Outside Countries Disagree On Next Steps In Syria

As conditions within Syria deteriorate and civil war seems increasingly likely, other countries disagree about what to do. Robert Siegel speaks with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. Steinberg is now the dean of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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

Following a weekend when the Syrian army suffered more casualties than on any single day since the uprising began - at least 80 troops were killed on Saturday - key European leaders reaffirmed their support of Kofi Annan's plan for ceasefire.

The president of the European Council, the former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country backs the Assad regime. And Van Rompuy said the E.U. and Russia must combine their efforts.

HERMAN VAN ROMPUY: The European Union and Russia might have some divergent assessments, but we fully agree that the Annan plan as a whole provides the best opportunity to break the cycle of violence in Syria; avoiding a civil war and finding a peaceful, lasting solution.

SIEGEL: Between the recent Houla massacre in Syria and an unyielding speech by President Assad on Sunday, in which he claimed the country is under attack by foreigners, the Annan mission looks especially unproductive. So, what might the U.S. do? What are some options that policymakers might consider?

We're going to ask James Steinberg who used to be deputy secretary of state, under Hillary Clinton. Before that he was deputy national security adviser and head of policy planning at the State Department. Nowadays, he is dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. And welcome to the program once again.

JAMES STEINBERG: Great. A pleasure to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: So, if the president were to ask, we need a policy that's more robust and more effective than just supporting Kofi Annan's efforts, tell us some options.

STEINBERG: Well, I think there are a number of things that we can consider, Robert. I think the first thing to we can do is that we impose some economic sanctions. There are further steps we can take. We could basically say that anybody who does business with Syria can no longer do business with the United States or in the United States.

The second thing we can do is I think we could have a more direct kind of support for the opposition there. There are a lot of complications, but I think in terms of providing more direct financial support to the opposition, and potentially working with others in the region to consider some forms of direct and military assistance.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the second option first. Have we reached the state where this is a civil war and we've passed the point of no return? And if so, does that change U.S. options? Or if not, should we avoid arming, if we think it could turn into something less than all-out civil war?

STEINBERG: Well, I think we've passed the point of her return in the sense that I think we and the larger international community have a very important stake in making sure that President Assad leaves office. So, I think that the option of just letting the status quo continue, we've passed that point. So the question is how do we get to the point where Assad is out of office. We've seen the Annan plan, however well intentioned, has not been successful. So I think we have to up the pressure to make sure that this result of getting him out of office is achieved.

There are risks, no question about it. You can never be sure in these circumstances what the outcome will be, that was true in Libya as well. But I think at this point the cost to the people of Syria, the cost to the region and the cost to the United States, frankly, are too great for letting Assad just wait this out and sit this out.

SIEGEL: Can you just explain this odd moment here when a diplomatic mission, the Annan mission has obviously failed. I mean things have gotten worse since the Annan mission has been underway. And yet we hear the European Council president, Mr. Van Rompuy, declaring it still the best course. He declares the differences with Russia, which backs the Assad regime, as divergent assessments. What is happening when we hear diplomats seem to not see what everyone can see?

STEINBERG: Well, I think there is always hope that somehow that skillful diplomacy can have reason prevail. But I think at some point it's the responsibility of leaders to recognize that that avenue failed. It was important to try it because I think it gives credibility and legitimacy to efforts to take a more active role.

And sometimes you have to go through that route even if you're not very optimistic that it will work, just to show that you've gone the extra mile to support diplomacy. But I do think there's a danger in self-delusion in carrying it on too long.

SIEGEL: Does the Road to Damascus here run through Moscow, and must the Russians inevitably be involved in some resolution here?

STEINBERG: I think it would be preferable if they were, but I don't think that we can make that the final test. I think that at the end of the day, we have to decide what's in our interest. I think the key is for the United States to work with the most countries most affected in the region; with Turkey, with Saudi Arabia, with the UAE, with Jordan - all are very important actors, all of whom have a lot of influence. And their engagement would give considerable legitimacy to additional steps.

SIEGEL: James Steinberg, thanks for talking with us today.

STEINBERG: My pleasure, Robert. It's good to talk with you.

SIEGEL: James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state is now the dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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