Return to Transcripts main page


A Report on the Syrian Refugee Crisis; US "Fiscal Cliff" Examined

Aired October 2, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

New figures tonight from the United Nations offer dramatic evidence of just how big the Syrian refugee crisis has become. The number of people fleeing the violence in Syria has tripled over the last three months.


VELSHI (voice-over): There are now more than 300,000 people on the run from the bloody conflict between the Assad regime and the rebels. Almost all of the refugees are living outdoors, many in tents with winter approaching.

The host countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon all say their resources are so strained that they can't take in many more, yet the U.N. says it will get far worse. Another 300,000 people, officials say, will pour over the borders in the next three months, and there are signs of trouble on every border.

Recently more than a thousand demonstrators, fed up with the refugee problem, took to the streets of Antakya, Turkey, to vent their frustration. They chanted something you don't hear very often: pro-Assad slogans -- in Turkey.

Some demonstrators proclaimed, "We are ready to die for you, Bashar." Others demanded the closure of a local refugee camp, which is said to house some of the leaders of the Syrian opposition.

Now in Jordan, the dismal conditions at the border have reportedly led to several desperate Syrians attacking guards. Some refugees are simply turning back. They're choosing the violence in their homeland over those camps.


VELSHI: Now in a moment, our correspondent, Ivan Watson, will be reporting live from Istanbul. But first a look at the other stories we'll be covering tonight.



VELSHI (voice-over): Made in America: a homegrown economic mess that could take down the world economy. And six feet under in Syria, in a time of war, is the tombstone business dying?


VELSHI: We'll get to that in a bit, but first to Ivan Watson, joining us from Turkey. He just met with Syrian refugees in Antakya, the place I was telling you about. They went there seeking safety, but now they say they no longer feel welcome.

Ivan, what did they tell you?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there are, in addition to the 93,000-plus Syrian refugees who are living in camps inside Turkey, there are estimated more than 40,000 to 50,000 unofficial refugees not living in the camps, some of whom have chosen to rent homes, apartments, houses in particular in this border city of Antakya, which some may know by its ancient name of Antioch.

And those refugees in that area are telling us that Turkish police have been going house to house warning them that they must leave, either go back to Syria or move into a refugee camp. And that may partly be due to the fact that the huge number of refugees in this area is increasingly becoming a politically divisive issue inside Turkey.


WATSON (voice-over): Syrian refugees living outside the camps tell us Turkish police have been going house to house, issuing ultimatums: either move into refugee camps or go back to Syria.

WATSON: (Inaudible) living with your families in different homes in Antakya?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

WATSON: And have all of you gotten visits from the Turkish police?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

WATSON (voice-over): "The first time the police looked at my passport and said I can stay here legally for three months," says Abu Ahmed (ph). "Then 20 days later they came back and said we have to leave the house within four days."

The government refused to be bowing to growing domestic pressure. And some Turks were fed up with the Syrian refugees and angry at Turkish government support for the Syrian rebels.

At a protest in Antakya last month, demonstrators accused the government of allowing foreign jihadi fighters to transit Turkey to join the rebel movement in Syria. Police eventually responded with tear gas.


WATSON: Now, Ali, Turkish government officials did not deny that they're now starting to put pressure on the unofficial Syrian refugees who are not living in the camps.

They did seem to concede that there are simply too many of them, particularly around this border city of Antakya, that they want to start spreading them out and spreading the burden of the refugee population to other provinces around this country.

VELSHI: Ivan, the -- Erdogan, the prime minister, had said just on Sunday that he still supports the opposition, the Syrian opposition. What does this mean? Does this mean maybe he's feeling the pressure from his own people, from the Turkish to come down a little bit on these refugees?

WATSON: Well, the policy, Turkey's policy toward Syria, which has been a remarkable reversal over the course of the past year and a half, Erdogan and the Syrian president used to be close allies and big trading partners. And now Erdogan's been calling for more than a year for the Syrian president to step down.

His policy towards Syria and supporting the Syrian opposition has increasingly come under fire, particularly from opposition parties inside Turkey.

And of course, in that key border city of Antakya. And that may have a sectarian dimension to that, because there is a community of Arabic- speaking Alawite people, Turkish citizens, living in that area, some of whom sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, who is also from the Alawite minority, religious minority, in Syria.

And some of those people are probably the ones who were chanting slogans in support of Bashar al-Assad at that protest where the tear gas was last week.

And it does appear that some of the efforts to push refugees out of this area is because of the growing tensions between local Turkish Alawites and some of these Syrian Sunni Muslim refugees coming in, who clearly are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition battling against an Alawite Syrian president.


VELSHI: It's complicated even on the Syrian side.

All right. Ivan, good to see you as always. Thanks very much.

