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San Diego Activists Mark 2nd Anniversary Of Syrian Uprising

March 18, 2013 1:04 p.m.


Yasser AlSaied, President, Syrian American Council in San Diego

Michael Provence, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History UC San Diego

Related Story: San Diego Activists Mark 2nd Anniversary Of Syrian Uprising


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: San Diego Syrian community marks a sad anniversary two years of civil war in their homeland. This is KPBS Midday Edition. The uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began when reforms swept the region during the Arab spring. Now 70,000 Syrians are dead and 1 million are refugees. We will hear about a rally for Syria that took place this weekend in Santee. Springtime is traditionally when the real estate begins to blossom we will get a San Diego real estate spring preview. And the San Diego roots of actor director Dennis Hopper are remembered in a new book. We will hear about the life and accomplishments of this Hollywood renegade. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. KPBS Midday Edition is next. First the news. Syrians in San Diego rally to support their families back home who are suffering after two years of civil war. San Diego housing prices are up but uncertainty is still in the air for the real estate market. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh, it is Monday, March 18. Here are the San Diego stories we're following in the KPBS newsroom. Former Republican members of the San Diego city Council announced support for immigration related legislation. The group's emphasis is aimed at securing the US-Mexico border. San Diego County supervisors will vote on whether to adopt Laurie's law, the measure will allow courts to order seriously mentally ill patients into treatment and for the fourth consecutive year the San Diego State Aztecs will be competing in the NCAA basketball tournament. The first game is Friday against Oklahoma. Listen for the latest news through the day here on KPBS. The top story on Midday Edition, for two years rebel forces have been fighting in Syria. The uprising that began during the Arab spring was aimed at reforming the regime of Bashar al-Assad. So far it has not succeeded but deadly attacks and warfare have claimed an estimated 70,000 Syrian lives and forced more than 1 million people to find refuge in other countries. Some of the refugees are here in San Diego. Yesterday a group of 100 activists gathered at Santee Lakes to pray for their country and a resolution of the conflict. (Inaudible) Aziz worked as a political officer for the embassy in Damascus. She's been here since last year but says she cannot stop thinking about the children of Syria.

NEW SPEAKER: Many many children, families were displaced. They went to Jordan, to the neighboring countries. I'm sorry, but I've become so emotional thinking of my children here, that they are happy, they go to schools, they have insurance, they have food. You know, it's hard to explain.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Another Syrian at the rally, Mo (inaudible) is a graduate student here, his parents and younger brother remain in the war-torn city of Aleppo.

NEW SPEAKER: Trying to help my family, try to help them and the other people we are trying to transfer funds, transfer any aid, again, not like part of any political party, we are just, military party, just trying to help in a humanitarian way, seeing people suffer for two years, like it is time for them to relax and just like live like a normal life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Joining me now to talk about the situation in Syria as we mark two years of civil war are my guests Yasser Al Saied, he's president of the Syrian American Council of San Diego and Yasser, thank you for coming in.

YASSER AL SAIED: Thank you very much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Prof. Michael Provence is associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC San Diego and Michael, welcome back to the show

MICHAEL PROVENCE: Thanks, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael, when the uprising started in Syria reform was in the air throughout the Middle East and North Africa. How did this uprising get bogged down into the deadly conflict?

MICHAEL PROVENCE: It started completely peacefully and the protesters were chanting peaceful peaceful, peaceful as they began and the government made a decision, a strategic decision immediately to define the protesters as terrorists. They adopted their language from I would say probably the Bush administration of 2001 and 2002 and in this way they delegitimize the opposition. They claimed that they were armed, they were not. They claim they were secretary which is to say religiously, religious fanatics. They were not. And in this way they made it possible to begin attacking them with massive firepower during peaceful demonstrations. Which started in the south country this week two years ago.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yasser, what did the original protesters want?

YASSER AL SAIED: Simply the request were to have freedom, self dignity, I mean Syria has been under this rule for more than 40 years. About this have power for 50 years, four years under al-Assad and his family around him, and as the generation start to grow and provide a lot of information people start to indicate that there is actually a better life to seed, you can simply go to protest as Michael said for six months they only said freedom freedom freedom, peaceful peaceful peaceful and they had flowers in their hands and they got shot with massive power. Nothing happened from the opposition or the rebels they called them right now to use weapons up until six months with 5000 that., Then the Army started to (inaudible) not actually, random terrorist organization like Michael, if you do not support this in a structural way, things will be messy

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me just be clear, this is referred to as a Civil War, what you two are describing sounds like a government crackdown. Dp many people still support the al-Assad regime?

YASSER AL SAIED: There is support, mainly 10% of the Syrian population benefit a lot from having the Assad family as the head of the government. The ecosystem of merchants and religious enterprises who supports him, so basically we are talking about a group of merchants who benefit from having the Assad family and the Mafia, the religious enterprise were actually basically forced to say what they have to say of the recently are worried we're not sure what the future will give them, but those things basically can be overcome if we have a real proper runway so not a lot of people, that's why we have the section every day, Maj. Gen., colonels, massive amount from the government army

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael Provence would it be fair to say as Yasser has been telling us that civilian husband taking the brunt of the fighting during the war?

MICHAEL PROVENCE: Certainly the government has cracked down more or less indiscriminately. Of course the people who are protesting were civilians the government has in some ways employed a sectarian strategy of separating the society, fragmenting the society along religious lines so the people who are members of the small religious minorities, the Christians, the member of the sect of them president of Syria comprises, these people have been convinced that their neighbors will, that the protesters against them, and their lives are in danger, should the government fall. So there's been a very successful strategy of terrorizing the population to support the government not out of interest, but out of fear.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what we've seen, what the American public has seen of this conflict, Yasser, really terrible pictures of cities who have sustained rocket attacks

YASSER AL SAIED: It's unbelievable

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hospitals that have been attacked.

