MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll head to the Beauty Shop. That's our segment where our panel of women commentators mull over the big stories of the week, including how Republican Rick Santorum's politics are playing with women voters, and we'll also ask what to make of the new duets between former lovers and pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna, whose violent break up made headlines just a few years ago. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes. But first, we want to get an update on two crisis points in the Middle East and North Africa.
In Syria, two Western journalists were killed in shelling in the city of Homs today, including the renowned American correspondent Marie Colvin. They are among the latest victims of a bloody government crackdown against dissenters. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people, mostly civilians, have lost their lives in the violence over the last year, according to The United Nations. But it's not completely clear, and other estimates put that number even higher because the regime of Basher al-Assad has made reporting in the country so difficult.
We want to talk about the situation in Syria today, but we also want to talk about the aftermath of the successful Arab Spring uprising in Libya. The revolt there was successful in topping the regime, but it has yet to bring peace and order to that country, and the ruling Transitional National Council there claims it cannot reign in militias that now control parts of the country. And there are disturbing reports of torture there beginning to surface.
We wanted to talk about all of this, so we've called upon, once again, Abderrahim Foukara. He is Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, and he's kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Abderrahim, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you again.
MARTIN: So, as we've discussed this terribly brutal crackdown against dissent in Syria, we'd like to ask what your reporters are telling you about what's going on there.
FOUKARA: Well, basically, the overall picture is that it's a very, very difficult situation. And after the Russian and Chinese vetos, the Security Council - apparently, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has interpreted that as a carte blanche to actually deal with the rebellion in a military way and try to liquidate it. I'm not sure if he will eventually be able to do that, but certainly, that has made the situation very complicated, especially in places like Homs. All reports coming out of Homs are suggesting that it has been coming under heavy shelling from government forces.
MARTIN: We understand that there are - that the conditions there are desperate. Is that what you are hearing?
FOUKARA: We're hearing that the situation is very, very desperate. Obviously, the Red Cross has been trying to negotiate corridors for providing help to the people affected in the region. But the problem with the - what the Red Cross has been saying is that they've encountered difficulty on both sides, on the side of the government shelling the places like Homs. But they also talk about armed opposition.
They say that it's not making the situation any easier for humanitarian relief, although the opposition is saying this is totally hypocritical because the Red Cross is making it sound as if two parity forces pitted against each other.
MARTIN: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is calling for a referendum on a new constitution this weekend. Can you just tell us more about that? And how are Syrian's responding to that?
FOUKARA: Well, obviously, this is not the very first time that Bashar al-Assad has come up with the idea of the referendum. The idea came up, was offered many, many months ago. But obviously, so much has changed and so much blood has been shed since then. He wants - prodded by the Russians and the Chinese - he claims he wants to find a political way out of the current situation. But as I said, given the amount of blood that has been shed, I'm not sure to what extent people in places like Homs would be willing to actually participate in the referendum, plus the logistics of it, to actually imagine a polling taking place in a situation such as Syria's, I'm not sure if it's doable.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask how these circumstances are being viewed in the region. I mean, you're here in Washington, D.C. where you are of course aware that figures like Arizona Senator John McCain - who was a contender for the presidency - is now saying it's time to consider arming the rebels, just because the toll on the civilian population is so great that it's time to consider equalizing things, as it were, to the degree that that is possible. And, of course, countries like, you know, Russia, China and Iran seem to be tacitly, if not openly, supporting, you know, the regime.
How is this conflict now being viewed by the Arab League, for example, and other countries around the region? But you have reporters all over.
FOUKARA: Yes. I mean, in the same situation, perhaps, but in a much more acute way that we saw in Libya, Arab public opinion is sort of divided about military intervention lead by the West. There's a lot of suspicion about the intentions of the West in the Arab world. But at the same time, given the extent of the catastrophe that has befallen Syria - as a lot of people in the Arab world call it - and with the signs, the increasing signs from Washington, for example, that the military option is becoming an option, nobody is really sure where this whole situation is going.
What people seem to feel is that the U.S. has pulled out its embassy personnel from Damascus. Drones are already - we are told - operating in parts of Syria. And normally, as the case of Libya tells us, if there are drones, that means that there are intelligence assets on the ground. So the signs are there that we are already moving in that direction.
