NPR Story
2:04 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

President Obama's Unpalatable Options In Syria

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 4:01 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The massacre in Hula late last month may have marked a turning point in Syria, but there appears to be no clear idea of what to do after Syria's ambassadors have been ordered home to Damascus.

Over the weekend, President Bashar al-Assad denied government responsibility and gave no sign that he's ready to quit. Opposition groups pronounced the U.N. ceasefire over and say they killed 100 Syrian soldiers. Today, a spokesman for U.N. Envoy Kofi Annan said neither side observes the ceasefire, and the time may have come to reconsider.

President Obama's options appear limited. Diplomacy and sanctions that seem ineffectual or steps down the road to intervention that begin with arming the opposition and end who know where. What should President Obama do in Syria? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the John Edwards trial is on The Opinion Page, what we learned from it and what it meant. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. But we begin with New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, who joins us from a studio here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.

PETER BAKER: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you describe the dilemma facing President Obama as his Bosnia moment. What's the analogy to President Clinton's challenge that he faced in the former Yugoslavia?

BAKER: Well, it's an inexact comparison, of course, but when President Clinton came into office in the 1990s, Europe was beginning to confront this issue of Yugoslavia falling apart and the issue of what to do in Bosnia, where many civilians were, as we're seeing in Syria, being killed or left homeless, refugees and so forth.

The scale of the killing actually was worse at the time in Bosnia than it is at the moment in Syria, although how you measure these things, of course, is pretty, you know, complicated...

CONAN: Get to some ruthless mathematics, yeah.

BAKER: Well, exactly, and that's the problem the president faces right now. So 100 people, including many children, were killed in Hula in Syria. Is that yet enough to prompt action that he's not been willing to take so far? What kind of calculation goes into that for a president?

For President Clinton, it really galvanized his administration after the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. And after that, he led a NATO-sponsored, you know, bombing campaign that pushed Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader, to the peace-talk table in Dayton, where they finally managed to resolve the war.

CONAN: But after two years.

BAKER: Only after two years. And it's - you know, President Obama just last year had boasted that with Libya, they didn't wait as long as they did in Bosnia. He said in Bosnia, it took all this time for the West, for the international community to respond. It only took us, he said last year, 31 days to respond to the killings in Libya.

We learn now, of course, how different Libya and how much, in effect, it was an easier case, it seems, for Washington and other - and European capitals than the Syrian situation.

CONAN: And you describe that every couple of weeks, the policymakers on Syria gather there at the White House to discuss their options and throw up their hands in frustration when they realize the same old options are on the table, and they are no more palatable than they were two weeks before.

BAKER: Well, that's right. It's a very exasperating process for them. I think that many of them were, you know, quite singed by the Bosnia experience, you know, and feel very strongly about wanting to do something. And yet when they sit down at the table, they review the options, they find that nothing magic has come up in the last week or two that looks easier than what they've seen up until now.

CONAN: And the options are - is there belief in the Annan plan, in the ceasefire that's sponsored by the United Nations, under which at least a couple of thousand people seems to have been killed? Or is this, well, it's the only thing we've got?

BAKER: I think it's the only thing they've got at the moment. Publicly, they still support the Annan plan, but they're pretty cognizant of the fact that it isn't going anywhere. Susan Rice has more or less said that at the United Nations last week. Kofi Annan will be in Washington later this week to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and they'll talk about the situation and what to do next, but there's very little hope inside the administration that the Annan plan at the moment is going to make a difference.

So what are the options? You know, in Bosnia, we talked about military intervention. In Libya, there was military intervention. There doesn't seem to be any appetite for that in the administration in this case, at least not at the moment, for a couple reasons.

CONAN: Well, not without the cover of the Arab League and the United Nations for one thing.

BAKER: Well, that's exactly right. They don't feel that there's an international consensus that they did feel that they had in Libya, A. B, in Libya, there was sort of a defined rebel army with defined territory, in which air strikes could actually make a significant difference. And this is not the case in Syria today.

