The Diplomatic Options For Dealing With Syria

Read David Ignatius' column, "A Syrian Defector's Mission"

The Syrian crisis continues to deepen as the conflict rages on. And pressure grows on the international community as refugees stream out. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, former ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius discuss diplomatic options.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The bloody civil war continues in Syria, and both the heavy death tolls and the flow of refugees step up the pressure on Syria's neighbors and on world powers to do something before the conflict gets even worse.

Turkey, already home to 80,000 Syrian refugees, has asked the U.N. to establish a safe zone within Syria itself. Earlier this week, French President Francois Hollande called on the fragmented Syrian opposition to form a government, which France would then recognize. And Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, proposed regional mediation by his country, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

If you have questions about the limits and possibilities for diplomacy in Syria, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we wrap up our summer movie festival with Murray Horwitz and the best flicks about the news business. You can email your nominee now. The address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers joins us from Beirut, and nice to have you back with us.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hello.

CONAN: And what kinds of pressures is the civil war in Syria putting on its neighbors?

MCEVERS: Well, the U.N. estimates that there are around a quarter of a million refugees in just Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon alone, Syrian refugees pouring into these countries. That is putting enormous pressure. I mean, like you said, Turkey is looking at 80,000. They're expecting to hit 100,000 in the coming days.

Jordan in just the past week had 10,000 refugees. That's double what it was the week before. Lebanon, the numbers are coming in so - the people are coming in so fast that they can't even register. Many of them are unregistered. They're even taking up shelter in Palestinian refugee camps here in Beirut.

I mean, you can just imagine the irony there. These are not places where conditions are good. You've got Jordan appealing for international aid, Turkey going to the U.N. appealing for some kind of protected safe zone within Syria so that the refugee situation doesn't cause problems inside Turkey. That's not really likely to happen anytime soon.

With no solution, you know, in the immediate term, these countries are really feeling the burden.

CONAN: And many of the religious and ethnic divisions within Syria are reflected in Lebanon, and there's been blowback, I think it's fair to say.

MCEVERS: Definitely. I mean, in the north you're seeing clashes between Alawites and Sunnis. These are the two main groups that are clashing inside Syria in what's clearly becoming a civil war. And what's happening with the refugee situation is that you've got mostly Sunni refugees leaving Syria, and so they can only find refuge in, you know, friendly Sunni territory.

Well, that's not all of Lebanon. You know, that's most of Jordan, and it's not necessarily all of Turkey either. So this poses yet another sort of problem for these people who are now being shelled from the air, from helicopter gunships, and now jets, you know, dropping bombs on people.

That's why we're seeing the numbers increase so sharply. That's why we're seeing people, you know, fleeing Syria, fleeing for their lives.

CONAN: And the fighting also concentrating in big cities: Damascus, Aleppo.

MCEVERS: Right, the rebels have brought the fight to Damascus and Aleppo. You know, there's a lot of questions about whether or not that was a good idea, whether or not all of the local populations, you know, support them in doing that. Because there are so many civilian casualties, I think a lot of people are sort of scratching their heads and wondering why the rebels thought it was prudent to do that at this time.

Right now it doesn't look either hand has the - either side has the upper hand in the city of Aleppo. It's Syria's largest city in the north. In Damascus, it looks like the government has regained control. Over the weekend we saw what looks like a horrific massacre. We are up to possibly 400 people killed in the town of Daraya. It's long been a center of protest, actually nonviolent protest, against the Syrian regime.

And so, you know, the civilian populations are really feeling the brunt of this rebel uprising.

CONAN: And yesterday we also saw an interview with President Assad, one has to say a rare interview, but he breathed defiance.

MCEVERS: He did, but what he did acknowledge was that he's actually fighting, you know, some kind of legitimate fight, which he hadn't done before. He's usually kind of, you know, pooh-poohed this uprising as a conspiracy by, you know, the United States, Israel, its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. I mean, he did acknowledge that this is a fight and that it will take some time to win it, although he did say, you know, if we actually really wanted to unleash the full power of the Syrian army, we could do that, but that wouldn't, you know, be wise at this time.

He also did acknowledge the defections. You know, there have been some really high-level defections of officials leaving his regime. And, you know, he basically said this is a natural process, this is a cleansing of the government. These, you know, people left of their own accord and we're sort of happy to see them go.

He gave the interview on, you know, a pro-government station that's owned by his cousin, a station that in recent days has shown some sort of very horrific images from this massacre in Daraya and has come under a lot of criticism for warmongering.

CONAN: And Syria's friends, such as they are, they are dwindling. But Iran remains loyal, and so does Russia.

