The Price Of Doing Nothing In Syria

Guests

Deb Amos, foreign correspondent, NPR
PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary and spokesman, State Department
Marc Lynch, editor, Foreign Policy's Middle East channel

With the U.S. military supporting airstrikes in Libya, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and little leverage over Syria's rulers, President Obama's options are limited at best. Still, critics argue that the price of inaction could prove far higher than the cost of intervention.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Government spokesmen in Damascus say that yesterday's speech by President Bashar al-Assad marks the beginning of true democracy in Syria. Protest leaders describe the promised reforms as much too little, much too late.

They clearly intend to sustain their resistance movement. President Assad clearly intends to remain in power and will use his army and secret police to try to crush what he calls saboteurs. The Obama administration says that deeds, not words, matter in Syria, but the U.S. response to months of violence can be described as cautious.

So far, President Obama has not said it's time for Assad to go. Given limited options and even more limited influence in Damascus, is there a case for prudence? Is there a price for doing nothing? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, "Buck," a new documentary on horse trainer Buck Brannaman, but first NPR's Deborah Amos joins us from Beirut. Nice to have you back with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And is it fair to say that President Assad's speech yesterday might have been received very differently had he made it, oh, three months ago?

AMOS: I think that's probably true, and this was so much anticipated that it was impossible, of course, to please the anti-government movement. I talked to even some pro-Assad people in Damascus who wanted more than what they heard yesterday, a national dialogue. And, you know, it was very vague on when some of these reforms would take place.

There was not that much meat on the bones. Those who do support the president said he looked presidential, he spoke for 70 minutes. It was a different man than we saw in the first and the second speech. He was more sober. But he wouldn't have made that speech had there not been four months of protest in the country.

CONAN: And it seemed in congruous to see him standing and receiving the applause of the parliament there, and at the same time, we know that terrible things are going on in Jisr ash-Shugur, and tanks are rolling towards the Turkish border.

AMOS: Indeed, and today, there was a mass rally in downtown Damascus, which we could see here in Beirut on Syrian television. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets. There was also protest, pro-government protest, in the southern town of Daraa, where the anti-government movement began.

Now, there have been reports that some people were bussed into these protests, pro-government protests in Damascus and other cities, but I think the point of all this was for the government to show that there is still plenty of support for the president. And so far, I think that that is correct in Damascus.

There is still quite a bit of support for him and hope that he can find a way out of this crisis. For a long time, the government's line was it is chaos or us. I think some people are afraid that it's chaos and us as the army is rolling around in the north.

Yesterday's speech was an attempt to say we are in control, I know what I'm doing, I am the president of the country. I have listened, I have talked to Syrians across the country, and I have a plan. The problem for the dissidents is it is vague on details, and it doesn't sound like a plan to them.

CONAN: And as they continue to mount their protests, as well, anti-government protests, is Syria facing any kind of - or does it seem to be responding to any outside pressure at all?

AMOS: Syria doesn't respond to outside pressure. That is one of the hallmarks of the regime. In fact, the more pressure there is, the more they say I'm sorry, but we don't reform under pressure. And that may have been part of the point of that speech yesterday.

Their closest ally in the region, Turkey, responded quite negatively to the speech. The president, Abdullah Gul, was on television on Sunday, and he said not good enough, what we need to see is specific reforms. Today, President Assad announced a general amnesty. He said every criminal will be released for crimes committed before June 2011.

Now, this is the third amnesty that he's announced in almost as many months. Human rights activists say that the crackdowns have gotten worse after each of these amnesties. It still doesn't cover everyone. For example, there's a 19-year-old blogger who is in jail on a five-year sentence for writing a poem online that called on citizens to be responsible for their country. It has - none of these amnesties so far has covered her.

So we really don't know about this amnesty. We don't know the details quite yet.

CONAN: You mentioned Turkey, obviously a very important political and economic ally. The other state that's very important to Syria is its ally Iran, much more important in the strategic sense. And there have been reports that Iranians have been of help to the Syrian apparatus in trying to crush dissent.

AMOS: The Obama administration has said that on many occasions, but there's been no evidence that they've presented for this to be true. When you talk to dissidents, what they'll say is there are electric prods that Syrian security police are using in demonstrations. You will find yourself being hit with one of these things, and you're made unconscious by it, and when you wake up, you're in, you know, some intelligence cell somewhere in the city.

