Syrian Government Agrees To Withdraw Forces

United Nations Peace Envoy Kofi Annan says April 10 is the date the Syrian government has agreed to end its assault and pull troops from major cities. Audie Cornish talks with Tamara Cofman Wittes about this development in Syria. Wittes left the State Department in January, where she was the deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions, and deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. She now directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

We begin this hour with the latest developments in Syria. April 10th: United Nations Peace Envoy Kofi Annan says that's the date the Syrian government has agreed to end its assault and pull troops from major cities and potentially make way for another UN monitoring mission. But some Arab Gulf state nations are already beefing up support to the opposition groups in Syria, including $100 million pledge to pay the salaries of opposition fighters from Arab League nations.

And the U.S. is adding satellite and communication support to those groups on top of the humanitarian aid it's sending to the region. We turn now to Tamara Cofman Wittes. Until January, she worked in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department. She's now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Tamara Cofman Wittes, welcome to the program.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: Thank you.

CORNISH: To start with news of the day, is it likely that Syrian forces will truly pull back and adhere to a ceasefire just eight days from now?

WITTES: Given the pace of operations on the ground, it may be that the Syrian government's judged that that will give it enough time to achieve more gains against rebels in some of the urban areas where they've been attacking. But it may also be that this is yet another play for time by the Syrian regime looking for a way to run out the clock as much as they can through this diplomatic activity.

CORNISH: Over the weekend, the U.S. and others discussed the idea of pledging money to pay salaries to opposition fighters, and the U.S., of course, offering communication support. But for so long, people have talked about not sending arms to the region. How does this pledge of cash to pay fighters, how is this different?

WITTES: It could very easily amount to the same thing on the ground. If there's cash available, it could be used to buy weapons. It can be used to buy medical supplies, all sorts of other things that fighters need to keep going.

CORNISH: Because essentially, nothing would be done to prevent this from being diverted to buy arms.

WITTES: Well, it's not yet clear what the mechanism will be to provide this funding, but it's hard to imagine that it's going to be very well controlled.

CORNISH: At what point is adding additional pressure in a sense doing an end-run around the UN Security Council?

WITTES: Look, the fact of the matter is that this conflict is militarizing on the ground. There is still a tremendous amount of peaceful protests, but there is, increasingly, fighting on the ground. Militarization cannot be stopped unless the Assad regime stops its assault on its own citizens. So I think that's a fact that the Security Council simply has to reckon with. I think some of these steps could even help if this plan gets off the ground.

But in the interim, people are dying every day. And I think those who want to try and use the international system as a way to address this crisis also can't afford to ignore the human suffering.

CORNISH: Does it help or hurt the peace process to have yet another deadline this week announced by Kofi Annan?

WITTES: I'm not sure it's appropriate to think of a peace process. I think what we have here is a government that's assaulting its own population with brutal force and a last-ditch effort by the international community to use both pressure and diplomatic process to persuade that government to halt its actions. And I think the most important thing for people watching this crisis unfold to understand is that the international community has tools in its toolbox, but the real decider here is Bashar al-Assad.

If he's determined to hang onto power regardless of the human cost, then those who are concerned about the human cost are going to have make some clear decisions about whether that's an acceptable outcome.

CORNISH: Tamara Cofman Wittes, thank you so much for talking with us.

WITTES: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Tamara Cofman Wittes - she's director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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