US And UN Debate Intervention In Syria

Melissa Block talks with Jake Sullivan, Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, about the escalating violence in Syria and Russian resistance to a UN resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Sullivan also responds to Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who have urged the US to provide arms to the rebel forces.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Syria, the killing goes on unabated. Dozens of civilians were reported killed today by Syrian security forces. The international committee of the Red Cross is urging both the Syrian government and the rebels to agree to a daily two-hour ceasefire so humanitarian aide can be delivered and the wounded and sick can be evacuated.

We're going to talk about U.S. policy towards Syria now with Jake Sullivan. He's director of policy planning at the State Department. Jake Sullivan, welcome to the program.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Very pleased to be here, Melissa.

BLOCK: Over the weekend, two prominent U.S. senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both said the U.S. should be arming the Syrian rebels. Senator McCain said people that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves. What about that? Is it time to arm the opposition?

SULLIVAN: Well, for starters, we share Senator McCain and Senator Graham's revulsion at what is happening inside of Syria, and we share their commitment to doing everything the United States can to try to aide the Syrian people both to end the violence and to start a political transition that results in the departure of President Assad. Our focus right now is on a political solution that would result from pressure and isolation on the Assad regime and on sharpening the choice for those around him. Our focus is not on contributing, at the moment, to the further militarization of Syria. And later this week in Tunis, we'll gather with dozens of countries to talk about the way ahead, including potential additional measures as circumstances unfold.

BLOCK: Potential additional measures, would that include arming the rebels?

SULLIVAN: As things stand right now, as I said, I think our focus remains on diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions. Steps that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria today are not going to produce the best outcome for the Syrian people.

BLOCK: The uprising in Syria, though, is gone on for almost a year now. There may be six or 7,000 Syrians who've been killed. Do you see any sign, can you point to anything that shows that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is weakening, that the sanctions or international pressure that you're talking about have had any effect on him at all?

SULLIVAN: Well, there certainly have been defections from the security forces, from those who refused to take orders to turn their guns on their own people. And there certainly has been an increase in the number of countries that have joined the chorus of international condemnation against Assad. And increasingly, there is embrace of the need to impose stricter international sanctions on Assad and those around him. So I think that this steady growth of the coalition outside Syria and the coalition inside Syria that stands against the Assad regime is taking its toll. Obviously, it's not taking its toll fast enough for anyone because every day people are being killed.

BLOCK: Apart from the defections from the Syrian military that you mentioned, can you point to anything concrete that shows that the regime itself is weakening, especially given the fact that Russia and China are backing it, have exercised their veto in the Security Council against measures that would have been punitive towards Syria?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think there's really no better test for whether a regime has staying power over time than whether the forces that it directs to carry out its orders are willing to follow those orders or not. And I think it is also fair to say that the economic sanctions have taken their toll, have caused a number of people inside Syria to reach out to neighboring countries to try to figure out what, if anything, is possible in terms of moving on to a post-Assad Syria. Now, Assad remains in Damascus, so I'm not suggesting that we do not have a tall hill yet to climb, but there is evidence that the international pressure and isolation and, in particular, the actions of people on the ground inside Syria are having an effect and are taking their toll.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about another factor related to the Syrian opposition. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has said that recent attacks in Syria had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-like attack. Would part of the hesitation about arming the Syrian rebels be that, potentially, you would be arming a group like al-Qaida that's functioning within Syria right now?

SULLIVAN: There's no doubt that we have to be concerned about al-Qaida's efforts to take advantage of the situation in Syria. And any decisions that we take with respect to support for the opposition have to focus on minimizing the risk that extremists can exploit what is happening on the ground and maximize the possibility that the aspirations and will of the vast majority of Syrians will be recognized and respected.

BLOCK: OK. Jake Sullivan, thanks for talking with us today.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Jake Sullivan is director of policy planning at the State Department.

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