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Syrian Protestors Seek Out Arab League In The Streets


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden. In Syria yesterday, activists on called on people to come out in force to show visiting monitors from the Arab League the depth of opposition to President Bashar al Assad's regime. They say hundreds of thousands of people responded despite the presence of security forces. Nearly two dozen people were reportedly killed. This adds to the 5,000 people the UN says have died in the popular uprising since it began in March.

Joining us now to talk about the rebellion in Syria is veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright. She's currently a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. Robin, it's a pleasure to have you with us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Nice to be with you.

LYDEN: So these Arab League observers in Syria, they've been monitoring the terms of the initiative that ask the government to remove its weapons and soldiers from residential areas, release prisoners eventually, start a dialogue with opposition groups. We're getting reports of more violence, just the opposite. Do you think that the presence of these Arab League monitors and this big, big turnout on Friday is a turning point?

WRIGHT: It's certainly a signal that the resistance is as alive as it has always been and they're taking advantage of the presence of the Arab League to try to say, look, we're still out here, and trying to show that their numbers are growing, that they're still a viable force, and that the regime is still being seriously challenged.

LYDEN: Back in March, this seems forever ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually referred to Bashar al Assad as someone U.S. lawmakers viewed as a reformer. How would you assess Washington's response to the situation now?

WRIGHT: Syria is in some ways the biggest challenge for the United States right now, because after being so involved in Libya, the U.S. looks deeply inconsistent when it comes to a place like Syria, where at least 5,000 have been killed, and this brutality goes on despite increasing sanctions, condemnation by the international community, and the regime doesn't seem serious about either dialogue, or trying to come to some kind of compromise with the opposition.

But the question is, what else can be done? And there is that feeling in the Arab world that the United States, the west in general, is not stepping up to the plate to try to squeeze Assad harder.

LYDEN: Why, first of all, does Syria matter so much to the international community?

WRIGHT: It's one of the most important geostrategic countries in the Middle East. After all, it borders Israel, it has always - Syria has always been the spoiler in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It borders Iraq where the United States has vital interest; Lebanon, which is a very volatile country; Turkey, which is a NATO ally; Jordan, and so what happens in Syria tends to play out or spill over in lots of different ways.

LYDEN: You've been going to Syria for decades now. When you consider this particular country in terms of the Arab Spring and the Syrian response on Friday, the massive turnout for the international observers, what do you think about what people are doing here, Syrian people?

WRIGHT: I'm astounded. I am in awe of the level of resistance and the determination of people who know that dozens are dying every day. This is not something like Egypt where you saw predominantly young people. This is countrywide, and it has a different dynamic than we've seen play out in other countries. A greater level of brutality, no outside support from the - from whether it's other Arabs or the international committee. They've done it on their own and they keep doing it and they're getting out in larger numbers.

LYDEN: Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson center here in Washington. Her latest book is called, "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Robin Wright, thank you very much.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.