Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Abu Fares, a Syrian protester in Homs (identity withheld), Muna Jondy, a human rights attorney and president of United for a Free Syria based in the U.S. and Khaled Saleh, a Syrian National Council (SNC) Foreign Relations Official also based in the U.S. In the video above, the guests focus on the question of whether the international community should impose a humanitarian corridor on Syria.
Civil war in Syria? And life in Homs
Amar C. Bakshi (CNN world producer; host): Muna, from your vantage point, what is taking place in Syria right now? Is it a civil war?
Muna Jondy (human rights attorney): It’s not a civil war. With a civil war you’re talking about two relatively equal forces fighting. That’s absolutely not the case. It’s government aggression against protesters.
Many of the Free Syrian Army members defected - generally at the lower midlevel but nothing in terms of high-level defections. But the military force that the Free Syrian Army has is not enough to even defend itself. So I definitely wouldn’t describe it as a civil war. But I do think that the longer the international community takes to take serious action to protect civilians, the more likely this is going to spiral out into a full-armed uprising.
Amar C. Bakshi: What is life like in Homs? Could you give a sense of what the day-to-day is like where you are?
Abu Fares (protester in Homs): We live a catastrophe here. Everyday we are exposed to the random killing of the al-Assad forces. Everyday we have dozens of murdered and wounded civilians.
We can’t take our wounded to the hospitals because hospitals are occupied now with the regime’s security forces. We can’t take them to the private hospitals because the checkpoints and the snipers target anyone moving in the street. The al-Assad security forces even started bombing the field hospitals.
It’s really too bad a situation here inside. There is a big shortage in food, fuel and medicines.
International action? Humanitarian corridor?
Amar C. Bakshi: Abu, what do you think the international community should be doing right now for Syria?
Abu Fares: We need urgent action. We need safe humanitarian corridors. We need the international community to send the Red Cross and Human Rights organizations.
Of course, we need to support all the international community, because this situation is too bad here inside. We face this brutal regime alone, and now we don’t have more time for more initiatives and conferences. We need urgent and soon actions.
Amar C. Bakshi: Khaled Saleh, what do you think the international community should be doing right now?
Khaled Saleh (Syrian National Council official): One of the other things that we – the Syrian National Council - are in discussions with the U.S. and the European Union is establishing a humanitarian corridor in Syria. The situation in Homs is beyond horrific. People are getting killed. It’s very close to what happened in Benghazi, if you recall, when Gadhafi decided basically to wipe out the city.
I believe the al-Assad regime has come to a decision that in the month of February they’re going to stop the revolution one way or another. They’re willing to do whatever it takes.
We’re looking for the international community to provide us with this humanitarian corridor so we can at least get medical supplies and food to the people of Homs and get the injured outside of the city. Really, otherwise you’re telling the people of Homs that “You’re on your own.”
Amar C. Bakshi: Can you explain what a humanitarian corridor means, and how it would be implemented? Does it require force?
Khaled Saleh: A humanitarian corridor is going to require force, but it’s defensive. It’s not going to require offensive force to attack. Basically, we’re going to declare a corridor from a certain area to Homs, Syria for people to leave Syria with safe passage.
We believe that’s an acceptable solution for a world that’s not truly ready. The world doesn’t have the stomach at this point to go ahead and have the offensive strikes against the al-Assad regime.
One last thing that’s really important for us also to recognize is we want the international community to recognize the rights of Syrians to defend themselves.
We have the 14th largest army in the world, with 340,000, using all of its weapons, including the latest T-90 tanks coming from Russia against unarmed civilians. We want to the world to recognize the rights of the Syrian people to defend themselves.
Amar C. Bakshi: Another viewer asks, how realistic is it to create and maintain a humanitarian corridor in the presence of the current regime’s brutality? Do you think that the al-Assad regime would not attack a humanitarian corridor?
Khaled Saleh: I think if you actually established that humanitarian corridor, that Syrian army will not dare to attack it, because they understand if they attack it, they will give a reason for the international community to attack them.
And in the big scheme of things, the Syrian army, the 14th largest army in the world, is only capable of attacking its own people. It’s not going to get into a war with another army. We understand that very well.
So I think if you establish that humanitarian corridor, the Syrian army, they’ll fuss about it and they’ll talk about it and they’ll complain, but I don’t think they’ll dare to attack it. They don’t want to have something similar to what happened in Libya or Iraq happening to them.
Arm the opposition?
Amar C. Bakshi: Do you think that the West or the international community ought to more aggressively arm the Syrian opposition – the Free Syrian Army and others?
Khaled Saleh: At this point, the West is not ready, and this is really the conversation that we’ve been having with them for a while. It’s not ready to get involved militarily in Syria. And, to some extent, I understand why this is a difficult decision to make. The only other option that remains is the humanitarian corridor.
I know that there’s also a voice that’s asking to arm the Free Syrian Army. At least this way you would allow those civilians and military defectors to protect themselves. We can’t just be sitting on the sidelines, having a theoretical discussion while hundreds of people are getting killed every day.