MCEVERS: Right, you know, you saw that there was - Turkey, you know, today, just now is, you know, bringing up the issue of a safe zone with the U.N. Security Council, but, you know, there's - very little is expected from that meeting. I'm not even sure they're going to get a statement out of the Security Council today because, you know, Russia's foreign minister will not be in attendance, and it's pretty much understood by most diplomats that Russia and China will continue to, you know, block any action by the Security Council against the Syrian regime at this time.

CONAN: And Russia has also said there is no question of removing its forces from the military base, which they enjoy in Syria.

MCEVERS: Yes.

CONAN: So as we look ahead, the U.N. mission, the mandate expired because there was no agreement at the United Nations about what conditions to proceed under. There seems to be paralysis.

MCEVERS: Yes, you know, everyone's sort of looking to the United States at this point. I think Turkey would love to take action, but it's got problems at home as well. It can't act, you know, unilaterally to say let's have some kind of no-fly zone or no-drive zone or no-fly zone light. There's all kinds of ideas floating around.

But they can't go it alone. I mean, for months I think they've been looking to the United States for some guidance, and yet the Obama administration, you know, continues to be very reluctant to get involved. I think everybody, you know, acknowledges that there's not going to be any kind of military intervention, you know, by the United States or NATO or any of its allies, but I think a lot of folks are saying that, you know, there are some things that can be done.

You know, let's not use Iraq and Afghanistan as the only examples of how to intervene. There might be things that we could do to help these rebels gain the upper hand against the Assad regime if the United States is serious that they want the Assad regime to fall.

There's intelligence that could be provided to these rebels. There are certain weapons that could be provided. There are at least relationships that could be forged with these rebels, and I think a lot of analysts who have studied these rebels, and reporting done by myself and others there, just have seen that those relationships have not been formed, that the United States has really lost a chance to be involved at some level and to at least try to stem some of these horrific civilian deaths.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Edward Djerejian, the founding director of Rice University's Baker Center for Public Policy, former ambassador to Syria and Israel and former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He joins us from a studio at Rice University. Nice to have you back on the program.

EDWARD DJEREJIAN: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to read you a part of a dispatch we got from the Associated Press within the last hour. Britain and France say they're not ruling out any options in Syria, including a military-enforced no-fly zone. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference Thursday that a Turkish proposal for a safe zone requires military intervention, which the council is unlikely to approve at the moment.

But we are not ruling out any options for the future, he said, speaking ahead of a Security Council meeting on the humanitarian plight of civilians in Syria. Asked whether those options include a NATO-enforced no-fly zone without Security Council authorization, he repeated: We are not ruling out any options.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris and London are in complete unity on this point. Are we beginning to edge towards the possibility of a military intervention?

DJEREJIAN: Well, I think the French government is taking a more leading role than either the British and the United States in terms of what they feel needs to be done in Syria. As you know, Francois Hollande, the French president, spoke about recognizing a government of the protestors, of the rebels, a provisional government, but some form of political recognition.

And now the dispatch you just mentioned of talk between the French and the U.K. of the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone, these ideas have been about for a couple of months, but as the bloodshed continues in Syria, and there's a virtual stalemate between the Assad regime and the rebels and the opposition, the issue of the humanitarian dimensions of this situation, this tragic situation, continued to be evidenced through the media and to the world.

And I think there can be a Srebrenica moment, where the international community, despite the more level-headed thinking in capitals of the unintended consequences of military intervention, that the international community may feel more pressure to act along the lines you've mentioned, a possibility of a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridors, buffer zones, and more assistance to the rebels.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, we're going to let you go in just a minute, but don't the Syrian activists feel we've had more than a few Srebrenica moments already?

MCEVERS: Absolutely. I mean, this latest - this latest massacre, you know, the reported massacre in Daraya is just one of a handful of horrific scenes, and the pattern is so familiar. You've got the regime, you know, shelling a neighborhood that's predominately Sunni, where you've seen rebel presence, where you've seen activists, anti-government activists, shell it, sort of soften it up for, you know, one, two days, bombing primarily residential areas and then moving in with soldiers backed by tanks and artillery and now with fighter jets and with militia men who go literally door to door, house to house, shooting people in cold blood: women, children, civilians and fighters.

That seems to me - the message is so clear, that the regime is willing to basically do anything at this point.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

MCEVERS: Sure.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, with us from Beirut. We're going to ask Ed Djerejian to stay with us. We're talking about the limits and possibilities of diplomacy in Syria. Up next, David Ignatius of the Washington Post will join us with details on his conversation with one of the most prominent Syrians to defect to date. 800-989-8255 if you have questions. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We'll get back to our conversation about diplomatic options in Syria in just a moment. First an update on Isaac. Now a tropical storm, weaker, but it continues to dump rain along the Gulf Coast. The reinforced levees in New Orleans seem to be holding back the water, but officials in Louisiana plan to breach a levee south of the city, in Plaquemine Parish, that could open as soon as this hour.