And they - you know, Syria is a different country, a more sophisticated country, more sophisticate military with equipment provided by Russia, and, you know, the military believes it would require a lot more resources than they had to apply in Libya to accomplish anything.

CONAN: And there's even less appetite in Europe than there is in Washington.

BAKER: Well, that's right, and I don't think you're going to see President Obama want to go in alone on something like this. This is - you know, he's made very clear that he believes in multilateral action. You know, when he talks about Libya, he talks about how it broke the old model by having the Americans play an important role but not the only role, not the even leading role at times in that intervention.

And so the idea of a unilateral action here, while they don't rule it out, it's something they make very clear they're not interested in right now.

CONAN: Yet there seems to be no expectation that the situation is going to calm down, in fact that it is likely to get worse, if anything, and at some point, events prompt - they run out of control.

BAKER: Well, they do. That's what some of the veterans of the 1990s refer to as a Srebrenica moment: Is there a time at which the humanitarian situation becomes so bleak, so profound that it changes the dynamic in a capital like Washington?

It's hard to see that at the moment, in part because again we're also in an election year, and the idea of another military action at this point has domestic consequences, and I'm sure the president would say that's not the determining factor for him, but it's hard to miss the Surround Sound that's back there at that moment.

And there doesn't seem to be much appetite in Washington beyond the White House. You know, in a lot of these situations, pressure builds on a White House to take action. There's very little of that kind of pressure here right now. There's a lot of fatigue with American military engagements abroad, and even Mitt Romney, the Republican running against President Obama, is careful in how far he's willing to say the president should go.

CONAN: Well, he says they should arm the opposition, but he's very careful to say of course none of those weapons should go to Islamic extremists.

BAKER: Right, exactly, and of course it's hard to vet people you're giving weapons to once you start giving them to, and that's one of the big concerns that the administration has when they talk about this option of arming the rebels.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Dennis Ross, who served as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the central region. He's currently counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he joins us by phone from New York City. And Ambassador Ross, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

DENNIS ROSS: Always nice to be with you, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And does Peter Baker's description of those biweekly meetings sound familiar?

ROSS: I think Peter has a very good handle on it. I think his handle both in terms of I think where the administration is and also the broader political context in which the administration is operating and the policy context, the difference between Syria and Libya are also, I think, very well-stated by him.

CONAN: Yet, will - there could easily be a point at which you have to do something, no?

ROSS: The answer is yes, and I would even say one of the things that one has to consider is not only that you're going to have some kind of horrific, galvanizing event, like what happened in the Balkans. But I think there's even something else to keep in mind.

A lot of what prevents people from thinking about any kind of more active intervention are the fears that if you intervene - at least you hear this argument - if you intervene, you're going to intensify the violence, you're going to make a civil war more likely, you're going to break down central authority within Syria.

Are you going to increase the prospects that al-Qaida will have openings and that a failed state could emerge? The problem is that all those things are likely to materialize if we stay on the path we're on now, precisely because what's happening, even as we speak, is the violence is becoming more intense, the sectarian divide is becoming so deep that it may not be bridgeable, and as long as Assad is there, this is a trend that is only going to get worse.

And I'm afraid it isn't just the galvanizing event that may take place; the very scenarios or concerns that people have about intervention are, in fact, what may take place if nothing more is done.

CONAN: Yet intervention also suggests serious problems with two countries that have been supporting Syria thus far in the United Nations, that is Russia and China, both of whose support the United States would like very much in its approach to Iran.

ROSS: There's no question about there. There is an irony, I would say, by the way. The Russians, because they're supporting the Syrians right, or certainly are perceived as being protective of the Syrian regime right now, are probably not so keen on looking like they're also prepared to be the protector of Iran at this point.

