14/06/2013 Newsnight


Should the west arm Syria? Who are the foreign fighters in the Syrian civil war? And happy memories - why do we feel so strongly about school assemblies? Presented by Gavin Esler.

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Tonight America stakes a big leap into the Syrian war. But is it too


late to influence what is a regional and sectarian conflict,


touching all across the Middle East. And with almost 100,000 believed


dead is offering guns to the rebels really part of the solution.


With arms pouring in from Russia, Iran and the gulf states, it won't


win the war, but it does give America a bigger stake. The Assad


regime steps up the propaganda war, showing off the foreign fighters


and jihadis they say are part of the rebellion. Europe is having a


war on their borders with the same kind of Madrassahs that the Salafis


and others have on your border. best days of our life, what do you


make of the school assemblies we all loved to hate.


Good evening, when the poet William Butler Yeats wrote the best like


all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, it


was his native Ireland that Yeats had in mind. Today's political and


sectarian struggle in Syria might just as well fit the bill. The


Obama administration remains divided on how far to go to aid


Syrian rebels. Guns will be sent but not of the type or number the


rebels want. Meanwhile Hezbollah, Iran and others and the jihadis


fighting with the rebels are indeed full of passionate intensity. With


Obama's red line on the use of chemical weapons now apparently


crossed and the shift towards arming the rebel now being taken,


supported by Britain and France, what on earth are we getting into


here. We begin tonight with our diplomatic editor. Why are the


Americans doing it now? I could almost say do you want the spin


doctor's answer, the diplomat's answer or the hard-nosed realist


answer. The spin doctor's answer is the President was never going to


undertake such a thing lightly. During the past few weeks the White


House and other agencies have been reviewing the evidence of chemical


weapons use and they have come to this view as a result of which they


believe policy response is essential. The diplomat's response


is coming as he is to the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, he


wants to try to kick this diplomacy into a different gear, to energise


it. People have been meandering about this issue of will there or


will there not be this Geneva 2 peace conference, trying to bring


people to the table. He wants to give the Americans more of a lever,


if you like in that discussion. And energise that discussion. The hard-


nosed realist, and I must say some of the people I have been talking


to this week inside the system seemed to tend to this view, is


that America has seen things developing in a most unwelcome way


in the region in the past week or two. Yes there have been reports of


use of chemicals in warfare, also the victory of the Assad forces


backed by the Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, lead them to


believe that Iran and Hezbollah could make big gains and want to


bring this to conclusion on terms that America cannot sit idlely by


when there is the potential for such a big win. That is what lies


behind today's announcement. As an intensifying conflict that


has already claimed 93,000 lives. Now, while saying it is still


saying it is working for a peace conference, America will send guns


to the opposition. What we have been able to do is develop


relationships, find individuals, like the General of the S NC, that


we can target the assistance towards, it allows you to get


assistance into the hands of those who need it, but also protections


against those who you don't want to receive the material. The White


House says it is dispatching weapons because President Assad's


regime has used chemical weapons, including sarin nerve gas. The UK


and France agree, but Russia, which has been arming the Syrian


Government for decades finds the evidence flimsy. TRANSLATION:


reference is made by our partners on the alleged chemical weapon


usage by Syrian forces were not supported by the necessary


convincing facts. But what difference will this make? The


Syrian opposition has called the US move largely meaningless. Little


wonder. In places they already have anti-aircraft missiles like this.