No one's ever seen those before in Syria. Also, the Syrians have gotten very good at being able to crack, you know, Facebook pages and track down everybody that is on a particular Facebook page, especially for dissidents. These are all new skills. And I think the dissidents say this is what the Iranians are helping them with.

There's not a lot of evidence that the Iranians are physically on the ground, you know, working side by side with the security police. The Iranians have stayed relatively quiet about what is happening in Syria, except to complain when either the British or the Americans point to them and say you are on the ground working with the Syrian security forces.

CONAN: And what about the resistance? Has it managed to coalesce? Has it formed a coherent organization?

AMOS: Not as much as I think they would like. There was a meeting in Turkey a few weeks ago, and for the first time, you saw all kinds of Syrian dissidents come together and talk about a program. They came up with a very good program in about 48 hours, which was remarkable to watch that happen, and these are some long-time dissidents, a couple of young people who had been involved in organizing protests on the ground, managed to come across the border and work there.

What they said, is that it's the insiders that are the real leadership of this protest movement, these organizations called the local coordinating committees. They work on Facebook. They talk on Skype in the evening. They coordinate with each other. They decide when the protests will be, where they will be, what the chants will be, what they'll be called on Friday.

And I think the outsiders are very conscious that it is only the insiders who are taking incredible risks. I mean, when you think about it, even on any kind of scale, the kind of risk that you take when you walk out on a Friday in one of these protests, and you can pretty well guess that there is going to be live fire. People die every Friday, sometimes in larger numbers, sometimes and less.

And it's really amazing to watch how brave people are to go out on the streets. And at this point, there has not been exactly a melding between the outside and the inside. The outside is very busy. In fact, next week there is a group that's going to Moscow. This is the first meeting that they have been able to get with top Russian officials.

They want to talk to them about the U.N. resolution. Russia has been against any condemnation of Syria at the United Nations. Russia is certainly against any military intervention or foreign interference, although today the Russia prime minister said, when he was in France, that there should be international political pressure on Syria after the bloodshed today and what he's seen over the past couple of weeks.

CONAN: And that's what we're going to talk about next. Deb Amos, thanks very much for your time.

AMOS: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Deborah Amos, joining us from Beirut, and joining us now by phone from New York is PJ Crowley, the former assistant secretary and spokesman for the State Department in the Obama administration. Nice to have you with us today.

P.J. CROWLEY: A pleasure.

CONAN: And outside pressure, there's been a measured response from the Obama administration thus far. Is there a price for doing nothing?

CROWLEY: I think the credibility of the United States is really on the line now in Syria. The stated position from the president is that Assad needs to lead a transition or get out of the way. But we're seeing the real Syrian regime. It's not going to lead a transition that would put itself out of business.

So I think it's time for the president to apply the same standard to Bashar al-Assad that he did to Moammar Gadhafi. A few weeks ago, he made clear that Gadhafi had lost his legitimacy by threatening his people. And it's clear that Assad and his cronies are doing the same thing.

CONAN: Yet, when the president said that about Moammar Gadhafi, there was an implicit or else. Is he, the president - what or else is there for the president to suggest that he might use in Syria?

CROWLEY: Well, I don't think there's a military solution in Syria like there is in Libya, but nonetheless, after the president made clear in his mind that Gadhafi had lost his legitimacy, there was a catalyzing effect in the region that led to a strong statement from the Arab League, a U.N. Security Council resolution and additional sanctions, as well as the NATO intervention.

I'm not sure that the intervention makes sense, but certainly again, you know, through U.S. leadership, we can, I think - and working with countries like Turkey as Deb was saying a minute ago make clear to the region that Syria has, you know, in essence crossed a point of no return, and rather than envisioning that the Assad regime can be part of the solution to recognize it really is the problem.

CONAN: Yet the Arab League, there are some states apparently raising questions about what's going on in Syria, but it seems unlikely to be unanimous on this point regarding Syria, and the Russians and the Chinese, as Deb mentioned, have been against any resolution in the Security Council.

CROWLEY: Certainly and all true. This is hard. The Assad regime is going to resist for as long as it can. But as we continue through this Arab spring, I think it's important for the United States to not only say that its policy is to support, you know, political, economic and social reform but actually to put actions, you know, behind that policy statement.