Ivan Watson in Istanbul for us.

Now if you ask the Syrian government, the entire refugee crisis, apparently, is made up. Yesterday, Syria's foreign minister addressed the U.N. General Assembly -- listen to what he said.


WALID MOALLEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): Some have sought to fabricate a refugee crisis in neighboring countries by inciting armed groups, intimidating Syrian civilians in border areas and forcing them to flee to neighboring countries.

There, they are either accommodated in military training camps or in what resemble places of detention. I appeal from this podium to those Syrian citizens to return to their towns and villages, where the Syrian state will guarantee their safe return.


VELSHI: So he says everybody should come back and their safety is guaranteed.

I want to turn to Karam Nachar. He is a Syrian opposition activist, living in Lebanon. He and his network have worked tirelessly to support Syrian refugees there by raising funds for shelters and schools and more. He also knows many refugees who did return to Syria and were either arrested or killed because of it.

Karam, you heard what Syria's foreign minister said at the U.N. General Assembly. What do you make of that?

KARAM NACHAR, SYRIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVIST: Well, I think his claims are just completely ludicrous, and I think most Syrian activists and Syrian refugees agree completely with me on that. So I don't know how to respond except by saying it's completely ludicrous.

I know a lot of people would try to go back but were either arrested as activists, as individuals when they try to enter the Syrian borders. I actually have a cousin who got arrested 10 days ago when she tried to move from Tripoli in northern Lebanon to Homs; another friend, another activist, who was also trying to move back from Lebanon to Homs was also arrested on August 18.

These two -- these are two people that I actually personally know. But there are other, many other examples.

I also know of certain cases in Jordan. I don't know the names of the families, but the situation in the camps in Jordan was quite horrific, that they just were fed up and they decided to go back to Syria. But as a result of the continuous shelling of the Syrian army of entire villages and residential neighborhoods in certain cities, these people were killed.

So you either get arrested or you die as a result of the continuous random shelling of your -- of your neighborhood.

VELSHI: So you're making an interesting distinction. Some people obviously leave to these other places because they are part of the opposition and perhaps are hoping to come back and fight. Others are leaving just because their towns or their homes are being bombarded. x

What sort of intelligence does the Syrian regime have of those people who are leaving the country and then possibly attempting to come back? Where are they getting this information from?

NACHAR: Well, I mean, I can't speak for a country like Turkey or Jordan, but in Lebanon, for sure, the situation is compounded by the fact that the regime was present in the country for 30 years and continues to have very powerful political allies.

And so we believe as activists, that we're always being monitored by some of these political groups and that they try to gather as much information as possible. And so it's not the Syrian intelligence itself, but rather its allies in this country, who gather this information and try to, I think, always have it readily available for them to act upon when needed.

VELSHI: What is your sense of the opposition now with respect to the regime? Do you think the opposition is strong enough to actually challenge and possibly overturn the regime in Syria?

NACHAR: Well, I mean, the opposition is a very big word. Do I think the FSA at this stage, the Free Syrian Army, basically the armed wing of the Syrian opposition is strong enough to liberate the country and defeat the regime? I don't think so at this stage.

I think they need much more sophisticated weaponry. They might need a no-fly zone in order to be able to defeat the Syrian army, which obviously has the air force with it. And the Syrian opposition is also -- also continues to be divided.

And so, for me, I don't think the opposition at this stage is ready to defeat the Syrian regime, militarily or politically. And I think they're still waiting -- and I think they're still -- they require a more international help.

VELSHI: Right. And obviously if anyone is listening to Syria's side of this thing, Syria says, no way. In fact, you listened to Christiane interview a close friend of Bashar al-Assad, former General Manaf Tlass. He is against foreign intervention into Syria. Listen with me to what he said.


BRIGADIER GENERAL MANAF TLASS, FORMERLY OF THE SYRIAN REPUBLICAN GUARD (through translator): We want the Syrian people to liberate itself by itself. But the Syrian people are all waiting for a resolution.

If there is a resolution, we will know that the regime will fall by itself.


VELSHI: Talk to me about that. What's your sense of that, Karam?

NACHAR: Well, with all due respect to General Tlass, I think this is wishful thinking on his part. We've been waiting for a political solution, regional international players have been waiting for a political solution since the beginning of the year, since January. And we are yet to see a political solution materializing.

It's very clear to me that not only is Iran as a regional ally for the Syrian regime not interested in letting go of the regime, nor is -- I don't think Russia is interested in letting go of the regime. I don't think we've seen any signs that Russia is going to let go of al-Assad. And without Russia's backing of any kind of political settlement, then I don't think a political settlement will actually come to be.


