting point and a good point. You know, I think we were right to get on the -- you know, once the -- and Matt's correct, the Arab Spring was not caused by anything the United States did. This was an internal dynamic of people who have gotten access to technology that lets them see the outside world. And they've had enough of being, you know, subjects of dictators.
KITFIELDHowever having said that, I thought it was a very poor lesson when Gadhafi was murdered. I thought that it sent a message to the rest of the tyrants in the region that, you know, you either dig your heels in or you'll also end up in the gallows or at the end of an execution's gun. So having said that, you know, I agree there's -- I mean, I think Assad though had -- many ideas were floated out there that he might've gone into exile early on before he had so much blood on his hands. Now there's very few countries in the world who would accept someone who's killed 40,000 people. Maybe the Russians would be the one.
REHMBut someone is asking why the world has not responded with at least a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent the use of chemical weapons.
BILBASSYWell, precisely I think the movement we have seen now with NATO using this -- taking this decision of putting patriot anti-missile batteries on the border with Turkey, which is around 540 miles, some see it has a prelude to establish a no-fly zone. It's also linked to what's going to happen in Marrakesh next week whereby the transitional government's going to be declared.
BILBASSYToday one of the Syrian opposition leaders said that this government's going to be in the liberated areas of northern Syria. So I think this is going to go towards that direction. The West is by any means too late to do anything to save all these people who died there and the people who are dying in the process. But they're doing something now.
REHMNadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Center. Short break here then more of your calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back, we'll go right back to the phones to Traverse City, Mich., good morning Willow.
WILLOWGood morning, Diane, I heard a story on "Morning Edition" yesterday that really touched my heart. It was about families that have made it out of Syria and that the children are now freezing because there's a severe lack of blankets and supplies.
WILLOWIn the particular camp that was featured in the story, there are no international aid agencies and I have two questions. The first is why isn't the international community providing adequate support? And secondly, is there something that our family can do to help these children that are dressed in summer clothing and breathing 40 degree weather?
REHMYou know, it's interesting because most of these refugees are going to Turkey and the wherewithal for Turkey to manage them all is inadequate.
BILBASSYAbsolutely, but let me just point out something that I am always surprised by, which is the compassionate feeling of Americans.
BILBASSYYou know, ordinary citizens who are willing to step in and give whatever they can to help people all over the world in conflict that's nothing sometimes remotely related to their lives and I really appreciate that.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. There are international organizations that are working there, but they cannot meet the need. I mean, it is hundreds of refugees of every single day are leaving their homes as fighting intensified in Aleppo and (word?) and outside of Damascus and in Daraa.
BILBASSYSo you see them going to neighboring countries and Turkey has said many times that they are unable to deal with these needs and the same with Jordan that even has lesser resources to deal with them and they have these camps in the desert. And the winter is very harsh in northern Syria and in Turkey so I can only sympathize with these refugees.
REHMHere is an email from Susan in Tulsa, Okla. "I've heard that Russia may decide that Turkey is more important to them than Assad's regime in Syria." How likely is that, Matt Frei?
FREIWell, the Russians are forever pragmatic on these matters and they have had relatively good relations with the Turks, as far as I recall. But I think for them, especially with Syria the issue is now, how can they extricate themselves from their commitment to the Assad regime and from what they see rather emotionally as, nostalgically as their last outpost in the Middle East.
FREIThey've got a small naval base in Syria, which I don't think is particularly important strategically for them, but it's got great symbolic importance. They've been supplying the Syrian regime with weapons. They feel completely cut out of the rather chaotic events that are happening at the moment, even though their procrastination on a diplomatic deal helped those events to come about.
FREISo in a sense, if you get back to the big Syrian question, how do we get out of this mess? There can be no military solution to this. Ultimately, it has to be a political solution.
FREIThat means the Russians have to come onboard. Mr. Assad has to be given some sort of deal, whether we like it or not, to get out, you know, into exile perhaps in Russia, perhaps elsewhere with his family, with key cadres of the military establishment and most importantly the Alawite minority which historically had always been overshadowed and dominated by the Sunni majority, which the French colonial rulers put into the army because they were the ones who were kind of ostracized.
FREIThis, we're talking about a century ago or so. They have to be reassured that there is a future for them because as we see over and over again in the Middle East and as we saw in the Balkans, if you don't reassure powerful minorities that they have a future, there will be a civil war.
KITFIELDYou know, Matt says that Russia is ever pragmatic. I, you know, that's a description of China to me. Russia to me is always on the wrong side of history and it will ever be because of a lost empire, because of its national character and its own authoritarian regime. It's always going to be siding with the autocrats in these situations.
KITFIELDBut they are pragmatic enough to know they are on the losing side once again of one of these dynamics and I do believe that they're looking for creative solutions at the end. The creative solution now is to get rid of Assad and that would be, to me, the best case scenario that's left in Syria.
REHMHere's an email from Oklahoma City. Joseph says, "If an international coalition is successful in helping Syrian rebels defeat Assad, should the international community have to focus on the destruction of Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons as a contingency to the rebuilding efforts?" James?