It is vitally important that as we go through this, the United States makes clear that for those leaders who decide to work with reformers and change their countries, they will have the support of the United States and others. But for those leaders, from Gadhafi to Saleh to Assad who choose to resist, who choose to turn, you know, state-sponsored violence against their own people that there should be consequences, as well.

CONAN: We're talking about the difficult choices for the U.S. and Syria, given limited options and even more limited influence in Damascus. Is there a case for prudence? Is there a price for doing nothing? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. 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. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. More protests today in Syria and more violence. Thousands rallied in support of the government, likely at the urging of the government. The two sides fought on the streets. Activists say at least seven people were killed in what's already one of the bloodiest revolts of the Arab Spring.

Given the United States' limited options and even more limited influence in Damascus, is there a case for prudence? Is there a price for doing nothing? 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.

Our guest is PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs at the State Department, and let's see if we can get Robert(ph) on the line. Robert's with us from Sonoma in California.

ROBERT: Good afternoon. I want to thank your guest for her insights. I'm an Arab-German-American, fourth-generation San Franciscan who just spent a month in Syria in February in Hama and Homs, Hala Bin(ph) Damascus.

I know Syria pretty well. I have to tell you everyone is kind of a little bit perplexed. Assad and the Syrians were ready for this. I was there when Egypt was happening, the beginnings. I was telling informed people like Rami Kouri(ph) that Assad's going to come down, too.

And I talked to people on the streets at all levels. This is going to happen. But get to your point that you're focused on at the moment, what the Americans are going to do or not do and what's the cost, of course there's always going to be costs. And Americans always have to be prudent. Unfortunately, they've not been prudent for years, and we don't need to talk about the Israeli situation. But it's related, of course.

The Americans - and I'm so supportive of Obama, and I didn't even like Obama before this whole Middle Eastern thing started. They will make sure, through diplomatic means or additional speeches or whatever, Assad will go, and the people will force him out. The Alawites are hated by 98 percent of the population. So that is going to happen.

There's been talk on your program last week that the Christians are not - they're siding with the Alawites. That is incorrect, and I was talking to Christians. But anyway, what should the United States do? It's quite clear: Do what you're doing. And yeah, the thing about Syria relative to their position on Libya, Egypt or Yemen is of course Syria is a border state with Israel. That complicates everything that the Americans are going to do.

Of course by definition, and of course Obama and Clinton and other State Department people are now saying it's time for change, '67 borders and all that, public speeches to Netanyahu. It's very complicated now, but I am very, very hopeful for the first time in my interest in the Middle East, and I go back to the Middle East to 1968. I was a student of Professor (unintelligible) there, and I was a banker with CitiBank and Bank of America all over the Middle East from '68. I know it very well.

This is the best thing that's happened since 1948 at all levels, and there's going to be casualties. That happens in revolution. Thank you so much for having this program. It's very valuable for America.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call. PJ Crowley, in there was the conviction that President Assad will go. Not everyone shares that conviction, and despite what Robert had to say, there's evidently some support for Assad in Syria. What if you say he must go, and he stays?

CROWLEY: Well, I think as Deb Amos said, so far, you know, one of the key indicators is that unrest has not reached Damascus like it has in some of the other major cities in Syria. But I do think that everyone is looking and seeing and starting to see the kinds of fissures in Syria that we previously had seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

I just want to make sure that the United States is on the - literally on the right side of history here, and I do agree with Robert that if the United States puts its moral power behind change in Syria, that will have a dramatic effect within Syria itself.

But it's also in the U.S. long-term interest to see fundamental change in Syria. You know, Robert mentioned the situation with Israel, and you saw in recent weeks where Bashar al-Assad, in essence, has shown a sense of potential political blackmail that there has been a quiet border between Israel and Syria for decades.

But Assad indicted and hinted by unleashing some of the demonstrated that attempted to penetrate the fence line with Israel that he could destabilize that border if he chooses.

Assad - we've hoped for a couple of years that Assad would, we could wean him off from Iran. There's no indication that that is going to happen. And Syria continues to re-establish its influence and violate the sovereignty of Lebanon. So the last thing that we want to see is Assad somehow survive this. It should be the policy of the United States that Bashar al-Assad, you know, cannot lead a transition of Syria and needs to in fact step aside.

CONAN: Let's get another view. Joining us now from his office at George Washington University is Marc Lynch, editor for the Middle East channel on ForeignPolicy.com and associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Nice to have you with us today.

