United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan met today with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of worsening violence. Syria's 16-month conflict has so far claimed more than 15,000 lives. Annan said today's last-ditch attempt to salvage a peace effort ended with an agreement on how end the violence, but he did not disclose details. Earlier, he acknowledged his six-point peace plan had failed to halt the fighting between anti-government forces and the Assad regime. "The bottom line is that the majority of the country is engaged in a popular revolution for freedom, for democracy, for dignity," says Rafif Jouejati, the English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout the country. "We have mountains of evidence indicating that his armed forces have been engaged in systematic torture, rampant detentions, massacres across the country."
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show with Syria, where U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan met today with President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of worsening violence. Syria's 16-month conflict has so far claimed more than 15,000 lives. Annan said today's last-ditch attempt to salvage a peace effort ended with an agreement on how to end the violence, but he did not disclose details. Earlier, he acknowledged his six-point peace plan had failed to halt the fighting between anti-government forces and the Assad regime. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Sunday the conflict has taken a turn for the worse.
SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: The situation on the ground has deteriorated dramatically and has become more militarized. Appalling violations of human rights continue to take place, and at least 1.5 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid.
AMY GOODMAN: Annan's arrival in Syria comes as dozens more were reportedly killed across the country, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that time is running out to save Syria from a, quote, "catastrophic assault."
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: The future, to me, should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime: the days are numbered. And the sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there's a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier, at an international "Friends of Syria" gathering in Paris, Clinton pressed for greater sanctions against the Assad regime, invoking the threat of Chapter 7 under the U.N. Charter, which includes measures ranging from economic embargoes to military force.
Meanwhile, in a rare television interview with the German public broadcaster, ARD, aired Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was asked about the role of the United States and accused the country of complicity in the violence.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: It's part of the conflict. They give—they offer the umbrella and the political support to those gangs to create destability or to destabilize Syria.
JÜRGEN TODENHÖFER:* You say the United States is politically supporting the rebels.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yeah.
JÜRGEN TODENHÖFER:* Is that correct?
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yeah, exactly.
JÜRGEN TODENHÖFER:* And you say these rebels, who you call "terrorists," kill civilians. This means you're accusing the American government of being at least partly responsible for the killing of innocent Syrian civilians. Is that correct?
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Of course, exactly. As long as you offer any kind of support to terrorists, you're a partner. Whether you send them armament or money or public support, political support—in the United Nations, anywhere, any kind of support—this is implication.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bashar al-Assad during this rare television interview with German public broadcaster ARD. The interview came as the regime suffered its highest-level defection to date. On Thursday, Syrian General Manaf Tlas, a member of Assad's inner circle, fled to Turkey, reportedly over his anger at the Syrian government's killing of civilians.
Well, for more, we're going to Washington, D.C., to be joined by Rafif Jouejati, the English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout the country.
Let's start off with that last point, the significance of this latest high-level defection, Rafif.
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Sure. It's significant in that it is very high-level. Manaf Tlas is a very close friend of the Assad family. He was a very close friend of the deceased Bassel al-Assad and continued the friendship with Bashar. Manaf Tlas's defection also signals the wave of high-level defections that are taking place with increasing rapidity.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation overall right now in Syria—estimates of, what, 15,000 dead.
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Sure. There are some 15,000 dead. There are some 200,000 people in prison. We have more than 1.5 million displaced people, internally displaced people, who are at risk of starvation. We have disaster cities all around the country. And we have some entire villages and towns that have been obliterated. So it's very dire, indeed. The humanitarian situation is probably the most critical we've ever seen.
AMY GOODMAN: In this rare TV interview that President Assad did with the German public broadcaster, ARD, Assad was asked whether he was scared of meeting the same fate as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. This was his response.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: If I want to describe two different situations you're talking about, describing what happened to al-Gaddafi, this is savage, this is crime. Whatever he did, whatever he was, nobody in the world can accept what happened, to kill somebody like this. What happened to Mubarak is different. It's a trial. Any citizen, when he watches a trial on TV, he would think that "I don't want to be in that position." So the answer is: don't do like him. Don't do like him. But to compare or to be scared, you have to—I mean, to be scared, you have to compare. Do we have something in common? No, it's a completely different situation. What's happening in Egypt is different from what's happening in Syria. The historical context is different. The social fabric is different. And our policy was always different. So, what's in common? You cannot compare.
AMY GOODMAN: That's Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rafif, your response to that point and also the one he raised earlier that the U.S. is funding the opposition?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: His point that you cannot compare Libya and Egypt to Syria, he's partially right. He has committed far more atrocities, we believe, than Muammar Gaddafi managed to do or that Hosni Mubarak managed to do. The other thing is that Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak did not inherit power from their fathers. So there is a little bit of a different situation. Now, what has happened to Gaddafi and what has happened to Mubarak may very well be the fate Assad suffers. He may suffer a worse fate. We are pushing for full prosecution in the International Criminal Court, but you never know if the Syrian people, the Syrian street, doesn't take matters into its own hands.