Again, you have a perception in the Arab world that the Damascus regime is killing Sunnis. And if suddenly Russia is now seen as protecting the Iranians, as well, it's going to look like the Russians are big on going after those who threaten the Sunnis, and I'm not sure that's where the Russians want to be.

So there's a paradox here. The position they have on Syria is not likely necessarily to translate into a position where they will change the posture they have on Iran, and ironically, maybe not so ironically, what we've seen is that the Russians have been holding very tightly with us in the Five Plus One negotiations with the Iranians.

CONAN: Peter Baker, before we let you, you mentioned that Kofi Annan is coming to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Clinton. Are there any other precipitating events that are scheduled? Is this just an endless process of consultations and protests to Damascus?

BAKER: Well, an important date to remember is coming up later this month in Los Cabos, Mexico, it's the G20 meeting on, I think, it's June 18th or 19th, or the 18th and 19th. And on the sidelines of that meeting, President Obama will have his first meeting with Vladimir Putin since Putin resumed the presidency of Russia.

A lot of tension has been placed on Russia, as you just pointed out, for their role in this, and Ambassador Ross makes a very interesting point about Russia's own positioning in the region. You know, there's been - there's hope that Russia would be the final, key player in finding an exit for Bashar al-Assad, much as President Saleh was eased out, in effect, in Yemen.

But that's a really - you know, Russia's rhetoric has not lent itself, I think, to a lot of hope that that's going to happen. I think that's why you saw Secretary Clinton so frustrated in her remarks the other day about Russia. So they're at a bit of an impasse.

CONAN: Peter Baker, thanks very much for your time today, interesting piece.

BAKER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Peter Baker, the New York Times White House correspondent. When we come back, we're going to continue speaking with former Ambassador Dennis Ross about the conundrum with Syria. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The situation in Syria seems to have reached a pivotal moment, as harrowing details about the massacre in Hula emerge: stories of homes invaded, of women and children shot at close range, mutilated and left for dead.

The number of voices clamoring for the U.S. to do - take action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is growing. Just today a fledgling group called the Syrian Rebels Front declared its intention to coordinate the Syrian opposition to bring down Assad.

So tell us: What do you think President Obama should do about Syria? 800-989-8255. You can also reach us at email, that address talk@npr.org. And you can add your comments at Facebook.com/nprtalk. Our guest is Ambassador Dennis Ross, he's currently counselor at The Washington Institute. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line, 800-989-8255. And let's start with Nora(ph), Nora with us from Providence.

NORA: Yes, hi, thanks for having me. I just wanted to make a comment that President Obama can no longer be silent on Syria. He cannot postpone Syria until post-elections. We are the leaders in humanitarian rights in the world, and we must take a stand. We must enforce humanitarian corridors at least, safe zones along the Jordanian borders, the Turkish borders, Lebanese borders, to provide a safe network for these people trying to flee the violence Assad is imposing on his people.

And we must provide areas for people to defect safely and not have their families be harmed. At least if we're not going to enforce any kind of military intervention, we must at least provide safe areas for these people to flee to. It is our duty as, you know, as Americans and defending civil liberties and democracy across the world. We are the leaders, you know?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a response from Dennis Ross.

ROSS: Well, I certainly understand the impulse. Again, one has to take a hard look at what you can do. I am quite sympathetic to the idea of creating a safe haven in the north along the Turkish border, and I would include it into northern Syria. I think it's worth us beginning to think hard and plan at least what could be such a safe haven.

Turkey could provide a base for such operations. It would have to be a kind of NATO-led operation, and obviously you have to produce agreement on that. But it could be something quite akin to what was done in northern Iraq back at the time, during the first Bush administration.

Even this is not simple. And, you know, to say that you would create such havens elsewhere, you'd have to be operating out of Lebanon, which there's no basis on which to do that, Jordan the same. That's why at least I focus on the north.

I do think if you had such a safe haven, or at least if it looked like you were very serious about planning it, it could have an impact within Syria. And one of the things we have to try to do is we have to try to change both what I call the objective and the subjective balance of power within Syria.

