As Syria Fighting Wears On, What's Next?

Feb 19, 2014

Twin suicide bombings killed at least four people and injured dozen more in Beirut, Lebanon today. The targets appear to be Hezbollah, the militant Shia group that has fighters in Syria fighting for President Assad.

Meantime in Syria, the evacuation of civilians from the besieged city of Homs continues, but so does the fighting. And two round of peace talks, the latest of which ended last week, haven’t produced any results.

Mina Al-Oraibi of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss what comes next.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Today in Lebanon, at least four people were killed and dozens wounded in two suicide bombings in Beirut. It appears that the attacks were targeting the Shia militant group Hezbollah, which was long been supported by Syria's President Assad and is now returning the favor, fighting in Syria in support of Assad.

Inside Syria, more people are being evacuated from the besieged city of Homs where government and rebel forces have been battling for control for months and will likely continue after the second round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition ended in failure.

Mina Al-Oraibi is assistant editor-in-chief for Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arab newspaper based in London. She was in Geneva for the peace talks last week and joins us from the BBC in London. Mina, welcome.

MINA AL-ORAIBI: Hi, Robin.

YOUNG: Your thoughts on those attacks on Lebanon today. Not the first on Hezbollah neighborhoods and not the first thought to be at the hand of some of the Syrian refugees who have been pouring into Lebanon.

AL-ORAIBI: Well, to be frank, what's happening in Lebanon is you've had bombings targeting both sides, so to speak, over the last few weeks. The attack today was also seen as attack not only in Hezbollah but on Iran. And let's not forget that Iranian consulate was attacked previously in Beirut. So it is, again, the reflection of how this conflict in Syria is really becoming a regional conflict if it hasn't already become a regional conflict.

YOUNG: Well, we said that Syria supported Hezbollah. Of course, Iran does as well.

AL-ORAIBI: Absolutely. Iran has been very instrumental not only in, of course, propping up Hezbollah but, of course, propping up the Syrian regime and supporting Assad. It's seen as almost one and the same in terms of you can attack Hezbollah or you attack Iran or you attack the Syrian government. Very close links between them means that an attack on one is almost an attack on all.

YOUNG: Well, as we said, you were in Geneva last week. The second round of talks ending in failure or at least impasse. Isn't it in part because Iran is not at the table?

AL-ORAIBI: I think Iran doesn't need to be at the table because, really, at the table is only meant to be the two Syrian sides. Of course, you have the Russians and the Iranian mission in Geneva consulting with the Syrian government delegation. And then you have the opposition delegation, which is consulting with, you know, diplomats from the U.S., Britain, and other supporting countries, other Arab countries. So while they do consult with them, they're actually not at the table.

The Montreux meeting, which happened at the end of January, had all the countries except Iran there. And that was seen as really a way of saying to Iran, if you don't believe in a political solution to this process, you can't be part of the process. And the Russians, when they came to the table, even though they support the Syrian government and the position of the Syrian government, made clear that they do believe a transition in the political regime in Syria is crucial to end this conflict. And the Iranians haven't signed up to that now. So to be frank, to have them directly involved in the process is almost a way of saying we accept that you refuse a political solution even though you're saying you want to be part of this political discussion. So it didn't really work.

I think the failure of round two was really an indication of how far the two Syrian sides are and also the fact that there aren't just two Syrian sides in this conflict. There are various Syrian sides and various regional and almost international. The tensions between the U.S. and Russia at the moment, whether it's on Ukraine or other issues, is really imposing itself on what's happening in Syria. The closeness between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov really helped to launch the whole Geneva process. But that, at the moment, is really in danger as we hear the two sides speaking very strongly against each other's positions.

YOUNG: And you mentioned Lavrov. He, of course, from Russia.

AL-ORAIBI: Yes. The foreign minister of Russia is very adamant now that there should be a discussion of terrorism in Syria before the talk of a political transition. That's not where he was last month.

YOUNG: And this is one of the huge sticking points that the Syrian government has long claimed that these were foreign elements that caused this uprising. The majority of observers would say it was a nationalist uprising that was hijacked by foreign fighters who came in from the outside. But that's a huge sticking point. And so just - I guess the question is, did you see any sign in Geneva that there might be any end to the fighting anytime soon?

AL-ORAIBI: It's hard from Geneva to see an end to the fighting. Partly in Geneva, you actually feel how distant everybody is from the reality on the ground in Syria. The serenity of Geneva overlooking Lake Geneva and the madness and chaos that are going on in Syria seems such a real contrast. Also, the opposition - the Syrian coalition that's actually leading the opposition delegation doesn't control many of the fighters on the ground, and they admit to that. They don't claim otherwise. They also distance themselves from the terrorists who are on the ground. They also don't try to deny the fact that there are terrorists there. What's happening is that the Syrian government clearly said - I mean, the deputy foreign minister for Syria, Faisal Maqdad, in Geneva said they consider anyone who holds arms against the government a terrorist.

Now, on that ground, there's no way there's going to be a discussion to try to come to some sort of truce. Again, this is posturing, grandstanding. Behind the scenes, they realize that they're going to have to speak to the guys who are actually carrying the guns to come to a solution where the fighting stops.

And so I think while the talks themselves are not coming to a clear resolution anytime soon, the fact that you actually had Syrian government representatives sitting at the table with other Syrians to discuss the possibility - even though they didn't get to the discussion, but the possibility of talking about a transition in Syria - is important to cross that mental gap, so to speak.

YOUNG: So what happens now? Is there going to be a third round of talks?

AL-ORAIBI: There will be a third round. I mean, Brahimi, even at the end of the first round, didn't announce a date. But we all kind of knew we were going to come back a week or so later. This time, there's no timeframe, but everyone's talking about early March. Diplomats from different side say there's no other alternative.

I mean, you know, what's clear is both sides came to the table not really thinking this is going to bring about a solution, but they're there because the Russians are pushing the regime and the Americans are pushing the coalition and think the more you'll have to sit at the table because it's the best solution they can think of at the time being not to feel embarrassed by how grave a situation is without actually a solution.

YOUNG: Well, you said such an interesting thing, that maybe, though, the table should be moved somewhere else, that if these people charged with doing the negotiating were in Homs or Aleppo digging their children out of rubble, maybe there'd be more movement.

AL-ORAIBI: There was one Syrian, actually, who said to me - a friend, a Syrian friend - who was asking me how the talks were going. And I said to him the problem is they're only meeting for two hours every day. Can you imagine? When there's this urgency on the ground in Syria, they're only meeting for two hours a day in Geneva because the government delegation said they could only meet two hours a day because they have to confer and, you know, share notes on whatever it is.

And so the Syrian friend said to me: Well, maybe if you cut off all food and water from them until they came to an agreement, like what is happening in some besieged areas of Syria, they'd actually get serious about this.

YOUNG: Mina Al-Oraibi, assistant editor-in-chief for Asharq Al-Awsat, the Arab newspaper based in London, speaking to us from London after being at the Geneva talks last week. Mina, thanks so much.

AL-ORAIBI: Thank you, Robin. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.