That are able to take on regime air power. More widespread still are


modern anti-tank missiles, all believed part of a multibillion


dollar Saudi and Qatary programme of supply. Even the stock seized


from Syrian army bases, like this ammunition storehouse, dwarf what


the Americans may be planning to send. But it does mark a more


interventionist position. Some of the other options being studied at


the Pentagon include attacks on key regime bases. But in order to avoid


destroying the defence systems it could be done with warships in the


Mediterranean or using other countries' airspace. Another


concept put forward by the French is for a no-fly zone. Once again it


would be a big task to do it across the whole of Syria, but if a safe


haven from declared in the rebel held northern areas, a no-fly zone


above them could be enforced, with fewer air strikes, along with


fighter patrols and patriot anti- aircraft missiles already deployed


in Turkey. None of these options particularly appeals to the White


House. But major regime advances perhaps towards Aleppo, or large


scale chemical weapons use might trigger them. Can the Americans


exert strong influence short of such action? Probably not. Regional


actors and sectarian acts are increasingly powerful. These


fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement caused outrage


among many Sunnis by an act apparently of symbolic triumphism.


They unfold on the minuter receipt of a Sunni mosque a banner harking


back to the 1400-year-old schism between the sects. In Cairo


yesterday an assembly of Sunni religious scholars urged men across


the Arab world to go to Syria to fight against a Government they


regard as infidel. To sustain this religious battle, the leader of


Hezbollah insisted the armed units will continue their fight in Syria.


TRANSLATION: We are more determined to confront this plot and develop


this confrontation. We will be where we need to be and what we


started we will take the responsibility of continuing it. We


do not need to explain more. Assad regime's recent success on


the battlefield with Hezbollah and Iranian help has given the US a


power political reason to get more involved. Whatever the evidence on


chemical weapons use. Since 2004 Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other


countries have considered themselves in a proxy battle with


Iran for influence in the Middle East. So, I really do believe that


the United States and other interested powers should weigh in


on the side of people who don't want to see a Hezbollah, Iran


Nexsus in the Middle East. It is all centered on Syria right now.


is these actors, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar leading


among them that are now feeding advanced weapons, cash and people


into the Syrian caldron on a grand scale. It is questionable how far


the new American supplies might alter this dynamic.


Until earlier this year my guest was Barack Obama's White House


Coordinator for Arms Control and weapons of mass destruction


terrorism. And we have a Syrian writer and broadcaster. Given our


experiences in Iraq, people will want to know just how compelling


this evidence on chemical weapons being used by the regime really is.


What is your assessment of that? Well, the American, British and


French Intelligence Services have all reached the same conclusion. I


think the most compelling evidence is based on physiological samples


from rebel soldiers who have been exposed to sarin. This is blood and


urine and hair samples and so forth. That is fairly conclusive. What is


less conclusive, because the information haven't been made


public is what information London, Washington and Paris has,


indicating that chemical weapons were used under orders from the


Syrian Government. They say that such information exists but for


obvious reasons they haven't made it public. President Obama said


very famously that would be a red line, and we also hear that perhaps


150 people have died as a result of the use of chemical weapons. But


you know with 93,000 dead, you might think that should have been a


red line and perhaps what is happening as senator McCain is


suggesting is too little too late? I think it is too early to tell if


it is too little too late. Clearly an infusion of weapons earlier in


the conflict would have had more of an impact. But as it was said at


the top of the show as the Syrian Government has demonstrated that it


is capable of launching effective military operations and as the


opposition seems to be on the back foot, I'm sure there was some


pressure on Washington to try to demonstrate that it is willing to,


or trying to influence the outcome. On what has unfortunately become a


proxy war with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting on one side,


and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US and Europe on the other side


calling for Assad to leave. terms of the difficulty for the


administration or anyone getting a grip on this. How much bearing did


the thought that it could be Afghanistan again, we could give


weapons to one side and they will end up using them against us or our


allies. The questions of the jihadis getting their hands on the


weapons, is that the reason they are not getting anti-aircraft


weapons for example? Yes, I think that is the prime row reason. I


think the administration is starting cautiously by providing


small arms and anti-tank weapons. Which even if they do end up in the


hands of the jihadis won't really pose much of a threat. And if we,


if this trial work well. If people feel confident that the weapons are


in the hands of forces that we have confidence in and they are being


used properly then I think the pressure on, not only the US, but


also the British and the French, to follow up with more sophisticated


weapons that the rebels clearly need in order to fight the Syrian


air force is going to become much greater. I see this as a cautious


first step, but I don't think it will be the last step.