KITFIELDYeah, well, absolutely. I mean, and that's something that we would gladly foot the bill for. We need to get rid of these weapons. They are an absolute tripwire to any kind -- any number of disaster scenarios in the Middle East. So yes, I think that, -- I also think that, you know, the only leverage we have now is to put money, aid, everything we have in soft power behind the opposition so the day after Assad leaves, we have some leverage to make sure this does not devolve into an Afghan-type civil war.
REHMAll right, to Houston, Tx. Charles?
CHARLESYes, thank you, Diane, and lovely program. Very quickly, the best laid plans that I hear on the show give me great pause. We talk about the opposition as being a unified force and, unfortunately, the largest component of the rebel opposition is those al-Qaida (unintelligible) better funded, better armed, better trained and I'm trying to figure out a scenario where soft power or diplomacy still doesn't create this extraordinary horrific civil war.
CHARLESWe've already seen the Christians emigrate in mass. We've seen the Armenians -- we have the whole history of Lebanon and Syria, but everybody is talking like it's a unified opposition. That doesn't seem to be the case.
BILBASSYWell, there is a unified political opposition and this is why the U.S. administration, led by Ambassador Ford, were in Doha hammering these groups to get together and to form what they call now the Coalition of Syrian Opposition. And this is the one we're going to see probably more recognition by from the Secretary of State next week in this Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh.
BILBASSYThe ultimate aim is to have some kind of government in exile that will take effect immediately the day after Assad falls. So this seems to be, okay, it's not perfect and it's not where we want it to be, but it seems a step in the right direction and especially if they go to the so-called liberated areas in northern Syria.
BILBASSYBut for the military, people on the ground, this is the one who is going to call the shots ultimately. I don't think the majority of them are Salafists. It's everybody is there. There is a tiny support of al-Qaida, but not everyone.
REHMLet's go to Kansas City, Kan., Hiem, you're on the air.
REHMYes, go right ahead, sir.
HIEMFirst of all, I love your show. I listen to it almost every day. It's a great how -- I hope you continue for many, many more years.
HIEMI wanted to make two points. I grew up in Israel and I served in the military there and it's not Netanyahu who is against the peace process. It's all of the Israelis. They feel betrayed by the Palestinians and I don't believe that there will ever be a peace process, not in the next four years, because Netanyahu is going to get re-elected.
HIEMThey have elections in Israel in about 50 days and the polls show him getting re-elected so I don't think there will ever be peace there. And my second comment and my second thing was on the whole war between Gaza and Hamas in Israel and I feel as I do, as a person who has dual citizenship, American and Israeli, that Hamas is like al-Qaida and I don't feel they were treated like al-Qaida.
HIEMI think they have no human respect. They shoot missiles into populated areas and they're treated like there are two sides to the story and both of them are good and both of them are bad. And I don't understand why they're not treated as al-Qaida, meaning al-Qaida did 9/11 and they're treated as the bad people. And in Israel they do it almost every, you know, several months and they're treated as, you know, a second side.
BILBASSYWell, first of all, I don't agree that all Israelis are anti-the-peace-process. I think if you look at all the polls, it shows Israeli society is divided. It's true that in the recent years, Israeli society has shifted towards the right led by this government, but I think, generally speaking and honestly speaking, I think the majority of Israelis wanted to have a Palestinian state, living side by side by the Israelis.
REHMWhat about equating Hamas with al-Qaida, Matt Frei?
FREII think that's wrong, although there are extremist elements in Hamas. You could call it an extremist organization. It is not a terrorist organization in the al-Qaida sense. Al-Qaida is relatively faceless. It lives in the shadows. Hamas is running a part of real estate. It's running the Gaza Strip.
FREIYou might say it's running it very badly, but it is still running it. It can be held accountable through the ballot box, through local council meetings about how it's running everything from the plumbing to its national defense. So it is a completely different entity in that sense, but I think the overall point -- and I was based in Israel back in the 1980s when Hamas was first created. I have to say, at the time, if I remember correctly, with some help from Israeli intelligence organizations to try to de-stabilize Fatah.
FREIThe conclusion I came away with, and nothing much has changed since then, is that, sadly speaking, the reality is that both sides, both Israelis and Palestinians, can always be relied upon to bring out the worst in each other.
FREISo Hamas rockets fired against southern Israel would create retaliation from Israel that will drive Hamas further into the extremist camp. The next rocket from Hamas will increase the power of the Israeli right just before an election and so it goes.
KITFIELDYou know, I take the point, Hamas is -- I think it is a terrorist group because it has -- it kills civilians in large numbers. It did that with suicide bombings during the Second Intifada. However, you know, the story of these kinds of struggles is some of these terrorist groups, extremist groups moderate the Palestinian Authority.
KITFIELDNow, the moderates in this group used to be a terrorist organization. They have downed airliners. Now they're moderates we can deal with, but they had to get into a negotiated process where they take responsibility and that's not happening.
REHMOne last story, new details emerged this week about the fire in Bangladesh.
BILBASSYThis is a very sad story, Diane, and it repeats again this, western countries, the United States, all of us really want to have a cheap garment. We wanted things to be done in factories that pay people $45 a month. And Bangladesh, it is emerging now as the second largest exporter of these garments after China, the world market after China.
