Comparing U.S. And UN Policies On Syria

Robert Siegel talks with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications at the White House, about the latest U.S. policy thinking on Syria.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A spokesman for Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, told Syria today that its troops in the city of Homs must cease-fire and withdraw, and that the deadline for doing so under his Syria peace plan is now. Annan has won Russian and Chinese approval for his Syria plan. The Syrian government has said it will accept it too. Russian and Chinese support means that the U.N. Security Council would avoid a veto threat in dealing with Syria, and at some point, peacekeeping forces would presumably monitor a cease-fire in the country.

So how does the Annan plan square with President Obama's declaration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will fall? It's not a question of if he has said and that the time has come for him to step aside. Well, Ben Rhodes is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House and joins us now. Welcome once again.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, does the U.S. now regard Bashar al-Assad's stepping down or stepping aside as less urgent than stopping the fighting in Syria?

RHODES: The first priority is to stop the fighting and to stop the killing of innocent civilians within Syria. And the Kofi Annan plan calls for a cease-fire, and we believe the responsibility is on the government to initiate that cease-fire. It also calls for greater humanitarian access to Syrians who are in great need right now. However, it also calls for a political transition to commence within Syria. And it's a position of the United States and many of our allies that the inevitable result of a political transition in Syria has to be Bashar al-Assad stepping down.

SIEGEL: I want to read to you what the commentator and former U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote yesterday. He wrote this: The Annan plan is an ill-timed lifeline to a murderous regime that will exploit Mr. Annan's diplomacy to buy time, to reload and to divide the opposition and the international community. In the end, he writes, everyone, except the Assad family, will be weaker for having pursued it. Does this plan in fact give President Assad exactly the time that he needs?

RHODES: I don't think so. I think that the international community has a responsibility to do whatever it can to stop the violence within Syria. The United States is already working with a coalition of likeminded countries through the Friends of Syria group to provide humanitarian assistance, to support the opposition and to apply significant pressure on the Assad regime. However, what the Annan plan gives us is a framework for the entire international community, including Russia and China, to call urgently for a cease-fire and the initiation of a transition.

SIEGEL: But does this position in support of the Annan plan mean that now the U.S. is actually oppose to the efforts of neighboring countries to arm the Syrian opposition that that now is now contrary to the Annan plan and to the U.S. position on Syria?

RHODES: Well, the U.S. position in terms of assistance to the opposition has been that we support humanitarian assistance, and we also support looking at additional types of non-lethal assistance, like communications gear, for instance. There are additional countries that have suggested that they might take other steps. We believe that at this point arming the opposition is not something that the United States would pursue given questions about who the opposition is and given a desire to not further militarize the conflict.

SIEGEL: May I just ask you, what is the guarantee here against a long-term Bosnian situation, which is to say a better refereed civil war in which there still are civilians being killed, there still are militias fighting against various armies, there are just U.N. peacekeeping forces that are enforcing certain rules to the conflict but really not achieving peace?

RHODES: Well, I think that what we need to be doing to guard against that type of scenario is to be constantly evaluating what the pressure is that we can bring to bear on the Assad regime. We have to be vigilant, and we have to be flexible. And insofar as any of these initiatives don't succeed in fulfilling our goals, we're going to have to continue to go back to the drawing board, come up with new tools and keep working at it.

SIEGEL: Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, thank you very much for talking with us.

RHODES: Thanks very much. Good to be with you.

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