CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, can saving money now actually cost you money in the long run? We'll take a look at the effects of historically low interest rates in just a few minutes. But first, let's turn to the Middle East.
Countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are going through the growing pains of transition after forcing out authoritarian rulers, but ongoing uprisings in Syria and Bahrain haven't resulted in regime change. In the past two days, Syrian activists have reported shelling in Damascus and aerial bombings near the Turkish border only four miles away.
Protests continue in Bahrain as well. The prison sentences of nine medics there have been upheld for their alleged role in last year's protests. We wanted to know more about what's going on in these two hot spots, so we called on Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Also with us is Maren Turner. She's the executive director of Freedom Now. It's a group that's working to free political prisoners around the world.
So Abderrahim, we just mentioned some of the reports of what's going on in Syria. What is the state of the civil war there at this point?
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Well, what we're hearing, for example, from the Syrian government - we heard that speech...
HEADLEE: After the U.N. General Assembly?
FOUKARA: Yes. By the foreign minister of Syria and he's basically - they're determined to continue to call what's going on there the armed resistance, the armed resistance as terrorists, so they clearly see it as an international conspiracy against Syria.
We've been hearing from Lakhdar Bahimi, who is the envoy of the United Nations in the Arab League to Syria following Kofi Annan, and he's been saying that the situation - the mission - he's described the mission - and these are his own words - as almost impossible. The divisions that they've been talking about - his mission has been talking about among the opposition itself, inside Syria, he's saying that the opposition is so fragmented. There are political parties, for example, made up of three people, just as an example of the challenge awaiting the opposition.
But then you have all this talk about civil war. You have the Alawites, basically - Bashar al-Assad, the president, belongs to the Alawite sect. You have the Kurds. You have the Sunnis. You have the Christians. And there are fears that the fighting is feeding, basically, a kind of sectarian civil war in Syria.
We have been hearing reassurances from the opposition that talk of civil war is deliberately being exaggerated by the regime and that eventually they have a plan that once Bashar Assad is gone, as they say, the country will be saved from civil war.
HEADLEE: But Turkish leaders had some very harsh words for the U.N. Security Council, and I wonder at this point what kind of diplomatic solutions are really possible.
FOUKARA: Well, the Turks have been pushing for some time now for a no fly zone. Without Western support, obviously, almost everybody agrees...
HEADLEE: A safe zone.
FOUKARA: A safe zone for civilians.
HEADLEE: Right. But that would be within Syria. Would that not be a declaration of war?
FOUKARA: Well, that's the thing. That's why they need international support - the Turks, that is. That's why they need international support and they're saying they're not getting it, but obviously the opposition - the armed opposition has made a lot of territorial gains, according to reports that we've been getting. But these territorial gains are scattered and basically what the Turks - one of the things that the Turks want is a geographically significant area adjacent to the border with Turkey upon which a no-fly zone could be imposed to provide protection to civilians fleeing various parts of Syria into Turkey.
But obviously they are complaining that they're not getting a lot of international support for that idea. That idea would have to go through the Security Council of the United Nations. The Russians, for example, have indicated that they would not accept it, so there's a kind of stalemate.
HEADLEE: All right. And at this point, Turkey reports that they've taken in something like 120,000 refugees, so obviously there's an urgency there. But let's take a listen. You mentioned the comments from the Syrian foreign minister at the U.N. yesterday. Let's take a listen to him speaking here through a translator.
WALID MOALLEM: (Through translator) What is worse of all this, perhaps, is to see permanent members of the Security Council who have lost wars under the excuse of combating terrorism now supporting terrorism in my country.
HEADLEE: And he's referring there to exactly what you were talking about. Help us understand exactly what this strategy is.
FOUKARA: Well, their strategy, whether it is a strategy or whether the regime truly believes that these are armed terrorists, but the strategy has been right from the start - and remember that initially, when events started to happen in Syria, they were peaceful demonstrations in various parts of Syria; not necessarily in Damascus, not necessarily in Aleppo, and these are the two major cities. They stayed - these two cities stayed quiet, but they were peaceful protests.
And then their security forces started shooting into protestors, trying to put down the protests. The strategy - at least if you talk to the opponents of President Bashar Assad - his strategy was to militarize the protests so as to make the argument stick that we are dealing with terrorists who are supported with weapons and money by forces outside, and when you say forces outside of Syria, the Syrians generally mean the Americans, the French, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the turmoil in two countries that are still ongoing. It began with the Arab Spring. Our guests are Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International, and Maren Turner of Freedom Now, a group that works on behalf of political prisoners.
And let's bring it to you, Maren. In the past year we've heard about a number of trials in Bahrain, human rights activists and medical professionals. And that seems to be gaining a lot of press right now because of what's happened with these medics. What exactly is the difference of the strategy of, say, the Bahraini government as opposed to what's going on in Syria?