Assad has created this image that he's got a kind of insurance policy against any intervention from the outside, and I think the more it becomes clear that the longer this goes on, the less that's going to be the case, that in itself could end up producing a tipping point within Syria.

CONAN: Yet...

ROSS: I do think, Neal, if I could just add one other point.

CONAN: Please.

ROSS: I think the key to understand is there isn't any one action that's going to solve this problem, not what I just mentioned. It isn't just one action that's going to do it. It's going to take a number of things that could produce the kind of tipping point I'm describing.

I think the Russians are a pivotal player here, and I think it has to be clear increasingly to the Russians that they're paying a price. They're paying a price within the region. The Arabs need to be going to them and saying you can have a relationship with us, or you can have a relationship with Bashar, but you can't have both.

I think there has to be - much more needs to be done to try to wean his own base away from him. He's created an impression, the Alawis, he's the leader in Syria, but he's an Alawi. They represent 12 percent of the population. He's created the impression that their survival depends upon 9his survival, and it's just the opposite. They're put at greater risk because the longer he's there, the less likely, in fact, that there's going to be anything that can protect the Alawis in the long run in Syria.

And I think here, if the Saudis, who are seen as being the main backers of the Sunnis in Syria, were to send messages to key Alawis that they're prepared to offer assurances about what happens in the aftermath of Assad, no bloodbath, no vengeance, but their ability to deliver on such assurances also depends upon accelerating the departure of Assad because anybody's ability to deliver on assurances will disappear over time.

CONAN: But just get back to Nora's point, a safe zone inside Syria is a form of armed intervention. Those people would have to be protected by air and by boots on the ground.

ROSS: There's no doubt about that, if you do what Nora's talking about. What I'm suggesting is some kind of no-fly, maybe no-drive zone in the north, which could create an area where people could leave and could have safety. And I do think it has to be something that is considered because I am afraid that if, as I said before, if we simply stay on the same path - there's no doubt that what Nora said, by the way, is not completely fair to President Obama.

He's been very clear about the fact that Assad needs to leave. And the administration has done a lot to ratchet-up the pressure on this regime and choke off its financial resources, but it's obvious that that's not sufficient. And that's why the longer things go on, the worse the likelihood and the situation in Syria is going to become.

CONAN: Nora, thanks very much for the call.

NORA: Thank you very much for answering my questions.

CONAN: And this is from Jim(ph) in Portland: Last year when Gadhafi threatened - just threatened to go house-to-house and kill his citizens, the U.S. and other countries took up arms against him. Now in Syria, al-Assad is actually killing his citizens, but no country is willing to take up arms against him. What is the difference?

ROSS: First, let's just be clear, Gadhafi did kill people. It was - certainly in places like Misrata and elsewhere. And he had his forces moving on Benghazi, and he declared that he was going to treat all those who were in Benghazi as if they were rats. Given what he had done in Misrata, it was very clear what he was going to do.

But the basic point is a fair point: Assad has killed many more people than Gadhafi killed. What is the difference is that we don't have the same kind of international consensus. We are being blocked in the Security Council by the Russians principally and the Chinese secondarily. The Russians in a sense feel that they acquiesced in Libya, and they didn't - and they got an outcome that they didn't bargain for, and now they don't want to see the same thing take place in Syria.

The Arab League was much stronger in the case of Libya than it is in Syria. It is true that the Syrians have much more military capability and a real army, unlike what one saw in Libya. And one other point: The fact is that those who joined us in Libya from Europe, they basically used up their capabilities.

We had to - we basically had to provide most of the munitions for them. So they're not in as good a position militarily even to carry out the same kinds of operations that they carried out in Libya. So there's a number of differences, to be sure. The problem is it comes up against the reality of what Assad continues to do, and you have this stalemate where, as I said earlier, everything in Syria is going to become worse and worse over time: the violence, the civil war, the sectarian divide.