YASSER AL SAIED: SCUD missiles, SCUD missiles have been fired on cities. I mean Sadaam Hussein fired SCUD missiles in Riyadh, and we have pictures all over the place we have dozens of SCUD missiles in the past two or three weeks have been fired in Aleppo in the north of Syria and there are missile batteries on the south border of Turkey. I'm not sure if they are operational actually.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And this is the government, people who are living in the cities

YASSER AL SAIED: A SCUD is the worst type of weapon that has almost 0, the target can be within 2 miles. So in reality when you fire a Scott it's not like when you fire a cruise missile. Cruise missles have the basic accuracy of a foot by foot, the SCUD missile have a mile or 2 miles, so basically the number one populated city in Syria is Aleppo. Aleppo is over 2.5 million or 3 million. Damascus comes in second. So it's heavily populated. When you throw SCUDs at them, you can imagine the amount of civilian casualties there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael where is the international community on the conflict?

MICHAEL PROVENCE: In the United States the government is obviously hesitant for good reason to become involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. The Syrian, the French and British are former colonial powers in the region, so they have quite a shameful I would say record in the region. France in particular of course occupied Syria for 26 years in the early part of the century. Shelled Damascus itself twice during this humanitarian exercise, as it was described at the time of course the Russians and Iranians are backing the Syrian government and will probably continue to back the Syrian government. So, in a way the Syrian population is on its own and the international community is for the most part checked out with the exception of Russia and Iran who are backing the government and arming the government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yasser, do you agree, is there any kind of support that you would like to see coming from the international community from the US in particular?

YASSER AL SAIED: Actually the reason I actually reacted what you said is there is a saying that the Syrian civilians and the free Army whoever is under attack saying I will say it in Arabic, there is nobody for us except God. Because truly no one is actually supporting Syria, they are giving them food in the camps and medical supplies but they are dying and hundreds every day for the past two years and no support except for many gatherings, air miles and thousands of millions of dollars spent on analysis paralysis basically and no real support. Syria is now convinced that they are only among themselves and only God will support them. What we need from the US is to lift the embargo. Lift the embargo, let them deal with what they have to deal because Russia Hezbollah and Iran giving them much support that you cannot even imagine with weapons and people and fuel. So, there is no balance and we can't just give weapons to make a balance to keep fighting. We have to strategically think about this what is good for the Syrian people and ask the Syrian people what is needed to happen. Assad must go. Assad must go. As a first step.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael can you explain the embargo to us?

MICHAEL PROVENCE: The embargo is an attempt to limit the proliferation of weapons of the country on all sides of course it's not being observed by the Russian government or the Iranian government. But the Turkish and Jordanian governments the other bordering states are not supposed to give arms to the Syrian rebels. Now, in theory of course and in practice as we saw in a place like Lebanon during the 70s and 80s limiting the introduction of weapons is a good thing. But if it is only partially observed, then it is not really very efficacious.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is news today that serious main opposition coalition is trying to form an interim government to provide services to people in what they call rebel held sections of the country and to bring together rival factions. Yasser, is this what is needed in order to sort of gain support from the factions within Syria?

YASSER AL SAIED: Yeah there are two points to mention here that is absolutely needed. The other thing that is needed is to have the more structural free Syrian, the free Army. Get the proper support, structural support to gain more people from, because there is so many fractions right now in the land, setting their own rule, their own laws and it's actually very difficult even in small pockets you find some people it's becoming the real Lebanon of the 70s, right, so two things must happen. This is going to happen, the interim government which there are a couple people to be leading that, but also inside the free Army needs to be the number one legitimate face for this revolution. And by not giving them, allowing them to get arms or medical supplies or logistical supplies, that cannot happen and we will always see small groups who are very well-funded and we know where they are coming from in the area. Which is, it is a natural path. People need protection, people need arms to protect themselves. They can't get it from anywhere.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you say, Yasser, frequently, let's put it this way, not every day, but frequently we hear about a member of the top echelon of the Syrian government defecting, going, to another country is this a sign? That the Assad regime, I mean will Bashar eventually step down, you think?

YASSER AL SAIED: (Inaudible) are huge, these are people interested so the civilian government like the Prime Minister who left that's kind of very heavy weight but that's not really a strike on the throne I would say, but some of the major defections from the Army where you get Major Generals and from people who are very close to the decision-making leaving, taking their families out and leaving the country, that is a big deal. Okay. However as Michael said, we spoke earlier outside about the Army itself of the Syrian army itself is run by like a mafia. You have the brothers holding one brigade, the cousins holding one brigade so, let the Army all go out, still going to hold the land because we know what we will lose if we go out--

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We lose everything. The last word you're going to have Michael, and that is, so how long considering the situation do you think Pres. Assad can hold out?

MICHAEL PROVENCE: Well it's very hard to say and it's been the case that lots of people have predicted the fall of the government for two years now and this has not happened. One thing that is useful to notice and take note of is that there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians now refugees outside the country. A couple years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago the Syrian government and Syrian people were hosting 2 million Iraqi refugees from the war in Iraq and now they are destitute outside the borders of their own country. They were not helped in supporting and feeding Iraqi refugees after we invaded Iraq and the other countries surrounding, not particularly being helped in feeding those refugees are providing for them either. So it seems that we have a basic ethical responsibility to make sure those people are fed and cared for and that the destabilization of the Middle East in general is something that you know, the US can do something about with money and food and medicine and shelter.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both very much professor Michael Provence, Yasser Al Saied of the Syrian American Council here in San Diego. Thank you both very much.

MICHAEL PROVENCE: Thank you Maureen