How Should U.S. Proceed With Syria?

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P.J. Crowley was U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 2009 to 2011. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Crowley about how the U.S. should handle the Syrian situation.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The bloody rebellion in Syria presents the United States with a foreign policy dilemma, which is: Does the humanitarian crisis in Syria demand American intervention? P.J. Crowley joins us. He served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Obama Administration between 2009 and 2011. He also served on the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration. P.J. Crowley is in our Washington studios. Thank you for joining us.

P.J. CROWLEY: Pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, almost a year ago, there was a similar debate over U.S. intervention in Libya, and in that case American and NATO forces did get involved. What is different, do you think, about Syria?

CROWLEY: It's a great question, and they are fundamentally different countries. Syria is much more central to the Middle East. Libya is, for all intents and purposes, a fringe country. The other major difference is that the rebel movement in Libya had actual control of territory. You don't have that cohesion with a Syrian opposition. In Libya, you have a strong call, a clear call from the Arab League for international intervention. You had a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized it. And then you had a group of countries that were willing to undertake this burden through NATO. But none of those conditions exist yet in the context of Syria.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the most active part of the U.S. response so far has basically been words, increasingly stronger statements by the secretary of state, by the president of the United States. Is that part of the process, is that doing something?

CROWLEY: Well, it's more than words because, you know, there have been a series of meetings in recent months with the Syrian opposition. And part of the effort now is try to figure out if there is a transition from Assad to somebody else, who would that be, how would it work? Obviously, you also will have a fundamental shift in the nature of governance in Syria from the minority Alawites to the majority Sunni. How will that work? And I would not underestimate, you know, the power of the pressure that is being put economically on Syria. Because what will tip the balance here eventually is that the elites in Syria, those who are in the moneyed class, the privileged class, and we see indications they're actually hedging their bets and moving money out of the county. If they tilt away from Assad and decide that he is in fact a goner, that is the kind of action that you want to precipitate and then manage as inevitably, Assad falls.

WERTHEIMER: When you look at what is going on in Syria, and certainly the American people have had a strong, if divided, reaction. I mean, the country is concerned about the possibility of war, but looking at these civilians being attacked by their own government, does the White House have any way to help these people?

CROWLEY: It's horrible. It's tragic. And ultimately, I think the White House has the right approach in making sure that this is not the United States trying to impose an outcome on Syria absent the kind of regional support we did see in Libya. This has to be something that not only the United States is comfortable with, the region is comfortable with and you have to find a way - and this is the most difficult aspect - to shift positions for Russia and China. They've already vetoed two resolutions that might open the door to international action. So, Syria's about Syria but Syria's about so much more.

WERTHEIMER: But it is your view that however long and however ugly the past is, finally where we get is: Assad is gone.

CROWLEY: Well, I think ugly is the right word, Linda. It's going to be grinding. It's going to be tragic. There are going to be more people killed over months, perhaps longer, before Assad falls. Now, but the danger of overly militarizing this conflict is back to what we have seen in Libya. Everyone was united behind getting rid of Gadhafi, but now you see some indication of some splintering of that country. That's the great danger here, that once you militarize this conflict, you could see unforeseen consequences that make this much more difficult challenge after Assad falls.

WERTHEIMER: Former State Department official P.J. Crowley.

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