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Saudi Arabia Solidifies Support Of Syrian Opposition


Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal who told reporters his country can not ignore military intervention from Iran and Hezbollah in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia already sends arms to the Syrian opposition. The U.S. also plans to provide light arms to the rebel forces. But the Saudi foreign minister said more is now required. NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos joins us now from NPR's bureau in Beirut. Nice to have you back one more time.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Very nice to be here.

CONAN: Everyone knows Saudi Arabia and Iran are sometimes bitter rivals and on opposite sides in Syria. What does it mean for the Saudi foreign minister to speak so bluntly as he stands next to the U.S. secretary of state?

AMOS: What is different here is a change in tone. The language was very, very tough today. The Saudi foreign minister talked about genocide by the government of Syria. He talked about an outside invasion. He's talking about the Iranians and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group here in Lebanon. He says they have a massive flow of weapons, and that that must be stopped. He was asking for a resolution to have an arms embargo on the Syrians, nigh on impossible. What he's talking about, one would guess, is a U.N. resolution and any resolution that would ban weapons would be certainly vetoed by the Russians and most likely the Chinese. But they were venting, the Saudis today, as John Kerry was there for talks.

CONAN: And when they say they can not be silent on Iran and Hezbollah, did they really mean we can not stand idly by? How committed are they to the Syrian opposition?

AMOS: They have been arming in a clandestine way but, you know, well-known, the Syrian opposition now for sometime. They have always abided by the U.S. green light, and it has not been on for a long time for much more sophisticated weapons. Now, in the last couple of weeks, there have been reports that the Saudis have increased aid, including anti-aircraft missiles. We have also seen YouTubes just in the last 24 hours of rebels taking out a tank with wire-guided anti-tank missile system.

There's no flags on these weapon systems when they arrive. You don't know, you know, where they came from and who gave them. But there has been an uptick in the kind of weapons that the rebels do have. Whether the Saudis have decided to move on their own, that is not clear. Can't really tell. The rebels are still complaining. They are not getting what they need. But this is a bit of a rhetorical game between the rebels and their outside armers. The rebels like to say often we don't have enough.

CONAN: There was also a long piece in The New York Times this past weekend about the flow of weapons from the coffers of Libya...

AMOS: Libya.

CONAN: Yes. Gadhafi's old arms stockpiles flowing to the Syrian rebels.

AMOS: That pipeline has also been in operation for sometime, maybe not as quickly as it is flowing now. But there have been Libyans fighting alongside the rebels, and they have been using Libyan arms. So that article gives more meat to this story, but it is a story that has been known.

CONAN: Now, you talked about Russia likely taking Syria - is very likely taking Syria's side in any resolution before the Security Council. Russia is also been talking to the United States about a conference on Syria that would involve the Syrian rebels - nobody knows at this point who would represent the Syrian rebels - the Syrian government, which seems to have the upper hand at the moment. And today, the Russians saying, well, if this is going to happen, it can't happen without Iran sitting at the meeting, either.

AMOS: Indeed, and there was a meeting in Geneva between U.S. officials and Russian officials that ended inconclusively. You saw the top negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, say not going to happen in July. And it is not altogether clear when Geneva will happen or if Geneva will happen. It seems the dispute is still over who will represent the opposition and whether Iran will be at the table. It seems unlikely you can get a resolution to this conflict without one of the major players being at the table.

But the Saudis do not countenance the Iranians being at that conference, so there's still more work to do at a moment when it is the last place where one could imagine that you can slow down the violence in Syria. And so it was very bad news out of Geneva that they can't even make a date for this conference because there's still so much to be determined on the agenda.

CONAN: And interesting, the Saudi foreign minister spoke about the role of Hezbollah, which is providing infantry troops to the Syrian forces to help them. He's talked about the role of Iran and Iran's revolutionary guards, did not mention the other major arms supplier by name: Russia.

AMOS: Well, yes, he did in a way, because when he's talking about outside massive flows of weapons, he is talking about the Russians. And when he's talking about we must sanction these arms flows, that's really what we are talking about here. Interesting to note that Hezbollah also worked with the Lebanese army in the past few days. There has been violence here in Beirut, in the southern city of Sidon, clashes between the Lebanese army and gunmen led by a Sunni radical imam here. Forty people were killed including 18 soldiers in the Lebanese army. And Hezbollah stepped in here to help the army put down that revolt. And there are reports - rumors still - that the cleric went across the border and went to Syria to fight with the rebels there.

CONAN: This man named Ahmad al-Assir, a firebrand who's come to prominence just in the last couple of years since the start of the Syrian civil war, but somebody who is regarded as being somewhat outside the mainstream in terms of Sunni thought in Lebanon, in particular, and yet, as this fighting erupts, it seems like a lot of Sunnis are saying, well, we may not like him fighting the Lebanese army necessarily, but he speaks for us.

AMOS: Well, that is what is so troubling about everything that's happening in this region, Neal, is all those lines have moved. This war has now crossed borders. You have Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in the middle of it. We're not - we are not talking about solving Syria anymore. We - the whole thing has expanded across the region. Now, it's the Levant that is involved here. And so you find Sunnis across the region who are stepping up their language, sounding much more radical in the way that you heard the Saudi foreign minister today talking about genocide, talking about we cannot be silent. And so these are very troubling signs and, as I said before, you know, Geneva was not a great way out, but it was a way out. And the fact that both the Americans and the Russians cannot find a way to make a date for that conference only is bad news for everybody in the region.

CONAN: And as the United States coming under increasing pressure, A, to start the flow of light arms that they started to talk about and, B, to say, wait a minute, maybe anti-tank, anti-aircraft arms ought to be included as well?

