New Attempt by Syria to Crack Down on Dissent

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Government forces in Syria today stormed the town of Rastan in the center of the country. They used helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles to blast their way in. Their goal? To crush a group of army deserters who are fighting back against the government's crackdown on descent. Some 2,700 people have been killed since the protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime started six months ago. Louay Safi, a Syrian American, is a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. He's currently in Qatar. Is this turning into an armed rebellion?

Louay Safi: Well, I think the sector of this turning into a armed rebellion is there. Desertion has been taking place in the last two to three months and it is sometimes associated with the use of weapons and fighting; but for the most part the revolution is still peaceful. And so I would say the danger is there, but we are still far from that point.

Werman: Is it a sign of confidence, an expectation of winning that opponents of al-Assad are prepared to fight as has happened in Libya?

Safi: Absolutely, absolutely, this is giving more encouragement. And people see these events as a more indicative that the regime is falling apart.

Werman: Okay, you say falling apart, but I guess you could look at the latest crackdown two ways – a strong government asserting its authority, or perhaps a sign of desperation, how do you see it?

Safi: Well, I see it as a sing of desperation and inflexibility, which is quite amazing, the level of inflexibility in this regime. This regime has no stomach for practical engagement. All they know is how to shoot and how to suppress.

Werman: What kind of disincentives is the Syrian government using to try and prevent defectors? Do you know?

Safi: Yes, I mean basically, showing brutality, sort of this fear tactic – some of the military officers that have died were killed just as a preventive measure because their loyalty was not 100% assured.

Werman: Are you getting any sense at all, Dr. Safi, that the protestors who are peaceful are a little nervous about what's happening with these defectors, that they're worried that this could turn very violent?

Safi: Absolutely, the more this is prolonged the more the possibility of some people taking up arms and using violence in response to the violence of the regime.

Werman: As we're about to hear from our reporter in Turkey, life improves when Syrian defectors leave the country. What are the consequences though for family members of those defectors who are unable to leave Syria?

Safi: The state uses family as a way to pressure that are opposing the regime; so they take family members as hostages to pressure the opposition. And in some cases they are you know, very severely beaten, severely…subjected to torture, and we have a number of cases where death resulted from torturing of members of the family of those who are opposing the regime.

Werman: Dr. Louay Safi, a member of the Syrian National Council and currently chairman of the Syrian American Council. He's also a Common Word Fellow at Georgetown University. He joined us from Doha in Qatar. Thank you very much for your time.

Safi: You are welcome.