AMY GOODMAN: And his point about the United States and its involvement in supporting the opposition or the "terrorists," as Assad calls them?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Well, the United States has been very vocal in pledging support to the opposition. They are pledging non-lethal aid. They're pledging an increase in humanitarian assistance to help the people suffering in Syria. I don't know that this makes the United States a terrorist country. In fact, Assad has blamed almost everybody in the world but himself. We have to keep in mind that he is responsible for the massacres. He is responsible for the current chaos in Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: In the German interview that he did this weekend, Bashar al-Assad said most of the people being killed in the country are sympathetic to his regime.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: If you want to know who killed, you have first to know who has been killed. We cannot tell about the criminal without knowing about the victims. Those victims that you're talking about, the majority of them are government supporters. So, how can you be the criminal and the victim at the same time? The majority are people who support the government, and large part of the others are innocent people who's been killed by different groups in Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: President Assad went on to explain who he holds responsible for the Houla massacre in May, where, according to the United Nations, 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Gangs came in hundreds from outside the city, not from inside the city, and they attacked the city. And they attacked the law enforcement forces unit inside the city. And then they killed many families and, as you mentioned, children and women. And actually, those families that's been killed, they are government supporters, not opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: Rafif Jouejati, your response?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: I'm not sure if Bashar al-Assad is simply experiencing a lapse in reality or if this is just part of a misinformation or disinformation campaign. The bottom line is that the majority of the country is engaged in a popular revolution for freedom, for democracy, for dignity. And he cannot take that away with a few simple words. We have mountains of evidence indicating that his armed forces have been engaged in systematic torture, rampant detentions, massacres across the country. When we talk about the Houla massacre specifically, he does not mention that his regime forces had surrounded the area for days and were shelling it. Opposition—armed opposition elements could not have penetrated if they had wanted to. He doesn't mention the ongoing 30-day shelling of additional parts of Homs. So I think he, perhaps, has lost touch with reality and maybe doesn't know what's actually happening in his country.
AMY GOODMAN: In May of this year, Democracy Now! spoke to Charles Glass, the award-winning journalist specializing in the Middle East, who had just returned from Syria. He said most of the people he spoke to there were opposed to military intervention.
CHARLES GLASS: Well, they all remember what happened when the United States invaded Iraq, and they don't want that kind of chaos. They don't want a total destruction of the state and then a prolonged civil war with the ethnic and sectarian cleansings that they saw in Iraq. Remember, they received over two million refugees from Iraq who were fleeing the chaos that came after the American invasion. They don't want to be subject to that themselves. And surely, those who use the massacre as a justification to call for Western air strikes or Western invasion should think that actually this massacre should be a reminder of what could happen not only without an invasion, but because of an invasion.
AMY GOODMAN: That's journalist Charles Glass. Rafif Jouejati, your response?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: So, I really think that no Syrian wants military intervention simply for the sake of military intervention. We have been pushing along the lines of civil disobedience, creative nonviolence, supporting the sanctions, engaging in general strikes across the country. In fact, we had some very successful ones just yesterday across the whole country. But the Assad regime is one that only knows violence, and it appears that Assad and his cronies will only go through violence. So, we have to look at the options available to us—
AMY GOODMAN: Rafif—
RAFIF JOUEJATI: —in how to overthrow the government.
AMY GOODMAN: What about what's happening right now? What about Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, meeting with Assad today?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Kofi Annan, by his own admission, has tendered a failed peace plan, and apparently he has reached some agreement with Bashar al-Assad on a political solution, but they have not communicated what that is. What I do know is there's a lot of talk of a peaceful transition, and there's some talk about power sharing. And I can tell you that the power-sharing scenario is most likely totally unacceptable to the Syrian street. Any sort of dialogue with the regime is tantamount to negotiating with one's executioner, and I believe that is entirely unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: What have you heard about the latest news of security forces shelling parts of Deir al-Zour, Dara'a, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, reports of more than a hundred people killed, mainly civilian?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Yes, this happens every day. This is part of what we wake up to. It's what we go to sleep with. The daily killings are routine for the Assad regime. You name a city, it is either being shelled or the people who are going out in demonstrations are being shot at. This is daily.
AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, in terms of the Syrian activists that you've been communicating across Syria and also outside of the country, what do you demand at this point, Rafif?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Well, many of us are demanding increased sanctions, enforceable sanctions. We're demanding more pressure on Russia to halt arms shipments to Syria, the very weapons that are killing civilians. We are demanding that the U.N. step up to the plate, that Kofi Annan stop reassuring us with his hopes for a better future and realize that hope is not a strategy. If we are going to move to any sort of negotiated peace plan or any sort of transitional framework, we want to make sure there are mechanisms to enforce a ceasefire. Those are the kinds of things we're demanding.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you see—where do you see President Assad going, and his family?
RAFIF JOUEJATI: I would like to think that we will proceed with full prosecution in the International Criminal Court. I think the longer this issue goes on and the more violence he commits, the more likely he will wish to have a fate such as Gaddafi's.
AMY GOODMAN: Rafif Jouejati, I want to thank you for being with us, English-language spokesperson—
RAFIF JOUEJATI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout Syria. She's based in Washington, D.C.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, voter ID laws. In Texas alone—believes more than 600,000 people would be prevented from voting. This week, an unusual judicial hearing will take place in Washington around the challenge to Texas's laws. We'll look at those laws in Texas and around the country. Stay with us.