MARC LYNCH: Thanks.

CONAN: And you argued in your latest post that there is, in fact, a case for prudence.

LYNCH: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that we all have seen what's been happening in Syria, and I think we're appalled by the brutality and the violence, and I don't think there are very many people left who think that Bashar al-Assad can play a productive role in really changing Syria.

I mean, I think we all basically agree that that ship has sailed, but at the same time, there are tremendous limits to what the United States can actually accomplish, and I think that we have to be careful of simply, you know, talking ourselves into a position where we are putting ourselves out on a limb demanding things that we have no ability to carry out.

So if we just say Assad must go, well, that's nice. But it's not actually going to make Assad go, and then that creates a whole set of demands upon us to act in ways which might not actually be in our national interest.

CONAN: Like?

LYNCH: Well, such as once we've declared that Assad must go, and he doesn't go, then the demands come to do more, things which might involve military actions or interventions or the sorts of things which I think nobody would set out and say this is something the United States should be doing.

So, you know, what I've been recommending is instead to focus on doing some of the perhaps less dramatic things but which might actually have more of an impact on fragmenting Assad's regime, things like ICC referrals and...

CONAN: That's the International Criminal Court.

LYNCH: And aimed at trying to divide the kind of key parts of Syrian society from Assad and basically see that there's a choice here, a real choice that can push them in the right direction.

CONAN: Would you go so far as freezing bank assets, that sort of thing?

LYNCH: Sure. I mean, that sort of thing is exactly what I would have in mind, but have it be carefully targeted in such a way as to divide those parts of the regime which we see as basically irredeemable with a recognition that we're going to have to work with parts of Syrian society going ahead.

CONAN: PJ Crowley, I wanted to get your reaction. There are any number of measures that, for example, Marc Lynch is talking about referral to the International Criminal Court, bank seizures, that sort of thing, delegitimizing the regime without necessarily saying Assad must go.

CROWLEY: Well, I don't think those are mutually exclusive. I certainly agree fully with Marc that prudence has to be the watchword, and we have to recognize that the United States itself has limitations. But there are things that we can do, and there are things that other countries in particular, you know, including those in the neighborhood can do, but I don't see these as mutually exclusive.

I think we can recognize that Assad, you know, needs to go and then be doing those tools short of military intervention that help to force choices in Syria, particularly among the Syrian elite that do, in fact, today, prop up the regime.

But if this takes - if this can be done in a relatively short period of time, great. But if this takes months or even years to wear down the Syrian regime, then we'll take as long as it takes. But I just think at this point, the credibility of the United States is at stake, and having said that Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy for violently trying to suppress the rebellion, at this point in time, it's hard to distinguish Moammar Gadhafi from Bashar al-Assad.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Leslie(ph), Leslie with us from West Bloomfield in Michigan.

LESLIE: Yeah, while I won't respond point by point to your previous caller's anti-Israel diatribe, I will agree on him on one thing, that Assad must go. One of the things I would like to point out is that they don't like us now, they won't like us then no matter what we do.

The people who are probably in better condition to put pressure on Assad is Turkey, but, you know, I will agree that Assad must go, but I don't think - I think we could dress up and do the can-can, and they still wouldn't like us. If we were even to liberate them, they still wouldn't like us. They'll find some reason not to like us.

I agree that prudence is the watchword, and we've got to ask, in our natural - excuse me - our national interest, but I do - I will say Assad has to take it that - has to be fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Be fired by his own...

LESLIE: Give him the old Donald Trump, you're fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Leslie. We appreciate it.

LESLIE: All right.

CONAN: We get Mr. Trump involved in the conversation. Well, we'll leave it at that. It is, P.J. Crowley, going to be significant that she's probably right that no matter what happens, the United States is not going to be seen positively by whatever government emerges in Damascus.

CROWLEY: This is going to be a rocky road for a period of time. You know, trying to establish more democracies in the Middle East is certainly in the national interest of the United States and the interest of these countries in the region. As Secretary Clinton said in her speech in Doha in January, the foundations of the region are sinking in the sand, and that we do need to see, you know, fundamental political, economic and social reform. The challenge in the Middle East, including the challenge in Syria, is that you've got disproportionally young populations.

