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Rebels Frustrated Syria 'Got Away' With Chemical Weapons Use

As Syria's civil war drags on, the rebels find themselves increasingly divided. This week, about a dozen armed opposition groups broke with the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, a political organization that's been the voice of the rebels in the West. Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep talks to Najib Ghadbian, the coalition's envoy to the United Nations.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At the United Nations last night, the United States, Russia and other world powers reached an agreement on a plan that requires Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The U.N. Security Council could vote on the plan today. It orders Syria to cooperate with inspectors and turn over its stockpiles. In a compromise with Russia, Syria's ally, the deal does not specify the consequences if the regime of Bashar al-Assad fails to comply. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war continues to rage on. This week, several anti-government groups issued a statement breaking with the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, a political organization that the West has backed as the voice of the rebels. Yesterday, before the U.N. deal, my colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to the Syrian National Coalition's envoy to the U.N., Najib Ghadbian.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who exactly do you represent?

NAJIB GHADBIAN: I represent the Syrian National Coalition, the largest opposition group, which was recognized after it was formed last year by 114 countries, including the U.S.

INSKEEP: Although there are some rebel groups that have disowned connections with your organization, right?

GHADBIAN: Yes. There was a statement that came up, and it's received, I think, so much media attention. But even with that, the coalition is still the most representative Syrian body, because it does represent most of the rebels. It does represent local councils, peaceful activists on the ground and most political forces and activists in Syria.

INSKEEP: Is there some way you can define the kinds of rebels who are with you, as opposed to the kinds or rebels who say they are not with you?

GHADBIAN: It's very simple. Those who are extremists in the sense that they are close to what we know in this country as al-Qaida are not with us. They never recognized the coalition. They were never, you know, accepted the coalition, nor we accepted them. The mainstream rebel groups are with us, and there are some groups are in between. And I think some of those in between join al-Qaida. But we believe that's reflected a sense of frustration among some of them. You know, when the Obama administration talked about carrying out the strike against the Syrian regime, and then that was not realized - and there's a perception in Syria that there was this deal between Russia and the U.S. to rid Assad of the chemical weapons, but they're concerned that that might keep Assad in power.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying that U.S. hesitation over what to do here and the diplomatic negotiations of recent weeks have caused some of the rebel groups to become more extreme?

GHADBIAN: I would say suspicious and frustrated. They haven't seen any signs of accountability, you know, in any of the discussions so far. It's really making a lot of Syrians frustrated, including rebels, yes.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, does it complicate your effort to get aid from the international community that you cannot claim to be an umbrella organization representing all the Syrian rebels?

GHADBIAN: Well, again, you know, we have to focus on our message and our mission, that is to continue to work to end this conflict. And the good news here is that, I mean, we're at the U.N. We have 114 countries inside the U.N., while the regime has, you know, no more than a dozen of countries supporting them. The sad thing is that some of those few countries - I would say three-and-a-half countries: Russia, Iran, the Iraqi government and Hezbollah - provide more for the regime than all 114 countries combined.

INSKEEP: This week, of course, the United Nations is acting. As we're talking, the details are being worked out of a U.N. resolution involving Syria removing its chemical weapons, getting rid of its chemical weapon arsenal. Is that likely, actually, to keep Assad in power longer?

GHADBIAN: We doubt very much that's the case. Because as we heard - the president, in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations - saying that he does not see that Assad can continue after he committed all of these crimes, including chemical weapons. So the administration's position continues to be that Assad must step down, and the sooner is the better.

INSKEEP: You have mentioned the possibility of getting a real peace process started here. A negotiated settlement, presumably, would give Assad something at the same time that you got something. What's something that you could live with Assad getting out of a negotiation?

GHADBIAN: We are really talking here about the base of Assad. We're not talking about him personally. We believe his removal is a prerequisite, maybe, or a necessary condition for making the possibility that those who supported him, those who, you know, kind of considered his base are able to be part of the future of Syria. Then you could have national reconciliation. Then they can, in fact, be part of the political process. We don't, I mean, believe in punishing those who supported the regime. We believe by identifying what we call the criminal layer of the regime, those must be, in fact, held accountable. And that would open the door for, you know, peaceful solution.

INSKEEP: Najib Ghadbian is the Syrian National Coalition's special representative to the United Nations. Thanks very much.

GHADBIAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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