Amar C. Bakshi: One of our viewers asks if arming the opposition risks igniting a regional sectarian war or a sectarian war within Syria. Does that concern you at this stage?
Abu Fares: We are aware enough of this risk. The regime is trying to push us to be involved in a civil war. But it will not succeed. The objective of this revolution is to get freedom and dignity for Syrian people - for all Syrians. And the revolution, you don’t fight only the Sunnis. You fight also for the Jews and Christian activists in this revolution.
And if you notice, last week, there was a demonstration in a Druze city in the south of Syria. And the Druze issued a statement announcing that they are supporting the revolution.
There are also many Alawite activists who joined the revolution and participated in the demonstrations also. As I told you, we are aware of this risk, and we try our best to avoid being involved in a such a dirty game with the regime.
Amar C. Bakshi: Another viewer asks about post-Assad Syria. What guarantees do you have that Christians and Alawites will be able to participate in a new government and that their rights will be respected?
Muna Jondy: I’d like to comment on that. United for a Free Syria has a position paper on minority rights. And you know, there’s a couple of things I would talk about. First of all, it would be the historical realities in the region. And the historical reality is that Syria has actually been very proud of its pluralistic society.
And there isn’t a history of the majority oppressing the minority. The majority Sunni Syrians, you know, cracking down on the Alawites, Christians, Druze or Kurds. However, I would say that, OK, that’s historical.
But let’s look at the reality now. I mean, look at the Syrian National Council. The Syrian National Council found every possible minority to include under the umbrella of the SNC. And the SNC has representatives of all minorities in the body.
And listen to Abu Fares here. He’s in Homs. He’s being attacked by what is in large an Alawite regime. But on the ground, from the beginning of the revolution, the streets have emphasized that the Syrian people are one - no sectarianism. Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Sunnis, Muslims, Christians, we are all one.
And even now, despite the fact that the crackdown has increased, you’re listening to somebody who’s on the receiving end and is still saying that [sectarianism] is not a reality for us. So I think that there are sectarian politics that the regime tries to flame. But I don’t think that it’s that much of a reality.
Now, on the other hand, it just briefly about the arming and the concern about a sectarian war in the region, I think that it’s unfortunate that we’re having this conversation, Amar, because we’re having this conversation only because the international community is refusing to act. And inaction is not an option. People sitting back and just getting massacred is not an option.
So since the whole world sits back and doesn’t want to do anything, they say, “Well, we’ll give them weapons.” I just feel like if we take that road, then we need to recognize as an international community that that was a decision that we made. We had other options and we chose not to use them.
What can we do to help?
Amar C. Bakshi: Dennis Rygrand asks in situations like this, smaller nations like Sweden, Denmark or Norway, feel quite powerless. In what way can we help you? What kind of actions would help? And I suppose this would be an interesting time to talk, not just about at the national level, but at the individual level. What would you call on people around the world to do for Syria and Syrians?
Khaled Saleh: I think at this point political pressure helps tremendously. The Syrian government still enjoys political relations, formal relations with many of the countries around the world.
What we’re asking for is shut down these Syrian embassies, because I think that will delegitimize the current regime. It will send a very strong message to people who have been sitting on the sideline until now, that the world is telling you that you cannot continue supporting - even by being silent - this regime.
So I think that will be a tremendous amount of help. The other way is right now we’ve established a whole bunch of relief, humanitarian relief organizations, ShaamRelief.org is a non-profit organization that is trying to get some money and some humanitarian assistance to the people on the ground.
We estimate currently in the SNC that Syrians need about $20 million just to sustain themselves every month. We’re able to get about a million dollars into Syria. So no matter how much money we’re getting in, you can imagine, we’re getting about 5 percent of what the people need.
Muna Jondy: I’d like to add on the political pressure side: we live in democracies and we are constituents. As constituents, we have a voice. And so, like here in the U.S., for example, we have Senator Casey who introduced a resolution in the Senate. I feel in Michigan that what I need to do and mobilize my friends to do is to contact our senators and say, “Sign onto that resolution. “
Voices mean something. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the people to tell their elected officials, you need to take more of an action.
Smaller countries can take action diplomatically. So, for example, when we’re talking about intervention, why are we talking about military intervention first? Why are we talking about arming the FSA? Why aren’t we talking about stopping Russian weaponry from getting into Syria? It’s not like they’re parachuting tanks from the sky. Russian weaponry is coming through other countries’ jurisdictions. There’s diplomatic effort that we can pressure any country that has good relationships and say, “Why don’t you tell them, ‘Not on my land?’”
Amar C. Bakshi: Let me just give the final word to Abu Fares in Homs.
Abu Fares: This regime ruled Syria for almost 49 years by one party, and Ba’ath party. The al-Assads ruled Syria for 42 years. These years were full of blood and corruption. These regimes supported terrorism in this region.
It sent terrorist groups to Iraq and Lebanon. By letting us be killed every day alone in Syria, you are helping the regime and creating a proper environment for extremism in this region. Please help us, because we want to live in a peace and in a free democratic state like the other nations in the civilized world.