BILBASSYAnd the exports are almost $19 billion and they normally recruited very uneducated, poor women from rural areas who are desperate to find a job. They go to work in these factories. I think there are about 4,500 factories in Bangladesh now and there was no inspection. There is no fire hazardous. There is no fire extinguisher. There is no warning for anything so in this particular factory there were 112 people died in the most horrific death.
BILBASSYThere were people trying to bang against iron grids to leave a four-story building and the blame squarely is not just on the Bangladeshi authority, but on the American companies who don't send inspectors to find out the condition of these factories, that of the sweatshops that produce all these goods on the cheap.
REHMOr perhaps don't want to pay for more...
BILBASSYOr they don't want to pay because they wanted these goods to be cheap and manufactured and there's so much demand worldwide for it.
FREII think Nadia's absolutely right and I saw this when I was based in China and in Hong Kong. You have this prevalent kind of theme in southern China. There's the desire of the local authorities to set up a factory. There's the desire of the factory that has basically had the work outsourced to them to make a profit so wage levels are low. You spend as little as you can on infrastructure.
FREIAnd then, of course, there's the desire of Wal-Mart or Nike, whoever, to make a ton of money. Now there is a solution here and it's worked in some parts of the world where you basically put the onus, the responsibility of safety, on to the company that makes money out of this.
FREIAnd you know, you can hold Wal-Mart's feet to the fire on this one in America or you could hold in any company operating in a western-consumer environment...
REHMBut has that happened?
FREI...where there is this consciousness. It hasn't happened sufficiently.
FREIIt clearly didn't happen in this case.
BILBASSYYeah, and you need public awareness of, why do you want to buy this cheap clothes and to see the conditions of these poor women who die as a result of it?
KITFIELDAnd if we're forced to pay, because of that, more for these products maybe it will be -- actually create some space for American workers to make them.
REHMJames Kitfield and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Harrisburg, Pa., hi, Daphne.
DAPHNEHi, I was also moved by yesterday's reports on the refugees, the Syrian refugees and I called a priest that I know from the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Christian Church which is, you know, its base is in Damascus, Syria. So they collected money a month ago already but I'm sending a check today but if you want an address I'd be happy to give it to you.
REHMWhy don't you give it to our phone answerer, Natalie and we'll be happy to put some sources up on the web. Go ahead Matt.
FREIIt's, there's another point I think we should mention which is that a very large number of people are not refugees because they haven't gone into Turkey. They are internally displaced within Syria and if you're internally displaced in the country that's in the middle of a raging civil war there is really very little that the UNHCR that deals with refugees can do. In fact it can do nothing.
FREISo the UNHCR is beefing up its operations as far as I understand on the Turkish border waiting for people to come across. They can do more there and I think they're in the process of trying to do that but when it comes to those tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced within Syria who are desperate enough to leave their homes but not yet desperate enough to leave the country...
BILBASSYOr they cannot leave.
FREI...or simply can't. They simply can't leave. Those are the really tough people to get hold of because you are actually having to provide aid in the middle of a civil war.
REHMSo I want to go back Matt, to your point about holding American companies accountable. Apparently, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Wal-Mart had contracted with an approved supplier, Simco, to manufacture 300,000 girls' shorts.
REHMSimco was over capacity so they subcontracted the order to TUBA Group without Wal-Mart's knowledge, who then subcontracted to Tahzreen Fashions. Neither of these subcontractors was authorized by Wal-Mart to do business with them. Who do you hold accountable?
FREIStill Wal-Mart, I think. At the end of the day, if it's sold on -- look, I don't know about the legal basis for this, but I'm just talking as a citizen.
REHMRight, I understand.
FREISo I think, you know, if it's sold by Wal-Mart, if they make, you know, the biggest profit out of it, it's their margin, then they have to set in place a system of oversight and accountability that goes all the way to the final outsource. It doesn't matter whether it is outsourced once or twice or three times. They need to be aware of that process and that's not too much to ask for a couple of phone calls and emails to be sent to establish where the stuff is being made.
FREIAnd then they have to send their own people over to Bangladesh or China or Vietnam and make sure that, together with the local authorities, they are, you know, they check that the fire escape is working and all the apparatus is in place. That surely must be possible and everyone has to gain from it.
BILBASSYTUBA Group owns the Tahzreen and the manager of Tahzreen was saying, basically we don't know who is selling our garments. We have a middle man. We are a small factory here. We sell it to the middle man. The middle man sells it, but Wal-Mart and Sears and others, even Marine Corps were buying from them.
BILBASSYBasically, they have the full responsibility to know who they are buying from. It doesn't matter who they're selling to, but they're the ones who are buying things and they know that it is done in Bangladesh. And to be honest with you, anybody that doesn’t know that it's going to be a cheap, labor market under very bad conditions that would produce these things -- we all know that. You don't need to, you know, so much information so I think ultimately they're they are the one who is responsible for it.
REHMNadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Center, Matt Frei, he's Washington correspondent for the U.K.'s Channel 4 News and James Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal, have a great weekend everybody.
BILBASSYThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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