I just wondered how you see this. Do you see it as in any sense a


game-changer, politically it might be, but in terms of weapons perhaps


not? Syrians have become so cynical from what they have heard in the


past two years and three months. I have called them the loneliest


people in the world, because this revolution, which started out as we


all know peacefully. I was met with such harsh violence and besiegement


and military aircraft attacks from cities that left half of Syria in


rubble and five million people displaced, either externally or


internally in great, great difficulty, catastrophic difficulty.


Syria feels that these promises that keep being made are never


really fulfilled. We have heard these noises before from the White


House about red lines. And even now your guest in the United States is


saying that they will start cautiously if they are going to arm


and they won't give anything like what is needed. Do you think that


could be too late in the end, that the Assad regime will hold on?


problem is that intervention has happened in Syria, and it has


happened by Russia. We are at the mercy of Russian air force bombing


us, we are also at the mercy of constant arming and financing by


Iran, which calls Syria to, -- causes Syrians great shock and


outrage and calls us a province of Iran. And Hezbollah's entry into


Qusair and the way they have been used as snipers and as torturers is


really very serious. But because of that, you talked about the great


hopes that you had at the start, but where we are now obviously


nobody wants to be in this has become a sectarian war including


outside players, not just the ones you mentioned, but the Saudis,


Qatar, we heard the Egyptian clerics talking about Sunni


fighters should go. It has become the thing most people dreaded,


which is the sectarian war. I still don't see it as a sectarian war. I


see the major actors as sectarians, and one of the great myths that the


world has held about Assad is that he was some how secular because he


wore a tie and had lived in London and had an English wife. The point


is that as a Syrian who has lived throughout Syria's modern history,


including the pre Ba'ath period. I know there was no sectarian before


Iran became a strategic partner of the Assad regime, both father and


son. That has led to the fact we have heard of Hezbollah, and proxy


of Iran saying that he will continue to fight a sectarian


battle. Let me bring in you on that, that must give the White House


great pause for thought. That it is, there are clearly these outside


actors, but if it becomes Sunni versus Shia, then there is perhaps


no solution, not only there, but the spillover for Jordan and for


Lebanon in particularly, it could be horrendous. I think part of the


motivation for being more directly engaged is to try to influence as


much as one can those forces in the opposition that the US thinks are


not secular, that are not extremist, that would be more tolerant of what


in Syria is a real mixture of different groups. And that's part


of the motivation. You are never gob to go able to completely


control the outcomes in these kinds of situations. If the US did


nothing that would create a feel for the Islamist forces. You know


the players in Washington extremely well, do you think that the


administration is really quite divided about this, because it is


so difficult, between those who would like to do much more and


those who would actually like to not have another messy foreign war?


I think President Obama has been absolutely determined to avoid not


getting drawn into another conflict. That explains why the US has been


so reluctant to take even the first step. Now a combination of events


have put him in a position where he feels that he has to at least do


this first step. As I said earlier the risk of course is once you take


the first step is becomes even more difficult to disengage. And the war


promises to go on for a long time. My guess is that not only for the


US but for US allies, Britain and France, this is going to be the


beginning of what will end up being a much greater involvement. Not


necessarily direct military action, even use of air force, but much


greater involvement in terms of arming and training the opposition.


Briefly, I know you want to come in there? All I want to say is this,


that Obama for obvious reasons wanted to be isolationist on the


Middle East, coming after Bush, but he was so isolationist when it came


to Syria that he allowed a conflict that could have been stopped from


the very beginning to escalate to such an extent that now, without


prop armying and without proper anti-aircraft missiles, which no-


one has been promised, nothing will happen.


