Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

Talks between the U.S and Russia to disarm Syria of chemical weapons start with tension. Syrian President Bashar Assad insists the U.S. stop threatening military action and arming Syrian rebels. In Egypt, suicide bombers kill soldiers in Sinai as the new government extends its state of emergency and broadens its crackdown on Islamist militants. A satellite image suggests North Korea is restarting a plutonium reactor. And an Indian judge sentences four men to death for raping and killing a student. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.

Guests

  • Yochi Dreazen senior writer, Foreign Policy, and author of the upcoming book, "Invisible Front."
  • Indira Lakshmanan diplomatic correspondent, Bloomberg News.
  • Nadia Bilbassy senior correspondent, Al Arabiya.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She is on vacation. Secretary of State Kerry says the US could still attack Syria if progress is not made to dismantle the Assad regime's chemical weapons stockpile. Egypt's military backed government extends its state of the emergency decree by two months. And concerns grow after new evidence indicates North Korea has restarted plutonium production for its nuclear arsenal.

  • 11:07:27

    MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me for this week's discussion of top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya News Channel, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy and Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News. And you can join us. Our phone number, remember, is 800-4233-8850. Our email drshow@wamu.org. Or send us comments or questions, whatever, on Facebook or via Twitter. Good morning, everyone.

  • 11:07:57

    MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning.

  • 11:07:58

    MR. YOCHI DREAZENGood morning.

  • 11:07:59

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANGood Morning.

  • 11:08:00

    GJELTENSo, very important negotiations underway in Geneva between the United States and Russia over what to do in Syria, and how to get rid of the chemical weapons that Syria has in its custody. Nadia Bilbassy, give us the latest, if you've heard this morning's news from Geneva. How are the talks going?

  • 11:08:23

    BILBASSYWell, it seems that the Russians not just want to own the initiative, but seems to want to run away with it. So now, they talking just allowing Assad to sign this treaty, which as his ambassador at the UN yesterday said, here guys, we join the convention of banning chemical weapons and we're trying to fund mechanism now, through the Russians, of how we're gonna secure it. But they wanted to include into a bigger picture, which is a peace talk between the opposition and the Syrian government.

  • 11:08:56

    BILBASSYNow we're moving from one step to almost -- to walking to running. So, they wanted it to be within a framework, whereby, seems the structure of the Syrian government, which is the opposition, obviously, have been very angry about the whole initiative, let alone to allow President Assad, who used these chemical weapons to get away with it. Not just taking the weapons away from him, but to actually rehabilitate him and stay in power. And, meanwhile, we let the Russians help us in finding some kind of a peace conference, or peace deal.

  • 11:09:27

    BILBASSYSo, the opposition's out of the picture completely. How are they gonna bring them to Geneva? That's questionable, let alone all the mechanism of how they're gonna secure it, whether it's 30 days or 15 days. The Russian conditions was to (unintelligible), which is two. Number one is no American threat, and number two, no arming the rebels.

  • 11:09:44

    GJELTENYochi Dreazen, how realistic is it to do what Nadia is pointing out they're trying to do, which to link the future of chemical weapons to the larger issue of who's going to govern Syria in the future? Is there going to come a moment where the United States and its allies have to choose between do we get rid of the chemical weapons definitively, and really change the strategic situation in the Middle East as a result, or do we continue to try to overthrow Assad? Can the United States indefinitely pursue both goals?

  • 11:10:18

    DREAZENIt's a fantastic question, and I've always been extraordinarily skeptical that you could have this moment of both sides coming to a table after 100,000 deaths and suicide bombings and this horrible slaughter, and peacefully negotiating any kind of transition of Assad leaving and some other government taking power. The idea of it is just inconceivable to me, even before the chemical attack. This notion that post attack, suddenly we can bring them to the table and have a peaceful solution strikes me as a pipe dream.

  • 11:10:44

    DREAZENThe other thing that I think is worth pointing out is that the initial outrage, after the attack, of the imagery, it dominated the news coverage. That fades, as we all know, it fades over time. So, the delay helps Assad significantly. Right? So, now you have the talks, the current talks are about having other talks at the end of this month, to have further talks after that process ends, to have the convention go into effect some months after that. And the outrage will fade. Assad has more time to bash the rebels conventionally. So, he's playing out the clock.

  • 11:11:13

    DREAZENAnd even if, eventually, there is some sort of deal, which is a huge if, he will have had several more months to consolidate his gains before anything else happens on the battlefield.

  • 11:11:19

    GJELTENAnd we have reports this morning that his regime has been removing chemical weapons around. A unit that I hadn't heard of before, Section 450 of the Syrian military, apparently in charge of chemical weapons, is now apparently hiding them.

  • 11:11:34

    DREAZENAnd that's one of the biggest problems with this whole idea of storage and disarmament. Inspectors can only go to the sites that they are told exist. They have no power to go searching for sites. They have no power to force their way into a site. The whole thing depends on a government wanting to get rid of its weapons. There's no indication Assad wants to do this. He wants to not get hit militarily, but that's the only indication we have.

  • 11:11:53

    DREAZENSo, he has a unit. Unit 450, as you indicated, moving weapons around. We think he has about 50 sites that he moves things between. We don't really know. But, inspectors can only inspect what they know is there, so in a weird way, this whole deal hinges on Assad either staying in power or having someone after him who's willing to continue cooperating. And that's the weirdest thing about this whole deal. We say we want him out of power.

  • 11:12:13

    DREAZENThis deal depends on him, or someone close to him, staying in power, or else the inspectors don't know where to inspect.