They're educated. They're frustrated. They don't have economic opportunity. They don't have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in politics in their respective countries. We have to keep faith with this emerging generation of leaders because, you know, our strong support today translates potentially - potentially - into influence tomorrow. But if the United States is perceived as sitting on the sidelines and simply going to deal with whatever government emerges in the future or whatever government survives in Syria or other countries, you know, we face the real possibility of a loss of significant influence.

CONAN: And, Marc Lynch, working behind the scenes to help in the exit of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, did not seem to help us much with the succeeding - with what had happened since?

LYNCH: Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, it's almost impossible for the United States to satisfy the activist community in places like Egypt simply because they want much more forceful and direct action than, I think, any American government could really deliver upon given all the conflicting interests and relationships there. But that said, I mean, I think that if you look at Egypt, aside from not getting credit with those communities, what we did in Egypt, working behind the scenes and not being out on the frontlines, actually was quite effective.

It managed to help convinced the army to not use too much violence. They got a relatively smooth transition away from Mubarak, and I think that was very much in our interest. And I actually think that that is not a bad model for Syria.

I think one other really important point here is that P.J. mentioned the Libya-Syria comparison, and I agree that the violence being used by Assad in Syria right now is every bit as despicable and brutal as what Gadhafi used. But one key difference is that there was a fundamental deep and powerful consensus across the Arab world on the need for Western intervention in Libya.

Something I've never seen in all the years I've been studying Arab politics. Certainly, I've never seen anything quite like it. And that just doesn't exist on Syria. The Arab world is deeply divided over how to respond to Syria, and that creates fewer opportunities for us to act effectively and commanding support of governments and peoples. I think we'd be doing a good job working with Turkey, as the previous caller suggested, in - and with some of the other neighbors of Syria to try and generate that kind of support, but we're not there yet.

CONAN: Marc Lynch, editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel. Also with us, former assistant secretary of state and spokesman there, P.J. Crowley. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Roger. Roger with us from Clarksville in Georgia.

ROGER: Yes. You asked the question, can we afford to do nothing? My folks always taught me that behavior begets consequences, and if we do nothing, we'll have a greater loss of respect and influence in the region. Further, they taught me that if you don't make a decision, that is a decision. Making no decision is just inactivity, and you positively decided to be inactive. And we will be judged by what we do, not what we say. I think we need to tell the people, look, we support you, but we will not militarily support you.

We'll take the moral high road and, as one of your guests said, freeze assets, fracture their political support internally, use the ICC, whatever other options are available but no military.

CONAN: Well, let me get a response from Marc Lynch. You wrote prudence is not weakness.

LYNCH: Yeah. I agree with that completely. I mean, I think that it's really important to rule out any thought of military intervention, and nobody is really talking about that right now, which is a good thing. And my fear about taking this very, you know, satisfying Assad-must-go stand is that that might lead us down the road to that kind of intervention, which I think we all agree would be a bad idea.

CONAN: P.J. Crowley?

CROWLEY: I don't think it leads us there at all, but, you know, certainly, you know, just as with Libya, where we had some ability to sanction, you know, Moammar Gadhafi primarily, you know, the sanctions came from other countries, and I do think there are still more that others can do to put the kind of external pressure on the Assad regime that can push them, you know, towards the exit ramp. But, ultimately, to me, this is about, you know, U.S. credibility, and we have a stated position today that I think is just untenable, where our stated position today is that we still think that Assad can lead a democratic transition in Syria. I just don't see it, and we have to adjust our policy appropriately.

CONAN: One of the big differences - we just have a few seconds left, though, but one of the big differences between Syria and, say, Tunisia or Egypt is that the army is staying on the government side.

CROWLEY: Well, there is a dramatic difference with Egypt because the - while, you know, the Egyptian military - fundamental to the successful transition there was the Egyptian military's decision not to turn weapons against its own people. Unfortunately, Syria and its security services are doing a different thing. But, ultimately, we need to find ways of catalyzing international support to put as much external pressure on Syria as possible, even as we give hope to the, you know, to the protesters who have lost their fear and are standing up and taking risks. And it needs to be clear that we are there to support them anyway we can.

CONAN: Roger, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And our thanks to our guests, Marc Lynch, editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, and P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state and spokesman at the State Department, now the Omar Bradley chair at Dickinson College and Penn State University. He joined us on the phone from New York. Marc Lynch on the phone from his office here in Washington. Gentlemen, thanks very much. Up next, the real horse-whisperer. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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