How Safe Are Donations To Syrian Rebels?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will hear about an everyday hero, a barber in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s, an ordinary man during an extraordinary time. He's the focus of a new documentary that we want to tell you about and that's just ahead.
But first, we want to talk about new developments in the extraordinary violent conflict that's engulfed Syria. The defection of the country's prime minister earlier this week has sparked yet more speculation that the end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule is in sight, but that's been predicted several times previously and he remains in power.
And opponents of the Assad regime are now calling for more support for Syrian rebels on the ground. Well, now the U.S. Treasury has granted a license to a Washington-based organization to raise money on behalf of the coalition of armed rebel groups known as the Free Syrian Army. This Syrian support group has said it, quote, "seeks to facilitate, through all legal means, the protection of Syrian civilians during their historic struggle for freedom against the Assad regime," unquote.
We wanted to know exactly what this means, so we've called upon Brian Sayers. He is the director of government relations for the Syrian Support Group and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Thank you for coming.
BRIAN SAYERS: Hi. Thank you.
MARTIN: Can you tell us exactly what the Free Syrian Army is and what it's fighting for?
SAYERS: Sure. The Free Syrian Army - well, it's basically a group of freedom fighters. They organized in the beginning as civilians and later on there were defectors from the Syrian army that joined these civilians, and while it was a loosely sort of organized group of people fighting against the Assad regime, as of late they've formed into nine military councils with a general and a commander of each council.
MARTIN: And tell me about your group, the Syrian Support Group.
SAYERS: Right. Our group is a nonprofit organization. We have an office here in Washington, D.C. and we have primarily Syrian ex-pats that are part of the group. About 12 are on the board of directors, and they volunteer their time, since 2011. It's really started to support the peaceful protests in Syria, and then that - after the Assad regime began some of the harshest crackdowns in the public squares, they realized that while their ethos should still be for the peaceful movement and a peaceful Syria, they felt that the best conduit for that was to support the FSA.
MARTIN: And what does this license mean that your group can now do?
SAYERS: Right now we can do four things. We can provide financing, logistics, communications as well as services. Those are the four specific things that we can provide to the FSA.
MARTIN: Does that mean that your group will be buying weapons, or will they be providing the funds so that the Free Syrian Army can then buy its own weapons?
SAYERS: Right. The latter, basically. The Free Syrian Army can buy whatever they really need with the funds, but we can't actually purchase weapons. We can't actually send any hardware over.
MARTIN: But you can provide the funds so that weapons can be bought. Is that really the ultimate intention?
SAYERS: I think it certainly is part of it. It depends where you are in Syria. I mean, in Aleppo right now they definitely need sophisticated weapons to take out the tanks, to take out the fighter jets of the Assad regime, whereas in Daraa down in the south, they might need the funds to pay for salaries or to buy uniforms. So every commander has his different requirements.
But - yes. Weapons are going to be a part of the process because if - they're going to set up safe zones for the Syrian citizens, and those safe zones have to be defended.
MARTIN: You know, there are reports, though, that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida have joined the conflict, or some are using the word infiltrated the conflict, but let's say that they are now part of the conflict.
MARTIN: Why should Americans donate to something like that, when these are people who have trained their fire against American targets?
SAYERS: Right. Well, effectively, yes, there are extreme groups that are part of the opposition. They're not part of the FSA directly and they're certainly not part of the military councils that we are going to be supporting, so there are nine military councils there and they have all signed up to a proclamation for a multi-ethnic country to fight for democracy, for the rule of law, human rights, to fight under the Geneva Conventions. These are very serious commitments.
And the extreme Islamic groups have no place in this, neither in the thought process nor in the command and control, so they don't directly fight, if you like, with the FSA.
MARTIN: How would you know? I mean it seems to me that what characterizes an insurgency is that they're operating loosely, because they really don't have the capacity to set up a command and control structure such that you would have in a regular army.
SAYERS: Yeah. And that's why we're really focused on the niche nine military councils, because they actually do have pretty good command and control. They have a commander, chief of staff, five or six branches, but you're right. Part of the FSA is fairly loose and that's why we have to be very careful about the people that we would be vetting in terms of where the finances would go.
MARTIN: We're talking with Brian Sayers. He's with a group called the Syrian Support Group. That's a nonprofit organization that's raising money for the opposition Free Syrian Army. Do you hope Americans - just regular people - will donate to this group?
SAYERS: Absolutely. Because I think that that would be the real game changer, not only for Syria, but even for U.S. policy in Syria.
MARTIN: I'm trying to envision, though - the rebels have repeatedly called for a no-fly zone similar...
MARTIN: ...to the effort that helped the Libyans defeat Moammar Gadhafi and for heavy weapons to counter the regime's firepower, and to this point the U.S. administration, to our knowledge, has not gone forward with that effort. So wouldn't that be a signal to Americans? If their own administration is not pursuing that avenue, that perhaps there's a reason?
SAYERS: Right. I mean, there's concern out there and I understand the administration's concerned about - would they be fighting. And obviously they really tried to push the political process. A no fly zone - they would have obviously liked the U.N. to have declared Chapter Seven before they do that. They probably would have liked NATO to do something too. I mean but at this stage that political process has failed and so we believe that there is (unintelligible) though for a no-fly zone because a no-fly zone is essential to defend the safe zones in the country. And that's essential to save lives over there, ultimately.
MARTIN: In the absence of a no-fly zone, do you believe that the efforts of your group can achieve what you hope to achieve, which is the ouster of the regime?
SAYERS: It's going to be extremely challenging, but the group is not just about the ouster of the regime. The group is about the stand up and support of the FSA now and in the future so that they have training doctrine, so that they know how to treat prisoners of war. These are very important elements, so really it's for the long term as well.
But can they do it without support of the international community in a no-fly zone? It's going to be extremely challenging.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, why do you think the Treasury Department granted this license? Do you know?
SAYERS: Effectively, I think that they realize that our group has very good contacts into(ph) theater. We have daily contacts with the military commanders. We vet them, we know who they are. We would be able to channel this appropriately. We have an eight or nine point vetting process that we've been going through.
On the other hand, I'm not sure about what the United States considered, whether they thought that they had all the accurate intelligence information that they needed from theater. There seemed to be kind of a - a bit of an intelligence gap, and I think - I'm not saying that we're the only people that know something, but I think that it certainly helped that we did have the contacts into(ph) theater and that we were working with the right people and that's...
MARTIN: So you think it's a two-way street, that your group can provide needed intelligence to the United States government and meanwhile the United States government can facilitate more resources flowing in?
SAYERS: I would like to see it that way. I would definitely like to see it that way and I would actually like to see the U.S. government boost its own intelligence in the region too.
MARTIN: Brian Sayers is the director of government relations for the Syrian Support Group and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Sayers, thank you for speaking with us.
SAYERS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.