  • 11:12:18

    GJELTENOr somebody being in power in Syria. Really, in a sense, it doesn't matter, but what you need is stability and security in order for this thing to work. Right, Indira?

  • 11:12:25

    LAKSHMANANYeah, that's right. And not to sound like the one sole potential optimist at the table here, but, you know, I would say that were a military strike to have gone ahead, then I would say, at that point, all bets are off. Diplomacy is dead, and how could we have gotten back to a Geneva 2 style peace conference once there's been a military strike? I don't see how you convince, at that point, Assad's people to come to the table. The upside, from the Obama administration and those who are supporting a potential diplomatic resolution here, even including folks we've spoken to in Israel, within the Israeli military establishment, is if this all works out, and that's a huge if, of course.

  • 11:13:08

    LAKSHMANANBut, if it works out, then you could have the best possible outcome, which is the chemical weapons being removed from Assad's power, put under the ownership and inspection of UN inspectors, so that...

  • 11:13:19

    GJELTENAnd ultimately destroyed.

  • 11:13:20

    LAKSHMANANAnd ultimately destroyed. We're talking about the world's third largest stockpile of chemical weapons by US intelligence estimates, about 1,000 tons of chemical agents. And so, if it all works, and I say, that is a very big if, but then that would have a good outcome. Because doing a military strike does not get rid of chemical weapons. Putting them under UN control would. I mean, we'll have to see, obviously, how this all plays out.

  • 11:13:46

    LAKSHMANANThe devil is in the details about, as we talked about, are they -- they put in their paperwork yesterday at the UN for joining the chemical weapons convention, but are they really gonna do it? The 30 day timeline is too slow for John Kerry.

  • 11:13:56

    GJELTENWell, Nadia Bilbassy, you pointed out that they already have put down two pretty tough conditions. One that the United States renounce the threat of military force. Also that they stop arming the rebels. Now, if I'm not mistaken, this Syrian foreign minister talked about a third condition, which is that...

  • 11:14:10

    BILBASSYIsrael.

  • 11:14:10

    GJELTENIsrael sign a chemical weapons convention. What are the chances of that happening? To point out, to support you Indira, John Kerry did come out this morning and say that the talks were constructive. He had a much more positive outlook on the talks today than he seemed to have yesterday. What can we say right now, Nadia, about how serious these obstacles are?

  • 11:14:33

    BILBASSYHuge. Massive. I mean, I cannot see Israel coming to say here I am. I'm gonna join the convention, which is one among nine countries, I think, left. And also, to add another point, that Syria's excuse of having these chemical weapons is because of Israel.

  • 11:14:50

    GJELTENRight.

  • 11:14:50

    BILBASSYThey always say we have it for our own protection. But I actually will argue against what Indira said, that it's because of the threat of, opposable threat of American military power that the Syrians run away with this initiative. They seize it within hours. And I think from day one, critics of the Obama administration thought that if he was serious about using the military power as a way, as a tool in his diplomatic, kind of, options, that we would have not reached the situation we have reached in Syria right now.

  • 11:15:21

    BILBASSYSo, the situation has been complicated so much because of that. Let's not also forget that Israel is always looking at Syria as could be a potential threat. Not in terms of a military, because we know Israel's much superior militarily to any country in the Middle East, but also because of these weapons might fall or given to Hezbollah and Hezbollah can use them. The Syrian government may not dare using them because they know what Israel can strike and the repercussion for it.

  • 11:15:45

    BILBASSYBut I think the whole picture's been complicated by so many factors. Mainly, as people say, a lack of leadership on the Obama administration to have a clear Syria policy. The Syria policy was wishful thinking that Assad might be assassinated, or there's gonna be a huge defection within a high ranking officers in the army. That ultimately will change the picture. That's from the beginning.

  • 11:16:09

    GJELTENYochi Dreazen, let's talk a little bit about Israel's stake in this debate. Of course, we know that AIPAC, the Israeli American lobby group, was in favor of Syria strikes. That did not happen. Now, we have this possible situation where, as Nadia points out, Israel is going to be under pressure to match anything that Syria does in chemical weapons. On the other hand, if the chemical weapons were removed from Syria, that would really take away a big strategic threat to Israel, correct?

  • 11:16:42

    DREAZENIt would, but just to go back, to go to your second question first. The practical parts of this, which is easy to overlook when we talk about geopolitics, and, you know, the Secretary of State, are extraordinarily hard. To Indira's point, to put these things under international control and destroy them, this may take a decade, and it may take 20 or 30 billion dollars. You know, this is talking about finding all of them, securing all of them, destroying all of them, which has to be done in Syria because moving them is so dangerous.

  • 11:17:08

    DREAZENSo, we shouldn't, for a second, forget just how unbelievably hard, expensive and dangerous this will be, to do, even if all these massive deals fall into place. I was just in Israel for a month. Their concern there is that they're sort of trapped between two terrible options. Option one is a civil war continues to rage, increasingly Islamist, who may look South to Israel. Israel is building a giant fence now in what had been its quietest border, because it's so afraid of that.

  • 11:17:31

    DREAZENOption two, as you indicate, is coming under pressure to get rid of weapons that it sees as vital to its own national security. Personally, I can't see there being much of a chance of them ratifying this. I think that pressure will fade.

  • 11:17:43

    GJELTENWell, we haven't heard that demand, that Israel ratify this convention from the Russians yet. It's only come from the Syrian foreign minister. This could very well be a negotiating point.

  • 11:17:54

    DREAZENAgreed. And I think that, in some ways, it's a face saving measure for Syria. So they can say, domestically, we have this concession, or we pushed for this concession before we gave up something we've always said was vital.