If we don't want Syria to become a failed state, we do have to come up with additional means of pressuring Assad so that we tip that balance within Syria, and Assad chooses to leave.

CONAN: Ambassador Ross, thanks very much for your time today.

ROSS: My pleasure, thank you.

CONAN: Dennis Ross, now a counselor at The Washington Institute, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director for the central region on the National Security Council. Joining us now on the phone from Abu Dhabi is Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The American Enterprise Institute. And thanks to you, and welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Thank you.

CONAN: And in an opinion piece you published in the Washington Post on Friday, you said intervention in Syria, not only good policy but also good politics.

PLETKA: Yeah, I did say that. I think it is good politics for the president. You know, Dennis argued a moment ago that the president has been very assertive in suggesting that President Assad should step down. Actually, I don't think that's true. I think he's been quite reticent. He came to the discussion quite late, and he has really hung back in discussion and allowed spokesmen and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to make the most strong statements about what's going on there. And at no time has he suggested a way forward. And I think that's a mistake for him.

CONAN: Well, the ways forward aren't easy, as Ambassador Ross also pointed out.

PLETKA: You know, the - being president isn't easy, either. Nobody runs for president because it's easy. These are difficult choices that face us. I think that one of the things that is said so often about Syria is true: Syria represents a remarkable confluence of moral and strategic interest. You know, you caller earlier mentioned the moral imperative, and I couldn't agree more.

But it's not just the moral imperative. It's not just the people suffering because in fact people do suffer in many, many countries where we cannot hope to intervene militarily or in any other way to make a difference. But we can't forget that not only is Assad killing his own people, not only did in Hula - they murdered 49 children under 10, but Syria is also Iran's best friend in the Middle East, its most important ally. And getting rid of Assad will hurt Iran more, I think, than in some cases, many of the sanctions that are in place right now.

CONAN: So in addition to the moral elements, there are strategic opportunities?

PLETKA: I think that that's right, and I think that, you know, I think that that is obvious to those in the White House who look at this. The problem is the challenge of what to do and how to avoid being perceived as being mired in a, you know, a, quote, "new Iraq" or another Middle East war. And I think that there are ways to do that working with Turkey, working with the Arab League, which has been very forward leaning, to try and do the kinds of limited things that would help the opposition, which after all is armed and is taking on the Syrian regime not completely effectively but not ineffectively at this time.

CONAN: You said the Arab League is leaning forward - well, no where near as far forward as it did on Libya. And there is still the problem of the United Nations Security Council.

PLETKA: Well, there is the problem of the United Nations Security Council. The Russians and the Chinese don't want us to do this. That's the problem with the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, we really can't afford to allow a government like Russia's, which is becoming more and more authoritarian itself, not to speak of China, stand in the way of us doing what's in our strategic, our political and our moral interests. We didn't let them stop us in the Balkans, and we shouldn't let them stop us in this case. The secretary has suggested as much in the last week.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Mike, and Mike is with us from Shingletown in California.

MIKE: Yeah. Your - the ambassador alluded to the fact that obviously the only way we're going to get, particularly Russia, to cooperate with us is to kind of assure them that the government coming in, if Assad should leave, is not going to be contrary to their interests. And that's going to be a basic tenet, I think, to get either Russia or China on board.

CONAN: How do you guarantee that?

(LAUGHTER)

MIKE: Well, you - it's hard to do when you've got an opposition that's not really coordinated. They claim - somebody has claimed recently that they're going to coordinate them, but they don't have anybody really to deal with. So it's - that's a difficult question - how do you do that?

CONAN: Danielle Pletka, any ideas?