AMOS: I think that pressure is coming. The American policy and the Americans are very open about this is not to help the rebels win. It is to force the Syrian government, the president, Bashar al-Assad, into a position where he will agree to go to Geneva. Now, on paper, he said yes. We will go - the Syrian government will go. Yesterday, Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said that President Assad will not give up power as part of any transitional government - very tough statement out of Damascus.

What's interesting about that is the Geneva framework that was agreed to by both the United States and Russia actually talks about this transitional government, part opposition, part Syrian government, both sides have a veto on who sits on that government and it will have full powers. So Muallem can say that that he won't give up any power. But that is not what the U.S. and Russia agreed to. And in fact, a State Department spokesman came out after his statements and said, very nice try Mr. Muallem, but this is what we and the Russians agreed to for the Geneva Conference that has not been scheduled.

CONAN: Yet, the events on the ground seem to run so far in advance of diplomacy. Things keep changing. As you suggest, this fight in Sidon with the Sunni militia fighting against the Lebanese army, very troubling there in Lebanon.

AMOS: Very troubling, although it has little to do with Geneva. That will not stall Geneva. What would stall Geneva is what is happening on the ground. And both sides, both the opposition and the Syrian government react to announcements that arms are coming. So when the Syrian government hears that the Americans say we are going to give light weapons to the rebels, their calculation is not, oh, that won't make much of a difference. Their calculation is let's move now before they get here.

The rebels work in the same way. In fact, they have been quite aggressive in the north, in Aleppo. And they have been moving in a way that we haven't seen in a while in the north to just solidify their positions Everybody is jockeying for having the best position ahead of any kind of negotiations. And so that's why the situation is so fluid.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos, with us from our bureau in Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. But does that suggest that people believe that some sort of conference, some sort of agreement will freeze things in place, at some point?

AMOS: Well, maybe if we get to Geneva 10 as many...


AMOS: ...analysts talk about here.

CONAN: Not funny, but it's funny.

AMOS: We're just at Geneva 2. But, you know, so many people here will tell you this is how the Lebanese War, the civil war, burned itself out here. It's a 15-year stretch. There were negotiations. What happened is it slowed down the violence, and I think that that is what the hope is of diplomats and analysts who are watching this. Nobody thinks that it can be sorted out in Geneva 2. But what you can do is begin to slow down the violence.

We are still having, you know, thousands of refugees moving across borders. The number of deaths every day is still substantial. You've got violence in Iraq as people are responding to the sectarian hatred. For the first time in Egypt, you have five Shiites killed by Sunnis in Egypt. This is not something that usually happens in Egypt. But it is just a sign of the times. And so Geneva is no magic bullet, as people often say. But it is, at least, a framework where you can begin to think about how you settle this. It could take 15 years.

CONAN: And as we look at the events spilling across borders, I wonder how have the protests in Turkey affected that government's position, of course, a major player on - in the anti-Syrian government coalition?

AMOS: Well, so many other things, you know, is it fluid here? Yes. Is it fluid internationally? Oh, yes. So you have protests in Turkey, and, you know, the Turkish government has to take their eye off the Syrian ball just a minute to sort out what is happening. And they didn't do it very well. You know, the police were pretty tough on those protestors, and that is still a part of the landscape.

You have the most remarkable lie - spy story that we know of. A young man, 29 years old, is sitting on a plane in Moscow. The Americans want him back. He has leaked sensitive American information. So you have a tiff between the United States and Moscow. Are they thinking about Syria? Well, yes. But all these other events are so important that it does get in the way. You just have to imagine that, you know, focus moves.

CONAN: And as we looked toward Aleppo in the North, that is where people expect the next big battle.

AMOS: They do. In fact, people had dates. You know, June 17th. This is when it will happen. And when it didn't, there was some reconsideration of exactly what's happening. The regime said they were going to Aleppo, which would have meant that they had bypassed a town that's as important to them as Aleppo, which is Homs. It's in the center. It would solidify their power in the center of the country and they said, no, we're got to Aleppo. It's a symbol.

Aleppo is the biggest city in the country, the financial hub, the rebels have held it for more than a year now. If the regime can take back Aleppo, I think in their view, they can break the back of this revolution. So they were saying we're going there. Now, so far, yes, there's been battles up there. But this big set piece of military conquest, it hasn't quite happened yet.

I have no explanation for that. It could be simply posturing by the regime. We are coming, we are coming and we are going to try to get there before your light arms arrive.

CONAN: And has the difficulties of the rebel forces, the defeat in Qusair, the prospect of a bigger defeat in Aleppo, has that concentrated minds on, well, we ought to get unified, otherwise we're going to be in serious trouble.

AMOS: You would think, but it appears not yet. This is a very chaotic movement. The Free Syrian Army is a brand. It is not an army. And I have been reading accounts of the supreme military commander General Salim Idris, who is the Americans' favorite choice - the choice for funneling arms to the rebels. He was elected by commanders in December. His power on the ground is very limited.

It's certainly in Northern Syria. It is the radical Islamist brigades that have the most weapons, the most power, the most training. He is trying to build a force there hoping that the weapons that come to him from the Americans will give him some power that he - I read today that he had a meeting with commanders who were yelling at him. When you get these weapons, put them on TV so that we all know that they've arrived and then we'll have a transparent system. And he said, wait. In the military, you have to have secrets.


AMOS: I'm not putting the weapons on TV. So you seen that he - I mean, I don't mean to laugh, but I...

CONAN: I know.

AMOS: ...you know, it is a struggle to put this organization together to do what they want to do, which is hang on to the north to be able to pressure the regime.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Deb Amos, joining us from our bureau in Beirut. Perhaps, we will see you at Geneva 10.

AMOS: Indeed. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, Political Junkie joins us we bid a fond farewell to the Political Junkie. Ken Rudin will be with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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