  • 11:18:04

    GJELTENYochi Dreazen is senior writer for Foreign Policy. He is the author of the new book, "Invisible Front." My other guests are Indira Lakshmanan, diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News, and Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for Al Arabiya News Channel. Lots of international news to go over this morning. We're gonna take a short break. Remember, our phone number is 800-433-8850. Later, you can join our conversation. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.

  • 11:20:02

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in this week for Diane Rehm. This is the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup. And the journalists with me here to go over this week's international news are Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for Al Arabiya News Channel, Yochi Dreazen, senior writer for Foreign Policy. And he has a book coming out next year -- it's not out yet, is it, Yochi?

  • 11:20:23

    DREAZENThank you, Tom.

  • 11:20:24

    GJELTENWe're all waiting for it, "The Invisible Front." And Indira Lakshmanan, diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News. And you can join us. Our phone number is 800-433-8850, our email is drshow@wamu.org. One email that's already come in from Sarah. She says, "While I agree that the situations in Syria and Egypt are critical and thus require scrutiny and discussion, it seems like other Middle Eastern countries have dropped off our mental maps. What's the current situation in Turkey? Have the issues there been resolved? What about Tunisia, Libya? What are the conditions of those countries' new governments?"

  • 11:21:00

    GJELTENWell, we don't have time to go through all the countries in the Middle East one by one, but let's talk about Turkey for a second, Indira. The Turkish government is not all that pleased at this new turn of events with the United States and Russia going full force toward a diplomatic solution in Syria. Why is that?

  • 11:21:18

    LAKSHMANANTurkey is the one ally of the United States that had actually come out and attacked this proposal, the willingness of John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart to go forward and try to find a deal. I mean, part of this is about Turkey being extremely exposed, being right on the border with Syria, being one of the biggest recipients of refugees coming across from the civil war. And they have been arming, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels. And they've wanted all along for the United States to do a strike, not just against chemical weapons use but to, you know, tip the balance on the battlefield. Which Obama has said from the beginning he didn't want to do.

  • 11:21:58

    LAKSHMANANAnd so, you know, Turkey has a big problem in this and Nadia will know a lot more about Turkey and can say more. But I just want to say one other point to we were talking about the chemical weapons convention. And, you know, any thought of joining it, it's extremely complicated. The United States joined in 1997 and still we have not been able to get rid of all of our chemical weapons. We're only 90 percent of the way there and, you know, we're in our second decade...

  • 11:22:22

    GJELTENAnd we're not in the middle of a civil war.

  • 11:22:23

    LAKSHMANAN...we're not in the middle of a civil war. So you need to have a ceasefire first, you need to have weapons inspectors. We're talking about huge quantities. It's complicated. And one more thing about Israel, Assad in his interview that he gave to Russian television yesterday, threw out something not as a precondition but he threw out, well we want the entire Middle East to be free of weapons of mass destruction. And that includes Israel should declare and get rid of its nuclear weapons.

  • 11:22:46

    LAKSHMANANWell, we all know that's a complete nonstarter. That's not going to happen but it goes to your point about both sides putting all the, you know, best cards they have on the table in trying to have the strongest negotiating position.

  • 11:22:58

    GJELTENNadia, do you have a point to add about Turkey?

  • 11:23:00

    BILBASSYYes.

  • 11:23:00

    GJELTENI should point out that Sarah also wondered what had happened -- what happened with those demonstrations that we heard so much about (unintelligible).

  • 11:23:05

    BILBASSYSure. I actually was going to add, it wasn't just Turkey was not unhappy with this new initiative -- the Russian initiative, but also another ally of the United States, which is the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis -- the Bahraini foreign minister came out and he said, hold on a second. You're talking about only chemical weapons that killed 1400 people, but the bigger picture is 100,000 dead.

  • 11:23:25

    GJELTENRight.

  • 11:23:26

    BILBASSYSo if you talk about more or less -- and the president was very passionate to describing the scenes and the suburb of Damascus, how these kids were gasping for their last breath. And how we as a -- you know, the Western countries led by the United States, we have to stand up to morality. And so basically what his message is being read as, if you're a dictator in the Middle East, go on, slaughter your own people as long as you don't use chemical weapons. Don't use -- don't gas them, but you can kill them in (sic) conventional weapons.

  • 11:23:53

    BILBASSYSo they wanted the U.S. to play a much more forceful role but Syria's only one part of the problem. The bigger picture for the Gulf States is Iran. So if you are reluctant in using military power against Syria then Iran will be encouraged from the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab emirates.

  • 11:24:12

    GJELTENWell, Yochi, Nadia raises a really important point. We may be in the midst -- I think it's too soon to tell -- in the midst of an important strategic shift in the way that the United States views its allies in the Middle East and beyond. As Nadia points out, up until now with respect at least to the Syria conflict, the United States has been essentially allied with the Gulf States. Relations with Russia have been extremely bad, particularly with Russia's granting of asylum to Edward Snowden.

  • 11:24:42

    GJELTENAll of a sudden now, the attention is back on the U.S.-Russian relationship. The United States seems to be ignoring the concerns of the Gulf States. What's going on here in terms of the U.S. strategic view of its interest in that region?

  • 11:24:57

    DREAZENNadia's point is exactly right. I mean, the other person you could add to that -- the other country is Israel. You had this sort of odd coalition -- unspoken coalition of the Gulf States and Israel lined up against Iran. And now you have the fear, not just on the Gulf side, but certainly on the Israeli side of a softening of an administration that not only doesn't want to use force but is communicating that reluctance to the world, which in some ways is somewhat baffling when you have President Obama say, nobody wants to go to war less than me. I don't want to go. I don't want to go.