MAREN TURNER: Well, I think the strategy of the Bahraini government's been very different and I think the reason for that is it's preserving its relationship with its Western partners, which is, you know, in great contrast to Syria. So Bahrain has used its laws and used its courts to essentially, you know, persecute and root out any opposition and silence the opposition.
And it starts with the laws. They've got laws on the books which have been, which have been, you know, condemned by governments and international NGOs that prohibit expression and public assembly, and so when the people took to the streets, they immediately were rounded up, every one of them. Particular focus was paid on the people they identified as organizers or instigators, and then they subjected them initially to military tribunals and then ultimately various trials and civilian retrials and appeals and everything you can imagine to get them off the street and put them in jail.
And sentences have been anywhere from, you know, a few months and, you know, for some cases, but you know, three years, five years - three years in the case of the medics, five years, actually, in one case, and life sentences for some of the human rights defenders.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen to actually one of those medics. This is a clip of one of the doctors, Ali al-Ekri, from Al Jazeera's reporting in February of 2011.
(SOUNDBITE OF AL JAZEERA BROADCAST)
ALI AL-EKRI: They have to stop this brutal attack against the Bahraini citizens. They are innocent. No weapons. Please. We are (unintelligible) weapons. They could easily kill everybody, but we will not die.
HEADLEE: And he's the one that was sentenced to five years. What was he sentenced for?
TURNER: They included weapons charges in his case and, of course there was no evidence, you know, and there was no evidence - sufficient evidence that was presented at trial and his fair trial rights were, you know, trampled upon, to say the least. But also, you know, organizing in the public, you know, sphere, inciting the riots, things like that. It's the same charges.
HEADLEE: But as you say, Bahrain has maintained its relationships with some of its Western partners. Is it fair to assume that that's because of its strategic importance there in the Persian Gulf? I mean the U.S. has its Fifth Fleet there because of Bahrain's location.
TURNER: Yes. I think - you know, I think this is - there are many complex, you know, geopolitical relationships out there, but Bahrain and the U.S. is not one of them. It's a fairly straightforward one and, you know, it's made a little bit more complicated by Saudi Arabia. So really when we're talking about the relationship between the U.S. and Bahrain, it's really the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
But there's no question - and the U.S. has made it clear - that their number one priority is, you know, their strategic military presence in the Middle East, and preserving and protecting the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is, you know, chief among those priorities. And so there's no question that they're - you know, they've not backed the opposition in Bahrain at all, unlike in Syria.
HEADLEE: Or condemned the government.
TURNER: Or condemned the government. They've made very generic statements that they'd like to see the government, you know, recommit itself to international law and stop, you know, the abuse against its citizens, but there's no question. There's no political or financial will on the part of the U.S. government to do anything with the Fifth Fleet. They're backing the Fifth Fleet, you know, unlike in Syria, where recently Hillary Clinton, you know, promised to provide a certain amount of funding to the opposition...
TURNER: ...in Syria. In Bahrain it's been the opposite. The administration renewed its weapons deliveries to - weapons sales to Bahrain.
HEADLEE: So Abderrahim, will we still see these countries - let's say a year from now, will Syria and Bahrain still be in turmoil?
FOUKARA: Well, I mean if I may take this back to two years ago, when the so-called Arab Spring started, there was a string of - I'm sorry - there was a strand of assumption that there was going to be a domino effect. Once one country goes, the rest will go. And obviously that theory, so far, has not held. The other side of the argument is that Egypt happened, Tunisia happened, Yemen happened, and what these countries have in common is that they are all sort of republics, although before Mubarak was toppled, he was grooming his son to take over...
HEADLEE: As opposed to Libya...
FOUKARA: ...as opposed to - Libya - Gaddafi was also grooming his son, Saif al-Islam. Bahrain is different in the sense that it is actually a monarchy, and so far what we've seen - we've seen a club of monarchies throughout the Arab world hold together to save themselves. They have, in one way or another, resisted the pressures - so far resisted the pressures of the Arab Spring.
The prediction is that this thing is like an earthquake. It hits once. It's doesn't mean that it's over. It will continue to happen all the time and there's...
HEADLEE: Those aftershocks. Right?
FOUKARA: Aftershocks. And there's a general feeling in the Arab world that what has happened with these movements, whether they are in Bahrain as a monarchy or in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, as republics, is that people have found their voice and once they've found their voice, it's going to be very difficult to silence them.
HEADLEE: To silence them. That's Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International, and Maren Turner, executive director of Freedom Now, a group that works to free political prisoners around the world. They both joined us here in our Washington studios.
Thank you so much.
FOUKARA: Good to be with you.
TURNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.