MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, President Obama's vision for reducing gun violence includes improving access to mental health care. So we decided to ask two mental health professions who've thought a lot about violence, especially gun violence, for their perspectives on what kinds of changes they think would be helpful.
That conversation is coming up. But first, as we begin the first week of the second Obama administration we've been looking at unfinished business from his first four years. It's the latest in our series we're calling Unresolved. And today we want to turn our attention to one of the most pressing conflicts in the world today - Syria.
The United Nations estimates that 60,000 Syrians have been killed so far, with another 650,000 displaced. Last Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, weighed in. Here she is.
NAVI PILLAY: I firmly believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed, are being committed, and should be investigated.
MARTIN: We want to talk more about this so we are turning once again to Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and he joins us from time to time to talk about events in the region. And he's with us once again. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Before we get into kind of the current state of affairs, for people who have not been following this closely, could you just remind us of how this situation unfolded? How did it start and why has it gotten so bloody and so deadly?
FOUKARA: Well, initially Syrians - young Syrians, I should say - were inspired by what happened in Tunisia, the Tunisians protesting and basically driving their president out. End of dictatorship, as they called it. So a lot of Syrians took to the streets. Initially the protests were very peaceful.
The government cracked down very early on, but since then the protests have been sort of subdued by the Syrian security forces and the opposition has been forced to pick up arms against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The armed opposition is obviously supported by the United States, France, some of their allies in the neighborhood, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The government of Bashar al-Assad seems to have lost control over many parts of Syria but he seems to be still wielding some power and influence, refusing to step down or to leave.
MARTIN: Early on in this conflict, President Obama called on Bashar al-Assad to step down. He obviously has not done so. But President Obama's refused a growing number of calls to intervene directly or somehow more aggressively. Could you lay out what have been some of the options presented to him? And by whom?
FOUKARA: Well, first of all, I should say that if Bashar al-Assad were listening to the speech that President Obama made on Inauguration Day, he would probably have rejoiced in some parts of it. The president said that as far as he's concerned, the decade of wars is over. And Bashar al-Assad would probably interpret that that the United States is not going to come directly to the rescue of the armed opposition in Syria.
Recently his foreign minister - Bashar's foreign minister - has said that the Bashar regime is willing to talk to the opposition. But he's not willing to consider stepping down or leaving Syria as the United States and others have been calling on him to do. And the image that was given was that the captain of the ship doesn't jump ship at the first sign of trouble.
So it doesn't seem that he's willing to leave. But the major source of his strength now is basically Russia, number one, but also Iran. They've been giving him not just diplomatic and political cover. They've been allegedly also giving him weapons and money to sustain his regime. As dire as the situation seems to be in Syria, he still seems to be hanging in there.
MARTIN: Has the U.S. been called upon to provide arms directly to these rebel groups? And why hasn't the U.S. done so? Or have they? Perhaps through some sort of third party.
FOUKARA: Well, remember that very early on, when things started to happen in Syria, President Barack Obama went out there and he said Bashar has lost legitimacy. And since then, the hope of the opposition in Syria has built up that the United States would help them tip the military balance.
And there may have been some military assistance given by the United States to the rebels, but they complain - the armed opposition complains that the United States and others have not given them the kind of offensive weapons that would help them dislodge Bashar al-Assad.
The other concern is that the United States has for some weeks now been saying that jihadi groups, as it's called them, are operating in Syria, having come from Iraq, affiliates of al-Qaida, and giving weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up in the wrong hands. So they will not do that.
But we don't actually know the full story of what sort of weapons the opposition is getting. They are getting weapons from somebody. It's just that we don't know if they're getting them directly from the United States or not.
MARTIN: All this week we're looking at unresolved foreign policy issues from President Obama's first term. Today we're talking about the crisis in Syria. Our guest is Al Jazeera International's Abderrahim Foukara. You know, sort of to that end, we mentioned the figure of, you know, 60,000 dead at the beginning of our conversation.
I'm not sure that anybody really knows, given that there's been such a difficulty in getting information on a consistent basis out of the country for obvious reasons. There are those who argue at this point this is now a genocide. It's a state sponsored genocide against its own people.
The foreign policy expert and former Obama official, State Department official, Anne-Marie Slaughter, told the New York Times that the president has to, quote, "find the happy medium between not committing us to a decades-long ground war and choosing not to do anything," end quote.
Do you have a sense that the U.S. has been searching for that happy medium? And if so, what do you think it would look like? Or what do the analysts in the region think that it would look like?
FOUKARA: One of the saddest aspects of this situation in Syria is that this situation has been caught up in international rivalries. Initially it was just the Syrian people or those parts of the Syrian people who wanted an end to the Bashar regime and Bashar al-Assad. But later on the crisis got internationalized.
So now it's Russia and the United States. Russia, supported by Iran and China; United States supported by some of its Western and Arab allies. And obviously that's cast fear over the future of what's happening in Syria. Will this so-called revolution in the end serve the purposes of the Syrian people?
Or will an end to the crisis be delivered through negotiations among the big powers, including the Russians who are protecting Bashar al-Assad. In the meantime, you have to remember that Syria is - has thousands of years of history behind it. And many of the monuments of those seven(ph) thousands of years of history have been destroyed in the conflict.
You mentioned people - Syrians have been killed. I think that 60,000 is probably the low end estimate. There have been reports talking about over 100,000. Not to say anything about hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of either displaced people inside Syria or refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the country.
So it's a disaster on many different accounts and there doesn't seem to be, at this particular point in time, any end in sight.
MARTIN: Well, from the standpoint of U.S. interests only, and of course obviously the loss of life, you know, is tragic. The displacement, the horror, everything that people experience is tragic. But just strictly from the standpoint of U.S. interests, I think it's pretty clear from the president's speech and it's pretty clear from - that the American people really do not have the appetite for another conflict.
But what is the U.S. interest in this region and why is the president - apart from the - the humanitarian concerns are considerable(ph), but why is the president - apart from the humanitarian concerns - being urged to continue to engage or to find some way to engage in a constructive way?
FOUKARA: Well, I mean this situation in Syria has already festered for two years and the longer it drags on, the bigger the threat to U.S. interests in that part of the world. Syria is really central to the Middle East region, and having Syria destabilized could destabilize Lebanon, could destabilize Jordan, could destabilize some of the Gulf states.
So the United States has huge strategic interests in having the situation in Syria sorted out. How long will it take to get sorted out? Nobody knows. But we know one thing for sure - is that that United States is keen not to alienate the Russians in Syria, and as I said, the Russians are a major supporter of Bashar al-Assad because the United States needs Russian support in dealing with the issue of Iran's nuclear program.
MARTIN: Finally, you know, earlier this month nearly 60 countries sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council asking that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court. So far that has not occurred. Is there kind of a gathering movement, apart from the United States or including the United States, but broader than the United States, to - coalescing around some coherent course of action there, or not?
FOUKARA: I think that, first of all, this issue of referring to Syria to the Security Council, as you said - it calls for referring Syria - not just the Bashar Assad regime. The accusation that war crimes have been committed is also directed at some of the opposition groups fighting Bashar al-Assad. That's number one.
But the call for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court, for example - you have over 50 countries that have coalesced around this course. Will these countries, in the end, be able to push it through the Security Council, knowing that the Russians and the Chinese are against it? That remains the question, but there is certainly momentum for having the International Criminal Court look at what seems to be, as we heard, war crimes committed in Syria.
MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to join us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Abderrahim, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOUKARA: Welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.