  • 11:25:23

    DREAZENIt could not be clearer to everyone in the region that this is a president who is now very reluctant to use force. And it makes the whole promise of all options be on the table with Iran seem much less credible. And, you know, the strategic shift in some ways is also Russia's return to prominence. I mean, this was a country that seemed irrelevant largely in the Middle East two years ago -- one year ago. Suddenly they have the initiative and we're sort of saying we want to work with them. We want to be patient with them. We want to see how much -- you know, how much time they put into this. But they've seized the initiative. It's not ours anymore.

  • 11:25:52

    GJELTENOkay. Indira, I want you to play the devil's advocate to Yochi here. He says that if the United States does not follow through in Syria, some people are going to think that Iran is encouraged by this. You could also make the argument, it seems to me, that if the United States and its allies are able to get rid of the chemical weapons threat in Syria, that might actually strengthen the international position with respect to the goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons capability in Iran.

  • 11:26:18

    LAKSHMANANThere are some voices that we've seen coming out of Israel, again out of the military establishment, who have made that point that if there is a successful deal than this lays the groundwork for a possible successful deal that would remove -- you know, that would put supervision over Iran's nuclear program to a larger degree.

  • 11:26:34

    GJELTENIt could almost be a model.

  • 11:26:35

    LAKSHMANANAnd it could be a model. Now the question is, Iran is something different. I mean, Iran is sui generis from Syria so I think it's dangerous to compare them. And to Yochi's point about the president, you know, seeming weak to outside countries and reluctant to use military power, let's remember that the most famous use that Obama has had of the words redline have been two cases. One, the redline over Syria chemical weapons, which we've all been talking about for the last month. But the other was the redline about Iran saying, I'm not going to allow Iran to become a nuclear weapon-capable state.

  • 11:27:07

    LAKSHMANANAnd so everybody in the world is watching that other redline. If one redline can be crossed without consequences, of course the Gulf Arab States who are Sunni monarchies -- there's a much larger geopolitical thing that we haven't even gone into -- but it's about their own rivalry. It's about Saudi Arabia, Qatar's, UAE's , Bahrain's rivalry with Iran, this Shiite power, and their alliance with Syria and Hezbollah. That's also part of it, that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States don't want Iran rising to more prominence. And they're worried.

  • 11:27:39

    LAKSHMANANAnd we even saw one UAE senior diplomat quoted in the press anonymously as saying that they wouldn't object if Israel used its own power to take out Iran's nuclear capability because they're worried about the U.S. backing up its own words. So, you know, there are many different elements here and I think we have to look at it in the larger regional perspective.

  • 11:27:58

    GJELTENWell, Nadia Bilbassy, I want to get you to respond to an email here from John in Rochester, N.Y. who wants a comment on "Why the Arab League seems to be an absent player in Syria and also in Egypt," which we're going to talk to in a minute.

  • 11:28:16

    BILBASSYAbsolutely. I mean, I actually get asked this question very frequently. The Arab League represents the Arab world. The Arab world, as we know for the last six years, have been living under dictatorship, one-party state. So they are present really the status that we have lived in the Arab world for so long so their interests conflict often. And only now in the last two years that the merge -- because of the Arab Spring that we have a new leadership. So the Arab League as an organization was never taken seriously in anything that happened in the Arab world long before, whether it's Sudan's civil war that claimed 2 million people dead, or it was in Somalia or other part of the Arab world.

  • 11:28:53

    BILBASSYSo their role has been mainly really dominated by different groups, groups that oppose each other. They have different interests. They ally sometimes with each other or sometimes against each other. So don't expect the Arab League to be a powerful organization that's come and say, here we are. We're going to have this blueprint for ending the civil war in Syria. And basically they just follow in whatever other -- what power dictates to them. And, you know, they divide it into different groups.

  • 11:29:24

    BILBASSYSo, I mean, other people say why the United States has to step in and to do something in Syria? Why the Arab states don't do that? Because, I mean, to me the United States represents so many things that we believe in. We believe in human rights and democracy. We believe that international law should be respected and the super power that enforced that is the United States. So to me, they have a very big important responsible role to play and this is why we look up to them when we have atrocities in the world, that they're going to step in and they're going to stop it.

  • 11:29:52

    GJELTENWell, Yochi, John also wanted to know about the Arab League's role in Egypt, which has slipped a little bit off the front pages because we don't have mass killings. But the violence between the Egyptian government and Islamists there continues -- has continued, hasn't it?

  • 11:30:10

    DREAZENIt has. And now what you're seeing is the source of the violence and the victim of the violence begin to shift. I mean, you had hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members killed, maybe several thousand injured as the Morsi government was overthrown, as the camps of his supporters was overrun. What you're seeing now is basically an insurgency that's becoming a full blown insurgency in the Sinai.

  • 11:30:29

    GJELTENIn the Sinai in particular.

  • 11:30:30

    DREAZENIn the Sinai in particular. You had the first use of suicide bombings there that killed nine people. One bomb demolished a building, the other demolished an armored personnel carrier. But you've had 50 dead in this base of a few weeks all targeting the Egyptian military, the Egyptian police in Sinai. Sinai obviously borders Israel. These bombings were in Rafah which is the border crossing closest to Israel. So you have the potential of not just political instability but real violence.

  • 11:30:55

    DREAZENIt's worth pointing out also that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two to bin Laden if bin Laden was alive, put on a tape the day after 9/11 saying about Egypt basically, rise up, that this is now the place where we should have a Jihad against a government is in Egypt. Egypt is where al-Zawahiri is from. It's where you could argue al-Qaida had its roots. So you have violence raging and a very real possibility of much more of it in the near future.