Obviously, one fundamental difference with Libya is that the situation in Syria is, in terms of sects and minorities, is much - it's a much more complicated fabric. So, even if there is military action now, you may be able to get rid of Bashar al-Assad eventually. But the toll that Syrian society may have to pay after that is cause for concern in a lot of Arab places.
MARTIN: But, you know, to that - and we want to talk about Libya now. And we're speaking with Abderrahim Foukara. He is Al-Jazeera's Washington Bureau Chief. We're talking about the situation in Syria. But now we want to talk about the situation in Libya. Now here is an example of where intervention, Western intervention, NATO's intervention was deemed successful. The former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed in October. This was a cause for - even though the circumstances were rather gruesome - a cause for jubilation in the country and elsewhere. But now the transitional government says it cannot control these militias around the country.
And now there are reports of terrible atrocities being considered by - being conducted by these militias. I'd like to ask, you know, what is your - what are your reporters telling you about who are behind these militias, and do they seem to have any kind of particular agenda or motivation?
FOUKARA: Well, I mean, the overriding picture is that what's happening in Libya has become, you know, part of this self-fulfilled prophecy that Gaddafi had, which is if I go, there's going to be chaos. And I think while a lot of Libyans are willing to pay that price for freedom, and they see it as a temporary curve in the political development of the country, there is obviously serious concern about where Libya is actually going.
We've seen tribes in the south on the border with Chad fighting among each other. We've seen militias controlling - not just cities. Sometimes they control parts of cities, and that is reminiscent, in the eyes of many people, of what's going on in Somalia. So there's a lot of concern, but I think the silver lining in all this is that many Libyans feel that they are on the right track of history, and that the country is rich enough. It has enough wealth to be able to put down some structure. And there are political coalitions appearing in Libya that want to deal with the situation in a democratic way, as they say it.
MARTIN: You know, on the one hand, I think one could argue that it's not surprising, because the, you know, repression, often, it's like, you know, gravity. It leads to kind of an equal and opposite reaction. On the other hand, this transitional government - unlike in previous situations where there was uprising - was, in fact, in order. They were planning. They were in communication. They seem to have been planning for this day.
Why is it that those arrangements don't seem to be bearing fruit? Or is it that they are and it's just that the reports of these other atrocities are just so dramatic that it's overwhelming the successes that they may be having? What is your assessment?
FOUKARA: Well, a lot of Libyans felt that, in the early days of the transitional council, it was actually a miracle that they were able to put together that council under the conditions that they did. Libya, apart from the structures of government led by Gadhafi, didn't have any political structures. There was no civil society. There were no political parties.
So the fact that this coalition, as an umbrella, came together to fight the regime of Gadhafi and end it was a miracle in itself. But, obviously, now that he's gone, there are different challenges that the National Transitional Council is facing.
And, you know, after these revolutions, we're seeing a similar thing in Egypt. For example, once the head of the regime is gone, that raises expectations and people expect improvement to take place with a certain - at a certain amount of speed. That's not happening in Libya in terms of services, in terms of getting the government together. But it's also not happening in terms of Libyans in various parts of Libya, feeling that they actually have a stake, that they have part of the pie now that Gadhafi's gone.
MARTIN: And, finally, Abderrahim, is there any appropriate role for the international community here in Libya to stop the bloodletting and to help achieve an orderly transition to, you know, civil and sustainable society?
FOUKARA: A lot of Libyans feel that there is because the international community has a lot of expertise that people in Libya itself do not have in terms of reconstruction, whether the reconstruction is economic reconstruction or political reconstruction. There's a lot of debate, for example, about how to organize a democratic society, how to organize an election.
And, obviously, Libyans - apart from Libyans who've lived in the West and went back to Libya - other than that, Libyans, a lot of them, feel that the international community, the United Nations, others have a crucial role to play in terms of helping them put together the structures of government that respond to the needs of Libyans after Gadhafi is gone.
MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief. He was kind enough to join us once again from our studios in Washington, D.C. to bring us up to date on these important stories.
Abderrahim, thank you so much for joining us once again.
FOUKARA: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.