VELSHI: On the other side of that --

NACHAR: -- Syrians would all --

VELSHI: Let me ask you on the flip side of that --

NACHAR: Yes, go ahead.

VELSHI: -- what you do if Russia and Iran won't back off on their side and put forward a political situation, what is it that the opposition, loosely speaking, needs to get from its supporters?

NACHAR: Well, I think there has to be more backing for the Free Syrian Army and for the Syrian opposition to be able to come together and form a transitional government.

I also think both Qatar and France put forward certain proposal suggestions for what kind of intervention is needed in Syria. Qatar suggested Arab forces; Turkey and France I think suggested a no-fly zone in certain particular parts of the country.

At this stage, all I hear from analysts is that it's the United States that is stopping all of these plans from actually materializing and so I don't know what the plan is, what the plan is in Washington.

But I'm worried that the longer this revolution lasts, the more chaotic, the more tragic, and the more radicalized the revolutionary forces will be, the people fighting the Syrian regime. And I think that is not in the interest of the Syrian people nor in the interest of the -- of the region or of the international powers. So I think there has to be some form of a foreign intervention.

VELSHI: Karam, thanks for joining us.

Karam Nachar joining us now from Beirut.

Well, the human tragedy in Syria can overshadow almost any other story, but how about a economic crisis in America that could bring the world economy to its knees? When we come back, a renowned economist says that doomsday scenario could be closer than you think. But before we go to break, take another look at Syria.

In the city of Aleppo, this is what grocery shopping is like. The simple act of a trip to the market means dodging sniper fire. Imagine, risking your life for a quart of milk or a loaf of bread. Imagine that. We'll be right back.




VELSHI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour. The fiscal cliff -- you have probably heard of it -- it's the catchy name for a made in the U.S.A. crisis that if not addressed could take down the world economy.

Now the nickname ties together a whole series of economic events, financial events, that will all hit at once when the calendar ticks over into 2013. Among them, the expiration of the so-called Bush tax cuts, the end of the Obama stimulus measures and the mandatory budget cuts passed by Congress earlier this year if they couldn't reach a debt reduction deal.

Well, what's the upshot of it all? Five hundred billion dollars could disappear from the American economy all at once. That, it is believed, would drive unemployment up past 9 percent, sending the U.S. economy back into a recession and dealing a staggering blow to a European economy that is already on its knees.

Justin Wolfers is an economist and a policy expert. He's a professor at the University of Michigan. He joins us now.

Justin, thanks very much for being with us. And before we talk about the fiscal cliff, that U.S. problem, let's just talk about what these intractable recessions are doing.

Take a look at this video from Greece.


VELSHI (voice-over): This is video of a group called Golden Dawn. The people in the black shirts are members of Golden Dawn. It's a far right extremist group, and they are a growing political force in Greece. They are now at a street market -- this is what you're seeing -- run by immigrants. They're just sort of taking that market down.

Tell me, Justin, in your opinion, about the relationship between the growth of extremist groups and recessions and high unemployment.

JUSTIN WOLFERS, ECONOMIST, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: There's actually some research I've done with Betsy Stevenson (ph), looking at how much people in different countries trust their government and how much they trust business and finance.

And what we find is those countries which have gone into the deepest recessions, countries like Greece, the general population, not just the extremist elements, the general population have come to trust business a whole lot less and government a whole lot less.

And so you see this playing out not just in Greece, not just in a continent, but actually in the United States as well.

By this view, things like the Tea Party movement, which is really a populist movement that's very much about we don't trust government anymore, is (inaudible) natural thing that comes out of a recession like we've just had or on the Left, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is very much about we don't trust government, we don't trust businesses, again something that we see happen time and again after deep recessions.

VELSHI: A part of the problem is that, look, we don't want to be making excuses for racists and people like that. But the bottom line is these things do uncover things that are otherwise fine. When you have a low unemployment rate and taxes are manageable and the economy looks like it's chugging along, people don't tend to bother with this kind of stuff as much as they do when times are bad.

In Europe, the combination of recession, slow growth and austerity is making people sort of think this isn't getting better any time soon.

WOLFERS: Absolutely. And then (inaudible) actually become its own force that starts to harm the recovery, because when you have a population that won't trust the government, the government can't then take the actions that it needs to take to fight the recession.

And so I think you see a lot of economic issues right now in Europe are very much tied in with the social issues as well. Can the Greek government, for instance, bring the population along on the sorts of reforms it's going to need?

You see the same thing in the U.S. You see the Tea Party forcing congressmen to take votes, which I think are very much against the better interests of managing U.S. economic policy as well.

VELSHI: Well, let's bring it back to the U.S., because what the -- what Europe has, or at least southern Europe has, is recession and there's a possibility that they won't have growth for a long time, as unemployment grows.