  • 11:31:18

    GJELTENNow the Muslim Brotherhood has never advocated violence for the most part throughout its history. And they've actually been at odds with al-Qaida over this issue. How important is this violence from that point of view? I mean, is there a danger now that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to turn in a more violent direction, embrace violence as a method? And would that sort of bring it into alliance with the more radical Jihadi groups like al-Qaida?

  • 11:31:44

    DREAZENI think that's one danger. You have other groups like Hamas which basically was a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank in Gaza. I think the bigger concern is the Brotherhood is a fairly well-contained, well-controlled organization. It has a hierarchy. But if you see other groups splinter off because they feel like the Brotherhood is not taking a hard enough stance and not fighting back more strongly, you suddenly have smaller groups that are not as well controlled carrying out attacks with their own with no oversight. And that becomes much more dangerous.

  • 11:32:08

    GJELTENAnd, Indira, there -- as the broader region looks at what has happened in Egypt and looks at this reaction against the Islamist groups there, other governments have to be concerned. I mean, you have an Islamist government in Tunisia that's more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood was or more inclusive at least. But what kind of trouble is that government in Tunisia in and what lessons are they drawing from what happens in Egypt?

  • 11:32:34

    LAKSHMANANYeah, I mean, no doubt we -- as people who've been wary of the Arab Spring or Arab uprising have been talking about from the beginning from two-and-a-half years ago, it's a really complicated case. And we've seen how it's gone sour in Egypt. I mean, I just want to make one more point about the Sinai, which is remember this is a region that is really impoverished and very vulnerable to fighting. So that's another underlying factor we have to think about.

  • 11:32:57

    LAKSHMANANBut the Sinai-based militant group that took responsibility for these attacks that Yochi was talking about said that they had been done in response to basically the crackdown by the new interim Egyptian government. And they said that they also -- you know, that they targeted the Egypt -- Egypt's interior minister. And at the same time we see the arrest of one of the leading activists -- secular activists from the 2011 Egyptian revolution and reports of dozens of others being under questioning.

  • 11:33:26

    LAKSHMANANSo it also draws out the question of not just militants but also secular prodemocracy activists.

  • 11:33:32

    GJELTENIndira Lakshmanan is diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's move on to North Korea. Troubling news from there this week, new satellite photographs appear to show that North Korea is restarting a nuclear reactor. What do we know, Yochi?

  • 11:33:56

    DREAZENNot a whole lot. We've seen smoke rising from its turbines, signs that some of its turbines have begun rotating again. It's worth pointing out though that this was something North Korea said it would do several months ago. In the spring it said it would restart production at the Yongbyon facility. This is where we're now seeing the smoke and the signs of activity. The strange thing is that there had been signs since then of a better relationship with the South. Free trade zones that both countries would operate jointly which have been closed is reopening on a trial basis. The rhetoric had been a little bit softer but they're now appearing to carry out a promise and a threat they made in the spring.

  • 11:34:27

    GJELTENWell, we should point out that Russian officials have said that they interpret the white smoke or vapor plume at Yongbyon to signify testing of the electric power generation system and not a sign that the reactor is nearing operational status. Their point is that the reactor is in such a state of disrepair that it cannot be started safely. One of the big problems with North Korea, Nadia, is that our intelligence of what's going on there is pretty opaque.

  • 11:34:54

    BILBASSYIt's very limited. Absolutely. And nobody -- I mean, just to add to what Yochi said, it's actually nobody can verify this. The information came from a think tank at the Johns Hopkins University saying that this could be potentially a revive in the reactor that can produce plutonium that ultimately will lead to them having -- developing even more as the intelligence estimated five to a dozen nuclear weapons. But I think sometimes also we have to put in -- to keep in mind that when Kim Jong Un is out of the picture and Syria dominates in the world events it takes over, he wants to come back again and say, here I am. North Korea is there. And look at me again. So give me some attention.

  • 11:35:40

    BILBASSYThe thing is we are -- I don't think -- I mean, the six-party talks has not gone anywhere. They've been defying almost four American administrations. Two nuclear testing has done under the Obama Administration and I think because they are really busy with very important issues that's happening in the Middle East, nobody was giving much attention back to North Korea. But it might be their way to say, look come back. Let's negotiate. Maybe they can get more leverage. Maybe they can get more economic aids. But I think that administration's not in the position to compromise with them now because they know where they stand.

  • 11:36:13

    GJELTENWell, Yochi, I -- whenever we have a really big international story that gets a disproportionate share of the news, you can almost be certain that North Korea's going to do something that, as Nadia says, will bring it back into the front page.

  • 11:36:27

    DREAZENRight. And we know that the one American who continues to go is Dennis Rodman, a former player (unintelligible) Chicago Bulls. And it's such a bizarre...

  • 11:36:36

    BILBASSYI don't understand that.

  • 11:36:35

    DREAZEN...regime. It's one of the most...

  • 11:36:36

    GJELTENI thought he was going over there to bring back the imprisoned American, but apparently.

  • 11:36:39

    LAKSHMANANHe said that wasn't his job. That was Hillary Clinton's job so apparently he doesn't realize she's no longer Secretary of State.

  • 11:36:45

    GJELTENWell, North Korea is just one of the problems that this administration is facing. And I think as we've been discussing this morning, the way that the Syria case is resolved is likely to foreshadow a way forward in both Iran and North Korea.