PLETKA: Well, I think that we've made some efforts in that direction, but no country has made serious efforts to actually get the opposition to stand together. There is a domestic and a foreign opposition. There's a political opposition and a military one. The military one is actually fairly well organized. It's regimented. It's got commanders. It has maps of its various efforts throughout Syria. So I'm less concerned about them than I am about our own effort to pull together the opposition because we want them to hang together. Because if the Russians need assurances, then maybe we can actually work with them to help provide those assurances.

Thus far, we really haven't made any serious concerted effort to help pull that opposition together, rather we've really kind of downplayed them and talked against them and described them as feckless and divided. That helps nobody.

CONAN: Mike, thanks for the call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about President Obama's options in Syria. Our guest is Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Robert in Taylor, Michigan: Though my morals tell me we should help the rebels, I know further intervention will just put America in another bind, which we cannot afford to be in. We should let the other countries finally step up to the plate without the U.S. behind them.

PLETKA: Well, you know, there's only one problem with that, which is that this is a world that's led by America, and other countries aren't going to step up to the plate. I don't think this is a question of getting involved with boots on the ground. I think that there are many things that we can do short of that that could actually help tip the balance in Syria. I also think we have a strong interest in the outcome. You know, in the Middle East, where I am right now, the word on the street is that we are subcontracting our foreign policy to Saudi Arabia and to Qatar.

Let me tell you, these are not countries to which I want to subcontract American policy. I want the president of the United States to be the decider about who would be a better leader if it comes down to outside parties deciding. I'd rather we had some say in the kind of secular parties that take over in Syria and the kind of parties and the protection for minorities that's going to be so imperative because there are others in the region who are going to be far less or be democratic than we are in looking to the future. So it is a huge challenge, but I don't think that we can expect that others, particularly the Europeans, are going to step up.

CONAN: Let's go next to Zira(ph). Zira with us from Towson, Maryland.

ZIRA: Hi. I just want to say I'm Sunni Muslim, and I'm from Somalia. And I don't want Syria to be like what half of Somalia is, a failed state. And I think President Obama should not intervene. You know, I hear a lot of Americans saying this, but they should, kind of, you know, they should do some research and reflect on it afterward. I'm - his - the Sunnis are a majority, and the minorities will be killed. That's a fact. You know, Assad is sitting on a lot of pressure. And once that explodes, there will be a civil war. Let's be honest, you see all these different sects and all these different tribes, there will be a tribal war. And I don't want Syria to be a failed state. And I want to...

CONAN: And, Zira, I have to ask you. The minorities will be killed, and that's a fact. There's - it's thousands of people you're talking about.

ZIRA: I know. But the - see, they're tribal, and the dynamics are different when compared to other countries. And I say this because, you know, if I'm the majority, I don't want the minority people to be hurt or anything like that.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that.

PLETKA: Well, Syria isn't really a tribal environment like Somalia, and I think that the analogy doesn't quite work. Where I think the caller makes a fair point is that among those parties that are fighting against Assad are Sunni Muslim extremists, many of them backed by Gulf countries. And we don't have a great desire to see them empowered nor, by the way, do we have a great desire to see the rest of Syria crushed under the jackbooted heel of Bashar al-Assad. And so, you know, all the more reason why we have an interest in trying to ensure that they have an organized opposition, that it has a set of principles and a transition plan to live by that protects minorities, that protects other religions - Alawites, as well as Christians and the very few Jews who live in Syria.

Now to speak of the Kurds, you know, there's a lot at stake here. And I think there's another element that at least I haven't heard come up in the conversation that's very important. There's huge spillover. We're already seeing fighting in northern Lebanon between Assad supporters and Assad opponents. We should have no doubt that if this fighting continues, it will spill over to Jordan, to Iraq, even to Turkey. There are real dangers here.

CONAN: Danielle Pletka, thanks for your time. We appreciate it.

PLETKA: Thank you.

CONAN: Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, joined us by phone from Abu Dhabi. Up next, what we learned from the John Edwards trial as recapped on the opinion pages. Stay with us. You can call in too, 800-989-8255, or zap us an email: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.