What the United States has is actually growth. Latest reading is that the U.S. is growing at 1.3 percent; that's GDP. Next year it will hopefully grow by a stronger number unless Congress messes it up.

And during this election, it's very hard to get that message through, that these two presidential candidates don't make nearly as much difference as the U.S. Congress does to possibly setting the U.S. into another recession and keeping Europe in a recession.

WOLFERS: Absolutely. Taxing and spending bills, as much as the White House can propose them and use the bully pulpit for them, Congress, the House and the Senate, has to pass them.

And the unique situation we find ourselves in right now is if the U.S. Congress does nothing next year, literally passes no bills whatsoever, then a lot of the tax cuts that have been implemented as part of trying to fight the recession, are going to go away; a lot of the tax cuts that President Bush implemented are going to go away.

Some of the public spending programs are going to go away and we'll see the U.S. economy (inaudible) $500 billion from the U.S. economy in 2013. To put that into perspective, that's about 31/2 thousand dollars per household or 70 bucks per household per week.

So this is real money that's going to start to disappear in early 2013. The trigger for this, normally, for something bad happening to the economy, someone's got to do something wrong.


WOLFERS: What's the trouble with that fiscal cliff is this happens from doing nothing. The good news here, though, is, you know, eventually sometimes the U.S. Congress, when things get back enough and the stakes are high enough, they figure out we are going to drive off the cliff and they will --

VELSHI: Sort of.

WOLFERS: -- one hopes, do something about it.

VELSHI: I mean, we saw it during the debt ceiling. Right? They did it literally at the 11th hour, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. And then put things ahead. This has now become part of the U.S.' way of doing business. The danger of this fiscal cliff -- there's one particular danger, and that is a lot of defense spending will be -- will be cut.

And as a result, some companies that do business with the government either may lay people off or are not hiring as a result of not knowing what the government will do. That's why this is so dangerous, because it's going to actually put the U.S. into a recession.

WOLFERS: It's not just the defense cuts that are really problematic here. Average families are going to get hit by a payroll tax cut. The unemployed and some of those who are long-term unemployed aren't going to be getting unemployment insurance. The tax cuts that affect not just the rich but also the middle class, some of them are going to just go away if they do nothing.

So we'll see spending cuts. We'll see those households, I think, pull back, and that could really plunge us into a recession. You know, with the debt ceiling -- we saw that, as you said, Congress did it in the 59th minute of the 11th hour.

With the debt -- with the fiscal cliff, we may actually see the clock tick past midnight, and they'll eventually figure out a deal; who knows, January, February, March, some time during the years it becomes increasingly clear that doing nothing harms the economy. So there's not actually a precise midnight here, because they can always go back and make these cuts retroactive. So there's many --


WOLFERS: -- it's not just defense contractors. Yes.

VELSHI: They might -- you know, and they might do that in the United States. They might fix it. The bigger problem is that if we don't grow at a -- at a pace, Europe is really dragging the world down at the moment. It's even slowing China down.

The world needs America not to go into recession. We can manage southern Europe in a recession for a little while. We can't have southern Europe in a recession and America in a recession.

How real is the danger that that could actually happen, that the U.S. could be in a recession six months from now?

WOLFERS: So there's two important components to think about, how deep might the recession be and how likely is it. How deep? Well, you know, you take 500 billion out of the economy, you'll probably knock 3 or 4 percentage points off the U.S. GDP growth in 2013 alone. So the economy's growing at 2 percent; you knock 4 percent off that and we're actually shrinking it 2 percent.

So this is not just a mild recession. This is a pretty sharp recession, and that would have huge impacts around the world. So the stakes here are higher. What about the probabilities? Well, if you look at bond markets, bond markets don't seem to be worried.

And the view here seems to be of course, we can usually trust Congress to get almost nothing right. But occasionally when the stakes are high enough, maybe this time they are, they'll eventually get it right.

VELSHI: Well, let's hope so, Justin. Appreciate talking to you, and your perspective on this.

Justin Wolfers joining us now from the University of Michigan.

While the world economy may soon be at risk, in one small corner of Aleppo, Syria, a painful lesson in supply and demand. I'll tell you about this when we come back.




VELSHI: A final thought tonight, imagine a world where war is bad for the funeral business. You might think that with over 30,000 people killed since March of last year, tombstones would be in demand in Syria. But in the city of Aleppo, where 16 more people were killed just today, the tombstone business is, well, dying.

A report by the French news agency AFP says that burials are nonstop but funerals are too expensive. In Syria, the dead are often buried quickly and at night, as this footage from the BBC shows. Even for people who can afford a funeral, a funeral can be dangerous. So there are no funeral processions and few prayers and no tombstone.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from CNN Center.