  • 11:37:01

    LAKSHMANANThat's right. I mean, the whole question of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation is a real cause of the Obama Administration. I think very close to the president's own heart. And he's tried to populate his administration with experts on anti-proliferation. But what we've seen is particularly the North Korea questions is one that has confounded four successive American presidents who have been unable to get to yes with North Korea on something that was doable.

  • 11:37:27

    LAKSHMANANAnd North Korea in the meantime has conducted three nuclear tests, two of which were under this very administration. So it's not looking good and Obama doesn't have a lot of patience for going back to the table with them unless they're guarantees.

  • 11:37:38

    GJELTENIndira Lakshmanan is diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News. This is the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. We'll go to your calls after this short break.

  • 11:40:01

    GJELTENAnd welcome back, I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm this week and this is the "Friday News Roundup." This is the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup" and my guests are some distinguished diplomatic correspondents, Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya News Channel, Yochi Dreazen from Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "Invisible Front" and also Indira Lakshmanan, diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News.

  • 11:40:28

    GJELTENA couple of emails here with slightly different points, first of all Mike writes: "Assad's only goal is to remain in power. By working with him on these chemical weapons, we establish him as the official leader of Syria, which is contrary to our recent position up to this point."

  • 11:40:47

    GJELTEN"This deal Assad is winning." Of course and that's a point that we have considered in this hour. However a slightly different view from Brian who writes from Knoxville, Tenn. "If a credible threat of military force has driven the Syrians to negotiate on chemical weapons, why wouldn't this threat work to drive them to negotiate a ceasefire?"

  • 11:41:08

    GJELTENI think Brian's point is that we have seen demonstrated here that the threat of military force actually does change the situation on the ground in Syria and who knows may change it in unforeseen ways as well. Let's go to the phones now. I have Matt on the line, first of all, from Philadelphia, Penn. Good morning, Matt. Matt, are you still there? You're there?

  • 11:41:32

    MATTYes, I am.

  • 11:41:35

    GJELTENOkay, good, thanks for calling.

  • 11:41:35

    MATTThank you for taking my call. I'd like to preface my question by saying that I support the president no matter what he does and I'm thankful that we have a president who doesn't make decisions based on kneejerk reactions and is able to adjust with changing facts.

  • 11:41:55

    MATTBut I would also -- I heard a few days ago that Saudi Arabia and Turkey and perhaps one other country have offered to subsidize a missile strike. In other words, they would reimburse us if we opted to go that route. And if that's true -- and I'm hoping you can confirm or deny that. If that's true, I would think that would blunt the argument that we need to focus inward and worry about, you know, Americans first.

  • 11:42:23

    GJELTENWell, thanks, Matt. Yochi -- by the way, Matt, I'm not sure you should support a president no matter what he does. I mean, we've had enough examples of some bad behavior by presidents in the past, but I take your point. Yochi, Matt is saying that if the Saudis would subsidize these airstrikes, that would take care of one of the objections to them.

  • 11:42:43

    GJELTENBut I don't think the cost of this action is really the biggest problem that people have with it. Am I right?

  • 11:42:49

    DREAZENNo, you're right and so is Matt. I mean, when John Kerry testified, he said, the members of the Arab League -- and he didn't go into detail, but he did say that they would pay for the whole cost. There hasn't been much talk of that since, but that did come up at one of the hearings we had.

  • 11:43:02

    DREAZENBut you're right, the primary argument against this isn't that we can't afford it, it's what happens next? Does it drive Assad out of power? Does it keep him in power? What happens to the weapons? Do we empower Islamist rebel groups? Money is not the relevant question.

  • 11:43:15

    GJELTENWell, thanks for that call, Matt, and thanks for pointing out something that we hadn't gotten to in this discussion up until now. Mohammed is on the line now from Portsmouth, Ohio. Good morning, Mohammed.

  • 11:43:23

    MOHAMMEDGood morning.

  • 11:43:26

    GJELTENCan you hear us?

  • 11:43:28

    MOHAMMEDYes, can you hear?

  • 11:43:29

    GJELTENYou're on the air, Mohammed.

  • 11:43:31

    MOHAMMEDYes, I had a quick comment and a quick question. The comment was Russia is siding with Assad who is secular and Christians are protected, minorities are protected. And my question was if Assad comes crumbling down and Islamists take over Damascus how can we guarantee no boots on the ground? Would we tolerate that? I'll take your response off the air.

  • 11:43:55

    GJELTENWell, I think one of the questions here is what happens after Assad? Nadia?

  • 11:43:59

    BILBASSYWell, I mean that's always a question for the administration and this is even despite the fact that they're willing, as the president said, to order a military strike. That was not because he wants to end the civil war and he wants to replace President Assad. It's the opposite, I think.

  • 11:44:14

    BILBASSYThey wanted to give him some kind of warning shot that you cannot use chemical weapons. But meanwhile, we would like to have some kind of delegation going to Geneva because the administration always said, to resolve the Syrian conflict it's never going to be military, it's going to be political.

  • 11:44:30

    BILBASSYBut yes, but this has always been the scary kind of boogey man that's been used in the Arab world from the dictators themselves. If you get rid of us, you're going to have the Islamists. And I always say that this is not necessarily true because in a true election, the Islamists came to power as we have seen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

  • 11:44:48

    BILBASSYThey came to power in Tunisia. They came to power in Egypt. They came to power elsewhere, in Yemen and elsewhere. But the point that we are making is you have to separate political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist elements.

  • 11:45:00

    BILBASSYWhat happened in Syria -- and we always say, and if you only talk to the Syrian opposition, they will tell you this point is in the beginning, the Syrian revolt was peaceful. It was a bunch of kids in Daraa going against the regime. And for six months, it was peaceful. Every single Friday, they will carry non-violent banners till now there is a city in Idlib called Kafr Nabil. They're carrying banners till now as a means to oppose the regime.