Now, one of the arguments the Assad regime has been using to prevent


foreign aid to the rebels is simple, fear, if you give guns they may be


used against you one day, just as they were in Afghanistan. To


bolster the argument, the Government in Damascus has been


making a great deal of propaganda over the called foreign fighters


and jihadis they captured during the fighting. Traditional song at


the grand mosque in Damascus. And the magnificent place of prayer.


Today it is the setting for a ceremony. Muslim and Christian


leaders sit together here. With Syrian mothers who have lost their


sons in war. And still grieve. But this isn't a private moment, the


cameras have also been invited. And other mothers from Tunisia as well


as fathers. Their sons are also involved in Syria's war. But they


have been fighting for the other side. Many have been captured and


put in prison. Parents have come to Syria to find their sons. And to


say a very public story. TRANSLATION: Please forgive me, I


didn't know my son was coming here, our sons were brainwashed. Mothers


are brought together from countries on opposing sides, it is carefully


choreographed for the cameras. But there is no denying the grief is


genuine. TRANSLATION: They arrested our sons at the border. They didn't


do anything. I know my son, he wouldn't kill anyone. Her son Sami


is one of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined battle


with Syria's rebels in their fight against President Assad's forces.


Hundreds have come here from Tunisia. The mother's cause was


taken up by civil society activists at home. In this five-star hotel in


Damascus they argue over details of a joint declaration. Tunisian


lawyers want due process for the prisoners. But the Syrians in this


room see a much bigger opportunity. They want to get all foreign


fighters off the battlefield. This man is a Syrian businessman with


close ties to President Assad's family and has made this his


mission. His burning ambition is to bring delegations from around the


world to his door. His secret weapon, he knows this is also


Europe's growing worry. Europe today is having a new Pakistan on


your border, with the same type of Madrassahs that are being made by


the Salafi and Wahab by, it is on your border and a real crisis and


problem, it is the transit in Turkey and the incubation of the


Muslim Brotherhoods in Turkey for all those fighters in Europe and


they will be coming back to Europe. This war is causing anxiety in


Europe. This week a group of European Parliament members arrived


in Damascus. Only hours after a double suicide bombing in the heart


of the capital. Politicians mainly from far right parties came to


inspect the damage. They were invited here by the Syrian


Government. For Europeans, like this Belgian senator, foreign


fighters at the top of their agenda too. These are the potential


terrorists of the future. If they come back to our country they will


be the qaed militants and they will fight their -- Al-Qaeda militant,


and they will fight their jihad on our European soil. It is a very,


very big threat for all European countries, not only for Belgium.


What chance of resolving this as we speak, it looks like there will be


more arms coming into Syria, more fighter, not less? It was a very


stupid decision to lift the ban on weapon deliveries to Syria. The


weapons we will deliver to Syria to the called Free Syrian Army, but


also to Al-Qaeda and so on, will be used within a few months, within a


few years, on European soil. So I think it was a very niave and


stupid decision. Syria's war is regarded as a Jihad or holy war by


Islamist groups worldwide. It is not just places long regarded as


breeding grounds for militancy. Even Swedish is being spoken on


Syria's battlefield. "pack your bags and come to Syria", this


fighter says. Many Europeans are, including some British nationals.


Growing concern over the potential security threat posed by large


numbers of European jihadis was raised in meetings last week among


European home affairs ministers. There may be common interests, but


it is quite another matter to make common cause. This businessman has


taken his message to Syria's state TV. So far his plan has brought


mothers here to Damascus, civil No Such Thing As Society activists,


even from a country with -- civil society activists, even from a


country with no diplomatic interests here. There is a growing


war of words. So will this kind of initiative ever work? Will the


other side even listen? All sides talk about the need to end a bloody


war, now in its third year. But on one side the west is now focusing


on arming what it calls a "moderate" opposition. On the other,


fighters from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq are blacking Damascus. --


backing Damascus. The west is still dealing with the reprecussions of


arming Islamist fighters in Afghanistan a decade ago. This time


it has been drawn into a vor text far harder to control.


