Calls Grow For U.S. To Intervene In Syrian Conflict

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Istanbul this weekend to talk with Turkish officials about a post-Bashar Assad future for Syria. Clinton says it's urgent to plan for a transition and make sure Syria's institutions remain intact. She's also warning against a sectarian war. But some Syrian exiles say the U.S. has done too little, too late and its messages won't be heard as the warring factions become more radicalized.

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Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish officials to work on plans for an eventual fall of the Syrian regime. Clinton is calling for close coordination and clear transition plans to make sure that Syria's institutions remain intact. But some Syrian exiles say the U.S. is doing too little too late.

NPR's Diplomatic Correspondent Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting outside a on a typically muggy, August day in Washington, Ammar Abdulhamid is venting about U.S. policy on Syria. The Syrian activist argues the U.S. can't push for a transition plan unless it helps the opposition with more than just words.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: The reality is if Clinton wants to deliver and if Obama wants to deliver on these issues, they have to get down and dirty. They have to be in the trenches with us and with the rebels in order to be able to advise them.

KELEMEN: Abdulhamid, who now works with some leading neoconservatives at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is not expecting much while the U.S. is in election mode, but he fears the situation is changing quickly in Syria, and moderate voices are losing out.

ABDULHAMID: You want to control the dynamics on the ground, you have to be one of the key figures playing on the ground. If you are the source of weapons, if you are the source of funding to the rebels, then you can control their behavior a little bit.

KELEMEN: But it's not that easy, says Robert Danin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who argues that U.S. policy should remain do no harm.

ROBERT DANIN: It's still not clear that, you know, the enemy of our enemy is our friend.

KELEMEN: The former State Department official says providing arms doesn't necessarily guarantee you influence.

DANIN: There's no assurance that it will buy goodwill. There's no assurance that the people who actually wind up toppling Assad will be the people who wind up running the country.

KELEMEN: Besides, Danin says, the U.S. has been getting more involved in Syria, providing nonlethal assistance and logistical support for the rebels. The U.S. hasn't offered what rebels want - advanced weapons and air cover - but a top White House official, John Brennan, told the Council on Foreign Relations that no option has been taken off the table.

JOHN BRENNAN: The president has kept us all quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not again do anything that's going to contribute to more violence.

KELEMEN: On the diplomatic front, the State Department has been focused on uniting opposition figures behind a vision for a post-Assad Syria. Syrian activist Rafif Jouejati is working on the Day After Project, which gets some State Department funding and will soon publish its recommendations.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: We don't want to see an Iraq situation where the entire infrastructure crumbles, and so what we'd like to do is try to preserve those institutions with personnel who don't have blood on their hands so that we can keep the lights on.

KELEMEN: Jouejati says Syrians outside and inside the country have been working on the project and want to see a future government emerge that will protect the rights of minorities. And though she acknowledges this could end up being just an academic exercise, she's determined to make sure that moderate voices are heard.

JOUEJATI: I have to have faith that our work isn't in vain. And what drives me in this belief is that, you know, as of today, there are some 20,000 people who have been killed for freedom and dignity and democracy, and I have to hold on to that.

KELEMEN: As to what the U.S. can do, Jouejati doesn't want air strikes but is calling for more humanitarian aid and protection. She says it's unconscionable that the international community would stand by and watch the Syrian people get massacred. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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