  • 11:45:25

    BILBASSYThey didn't resort to violence, but because of the vacuum, because nothing happened, because nobody came to their aid. And actually I was in Syria in January, almost a year and a half ago and I went to those villages in Idlib and I saw who are these Free Syrian Army.

  • 11:45:40

    BILBASSYThey are the farmers, the carpenters, the students, everybody who was trying to defend their villages with AK47s against the regime might, military power. So after a while, after a year when obviously they're not going to win with, even with the CIA arming them with light ammunitions as we heard yesterday, jihadists and Salafists and militant groups that absolutely have nowhere to go and to fight. Syria was a perfect ground for them to go.

  • 11:46:06

    BILBASSYSo separate them. And even according to John Kerry, he said only 10 percent or 15 to 25 percent of the people fighting now in Syria are the bad guys. Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida, the rest are the Free Syrian Army that we have supported.

  • 11:46:22

    GJELTENWell, Nadia just gave us a two-minute version, two-minute history of the Syrian opposition movement and we appreciate that. Let's go now to Hadee who's on the line from Missouri. Good morning, Hadee.

  • 11:46:35

    HADEEGood morning, Tom. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:46:38

    GJELTENYou bet.

  • 11:46:39

    HADEEI just wanted to make a comment on this threat against Syria. I don't think our government morally is in a position to punish Assad for using chemical weapons because Saddam Hussein, who was ally back in the '80s, used chemical weapons against civilians in Iran and, of course, in Iraq, killing thousands.

  • 11:47:04

    HADEEAnd not only our government didn't punish him, but fully supported him with everything, including cash and weapons and I see a huge double standard here in our foreign policies.

  • 11:47:13

    GJELTENWell, a worthwhile point, Yochi, of course, you know, people learn. Past behavior doesn’t necessarily predict future behavior.

  • 11:47:20

    DREAZENAnd actually documents about that have been released just in the last two weeks. A colleague of mine, not to plug Foreign Policy but if you go to the site there's a very good article that actually proves the point that Hadee was making. They were declassified for the first time.

  • 11:47:32

    GJELTENMm-mm, let's move on. Callers are really focused understandably on Syria this week, but we do have important developments in other countries as well. Indira, this very troubling rape situation in India, a study there found that, and I want you to tell me if you think this is credible, 25 percent of men in some parts of Asia have admitted to raping a woman.

  • 11:48:02

    GJELTENIf that is true, I think that's important background to understand why this gang rape and murder of a woman in New Delhi has touched a nerve to such an extent in India.

  • 11:48:12

    LAKSHMANANRight. I mean, you're referring to the World Health Organization's study that said that one third of women worldwide have been victims of domestic or sexual violence. Previously they had found that and now they've found that 25 percent of men in some Asian nations admit to rape.

  • 11:48:26

    LAKSHMANANNow we saw that the lowest rates they found, reported -- remember this is men self-reporting. The lowest rates were in Bangladesh and Indonesia and the highest rates were in Papua, New Guinea. And what was interesting was they were looking at, the scientists were talking about, you know, overall 6 to 8 percent of men raped a woman who wasn't their partner.

  • 11:48:44

    LAKSHMANANSo there are even distinctions between raping women who were their partners and raping strangers. I mean, in Northern India, we have a particular problem so New Delhi, you know, there is such rampant violence against women that it seems to be particularly concentrated in the capital, in the state of Haryana, around the capital.

  • 11:49:05

    LAKSHMANANSo another thing you're referring to is the Indian court that has just sentenced four men to death today.

  • 11:49:07

    GJELTENYeah, bring us up to date on that.

  • 11:49:11

    LAKSHMANANYeah, so was this young woman, last December, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was coming back on a bus with a friend of hers after seeing a movie and she was brutally gang-raped and tortured on a bus and later died from her injuries.

  • 11:49:26

    LAKSHMANANAnd there's been such huge public outrage about this, demonstrations in the street and it's raised a sort of consciousness and movement throughout India over, frankly, a crime that is not that unusual. I mean, there was another case that was drawing outrage that was a seven-year-old girl who was raped in the bathroom of a train last weekend. And there are so many cases like this in India.

  • 11:49:49

    LAKSHMANANSo, you know, there's a whole argument you can have about the death penalty and whether the death penalty is a deterrent. And the court made it very clear that it was trying to send a message to all of India that this has shocked our collective conscience in India and that we have to send a message.

  • 11:50:06

    LAKSHMANANThe question is, what are they doing at every level in terms of police actually taking people's complaints seriously in terms of things that happen in villages where there's no accountability, where there's complete impunity? So, you know, although this is sending a large message nationally, is it going to send that message everywhere up and down the chain in terms of how authorities deal with this?

  • 11:50:26

    GJELTENI guess, Nadia, the idea here is that it's very rare in India for a court to impose a death penalty. And if this were to go through and these four men really were to be hanged, they're hoping ,as Indira says, that this would send a message, whether it's sufficient or not is certainly an important question. But this would be a big deal in India if these four men were hanged?

  • 11:50:50

    BILBASSYI think so because as you mentioned, even the statistics are showing that despite that fact that they deserve the death penalty and it's not really often used. But even when they pass it like the case that happened this morning that actually the judge decided to sentence these four men to be hanged, even the statistics show that they don't even execute people afterwards.