We all suffer them or in my case try to skip them where possible.


School assembly is one of the strange rituals of British life.


When a columnist asked on social media of people's memories from


school assemblies, he was overwhelmed with replies. What was


the magic something that made it so Remember school assembly? I think


this headmaster has been hitting the staff room coffee. Funny that


you should all be so tired. When you wake up you will remember that


you saw a film about ants. Not even Ofsted expects teachers to be this


mesmerising. But what do you do if you don't have this kind of sway


How did all this get going? There has been a Twitter storm, or


at least gust, ever since journalist Rhodri Marsden


reminisceed on-line about how his school day once began. I was


listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4, I had a memory of a school


assembly I was in, where the headteacher recited a story he had


clearly heard on Thought for the Day an hour early. It was a serious


observation but I made it on Twitter. I suddenly was replied to


with all the fantastic stories of Getting the kids' attention just


isn't a problem when movie star Will Smith is in the house, or hall.


Earlier this year he dropped in on this school in south London. What


I'm saying to you is this, the exams you are about to take are


probably the most important exams you will ever take. But what is


assembly like when he isn't around. Now, go quietly to your lessons.


Steven Smith, where are you? See me later! I do a few things, like I


have done an assembly around a mobile phone. I always, once a year,


recite Phenomenal Woman, by Maya Angelou that the pupils enjoy. I


spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for it. I try to


make it relevant. If something happened over the weekend in this


community or in the world I would talk about it in assembly. Just


between us is it a bit boring, is it interesting, what is it like?


think it is really interesting because basically we are all


together as a community. And it just really uplifts your morning,


if you have a bad morning you can come in, the assembly will make you


happy and not give up because you have had a bad morning. You can


continue to go on and not struggle. Is that true, you get a lift?


is a sense of community, everyone is together in the hall. We are all


One time I actually got up and sang during assembly individually.


you invited to? Not entirely. So I got in trouble there too. But I was,


for a while, I was quite whole hearted in assembly. Of course


obviously it was a good opportunity to flick bits of paper, preferably


when the teachers weren't looking. Or maybe slap the boy next to you


with a ruler. You know, there were infinite possibilities. The


Apology for the loss of subtitles for 75 seconds


Those were the days! Any way, let's That's all for this week, Jeremy is


here on Monday. We leave you with our very own sue Lloyd Roberts, who


we learn this evening has been awarded an MBE for services to


journalism. Here she is sneaking into Homs in Syria, undercover,


right at the start of the conflict in 2008. The only journalist here


to view the protest firsthand I noted another significant


difference. Back in March, when they began, the protestors called


for reform, then they called for the fall of the regime. Today as


the name of each atrocity and massacre carried out by Assad's


army and thugs is called out. The crowd respond by calling for the


There is uncertainty about the weekend weather. Especially when it


comes to Sunday. It is breezy and windy across southern I can't


remembers, there will be plenty of showers around. Around this area of


low pressure as it tracks eastwards. The problem for Sunday is this area


of low pressure and how far north it will take its rain. Now the


detail for Saturday. From the word go, sunshine and showers, along the


spread of rain in Scotland. Further showers moving across England and


Wales in the afternoon. These could be in the form of-y Joan pour,


merging to give longer spells of rain here too. It is windier the


further south you come. Southern coastal counties could see fewer


showers compared with elsewhere. It means more in the way of sunny


spells. Windy, yes, in the south west, in fact gales possible around


the exposed coasts in south-west England and Wales. Some sunshine


inbetween the showers. A scattering of showers around in Northern


Ireland too. They may merge to give longer spells of rain and 13


degrees in Belfast at this stage of the afternoon. A wet afternoon


through western parts of Scotland, especially to the north of Glasgow.


A few showers around elsewhere. We will keep a few showers going into


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