  • 11:51:10

    BILBASSYSo many people are waiting to be executed and it doesn’t happen. But I think this case, as Indira eloquently described, has galvanized public opinion. I mean, the rape in itself, it was horrible, gang-rape in general on a bus, but even the torture. If you read the details of this poor woman with iron rods being, you know, inside her, it's really horrible.

  • 11:51:31

    BILBASSYBut I wanted to understand and maybe Indira will shed more light about it. What is it that? I mean, also I read something like every 21 minutes there's a woman being raped in India. I mean, what is it? Is it the culture? Is it the socio-economic background? Or is it fear of reporting any kind of sexual harassment because they depend on the men for livelihood?

  • 11:51:52

    BILBASSYI mean, it must be all or was it the police that were complacent or basically don't do much?

  • 11:51:59

    GJELTENWell, as Indira pointed out the highest rate was actually in New Guinea, not in Indian.

  • 11:52:02

    BILBASSYBut in Asia in general, but in New Guinea in particular, that's true. But in India, I mean, this case has been, you know, obviously well-publicized. And it's horrible. It's needs to be deplored and needs to be spoken against. And I'm sure it's not just in Asia. Maybe in Asia the statistics have been taken but I'm sure in Africa and the Middle East, elsewhere it's happening especially domestic violence and as you just said it's not just strangers but also partners that are being raped.

  • 11:52:26

    GJELTENNadia Bilbassy, a senior correspondent for Al Arabiya News Channel. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go back to the phones now. Liza is on the line from St. Louis, Mo. Liza, I'm sorry you've been waiting a long time to make your comment, but here's your chance.

  • 11:52:42

    LIZAAn hour. and I just wanted to say that America, I was occupied during the Second World War and the Russians and the British we could have been a satellite state because of the two oceans. And America has always held on the wrong horse when it comes to diplomatically. Their heart leads more than their brains. I voted for Obama the first time, certainly not the second time around.

  • 11:53:10

    LIZAAnd I feel like Saddam was Putin's problem and he was a dictator, but he was a stabilizing force. Egypt is Obama's problem because he ousted Mubarak and he was bad, but there's some that are worse. And...

  • 11:53:27

    GJELTENAnd your point, Liza, is that America reacts emotionally. I think you said America leads with its heart not with its head.

  • 11:53:34

    LIZAYes and I am. You know, I have. I cry when I hear the national anthem and I'm very much an American, but I feel like diplomatically, and then they send Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice out to assure that everything is okay and they were the two liars of Benghazi. So I feel having grown up during the Second World War, I feel like -- it seems like things are just falling apart.

  • 11:54:03

    LIZAObama gasps, Putin throws him a life raft and hopefully he takes it because (word?) will be in my estimation the one that has to liberate the undeveloped countries. And other countries can't, when Egypt, Russia occupied Egypt they kicked them out way back then. Churchill said the third world war will start in the Middle East and I wish somebody would start reading history.

  • 11:54:30

    GJELTENOkay, Liza, thank you very much. I'm sorry you had to wait so long, but you did get a chance to make your comment. I don't think we need to necessarily respond to it because sort of a little bit of a mini-commentary. And I do want to point out this is the 12th anniversary, this week was the 12th anniversary of the terrible 9/11 attacks.

  • 11:54:50

    GJELTENAnd the head of al-Qaida, the new head of al-Qaida after the death of Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri took advantage of this anniversary to post an audio message on the internet calling on his followers to land a large strike on America even if takes years of patience for this.

  • 11:55:10

    GJELTENYochi, 12 years now, since 9/11 we've been fighting al-Qaida. Where does that stand right now?

  • 11:55:19

    DREAZENAl-Qaida as a single entity is largely decimated. I mean the al-Qaida that had a territory of its own in Afghanistan that had the ability to plan attacks from relative security, that al-Qaida no longer exists for all intensive purposes. What does exist and is very scary is al-Qaida offshoots in Yemen.

  • 11:55:34

    DREAZENI've an article in the next issue of The Atlantic about al-Qaida offshoots throughout Africa. So you have in many ways a much more dangerous situation because it has tentacles everywhere as opposed to one place you could hit.

  • 11:55:43

    GJELTENAnd Indira, we just saw exactly the reach of this decentralized al-Qaida with the threat against 19 embassies or a threat resulting in the closure of 19 embassies and consulates across the Middle East just last month.

  • 11:55:56

    LAKSHMANANThat's right and I think we'll continue to see things like that. Every time the U.S. gets intelligence, they have to be even more careful in the aftermath of the one-year anniversary of Benghazi to take seriously, you know, threats that they get from offshoots of al-Qaida, some of which as Yochi said have become more dangerous than core al-Qaida in Pakistan itself.

  • 11:56:19

    LAKSHMANANSo, you know, we've seen that. It's morphed into something different than it was.

  • 11:56:23

    GJELTENWell, speaking of something different than it was, in that message al-Zawahiri encouraged followers to provoke the United States into spending more on security in order to bleed America economically. Maybe that was the whole point of that threat in the Middle East to sort of get the United States to react, to focus again on security and to spend more money and as al-Zawahiri said to be bled economically.

  • 11:56:49

    GJELTENI'd like to thank our guests this hour, Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for Al Arabiya News Channel, Yochi Dreazen, senior writer Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "Invisible Front" and Indira Lakshmanan, diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I've been sitting in this week for Diane Rehm which is big shoes to fill, let me tell you that. So thanks to everyone, thanks for listening.

  • 11:57:11

    DREAZENThanks.

  • 11:57:11

    BILBASSYThank you.

  • 11:57:11

    LAKSHMANANThank you.

  • 11:57:13

    GJELTENOn the next "Diane Rehm Show," using America's financial power to fight terrorism.

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