Floodwaters already topped the levee. Authorities hope to relieve pressure on the rest of the 18-mile structure and direct the water away from more populated areas. Along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, officials continue to monitor a dam that may give out at any moment. They've ordered the evacuations of up to 60,000 people in that area.

Stay with NPR News for the latest on these stories. Right now we're talking about Syria and diplomacy. If you have questions about the limits and possibilities for diplomacy in Syria, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Edward Djerejian, former ambassador to Syria and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He now serves as founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The opposition in Syria remains largely fragmented and divided. This week, Bassma Kodmani, a prominent member of the Syrian National Council, resigned that position, saying the umbrella opposition group was not up to the increasing challenges on the ground.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius spoke with one of the key figures to defect from the regime, General Manaf Tlass, a former general in the Syrian army who argues that the opposition must find a way to reassure the ruling Alawites - the minority ruling Alawites - about their safety in a post-Assad Syria. And he joins us now. He's back from France. He's at a studio at the Washington Post. Nice to have you back on the program, David.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you described some remarkable scenes, meetings between General Tlass and President Assad, among others.

IGNATIUS: It was a very powerful interview. I had first met Manaf Tlass, oh, six or seven years ago in Damascus. So I knew him. We had a relationship to build on. And he described what it was like for him, starting when the uprising in Syria began, really, in April of last year. Trying to find a way to conciliate, to meet with demonstrators, being, in effect, told that that was useless and increasingly moving toward a break with President Assad, who had been his childhood friend.

The two had been in the army together. They had a close personal friendship, and through our conversation, this sense of betrayal by Assad and the people around him and the way in which Syria has been plunged into this terrible bloodshed. You could see how painful that's been for Tlass.

CONAN: And the general is a Sunni, but you pointed out he commanded a largely Alawite unit in the Special Republican Guard.

IGNATIUS: He commanded Alawites and for that reason has close contacts with Alawites with whom he served and with members of the Syrian military. Essentially what he was saying was, somehow the friends of Syria have got to find a way to speak to these members of Assad's Alawite clan and reassure them that if they move away from the regime, they will not be committing suicide, in his words, that there will be a force there to protect them.

He talked a lot about the need to have a channel of communication and eventually trust, between the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad and honest and reconcilable members of the Syrian military. Without that, he argues, the overthrow of Assad would create anarchy, which could be, if anything, even worse than what we're seeing now.

CONAN: Ed Djerejian, that requires a unified opposition, and given the resignation and some of the accusations flying back and forth, that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

DJEREJIAN: No, unfortunately, the Syrian opposition is quite divided - many parties, many individuals. The dichotomy between the external opposition and the internal opposition, in my view the real rebellion, the real revolt is in the hands of the local coordinating committees in Syria. The people who are fighting on the ground, that is truly the base of the whole struggle for Syria today.

And there is not that close a linkage between the external opposition, many of whom have been in exile for many years, and the people on the ground who are really, if you will, literally bearing their breast to the Syrian military and, you know, really many of them dying and sacrificing their lives and their family.

So there is not a unified opposition. I was in Istanbul several months ago and met with about 15 representatives of the Syrian opposition, and frankly I got 15 different points of view on various issues. I did ask them one question, Neal, that I think might be of interest to you, and I don't know what David's assessment is, but I asked a very embarrassing question to them.

They - it basically took them by surprise. They, if you will, figuratively stuttered. I said: How large is the Muslim Brotherhood representative in the Syrian opposition? After a while, they came with an estimate of approximately 15 to 20 percent. They made the point that Salafists, extreme Islamic radicals, were a tiny, tiny fraction of the opposition.

And I've tried to verify that figure. It's very difficult to come to any accurate figures on this, but that may be in the ballpark.

CONAN: Interesting, of course you have the Mohammed - the Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, who was in Tehran today and embarrassed the Syrians, also at the Non-Aligned conference and the Iranian hosts by supporting, full-throatedly, the rebels in Syria. But David Ignatius, this is a problem for, not just the Syrian opposition, it's a problem for those who would like to support them.

IGNATIUS: Well, I think Ed Djerejian raises the question that U.S. officials are most concerned about, which is how strong is al-Qaida and how strong are jihadist extremists in general in the Syrian opposition. That's one reason that our intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies are meeting with the rebels on the borders is to try to get a better sense, who are these people, and do they pose a threat.

I heard some very interesting information yesterday from a non-American intelligence official who gave me a series of anecdotes about instances in which al-Qaida operatives who are there in Syria - no question of it, there are some hundreds of them - had been stopped by other members of the opposition. In two cases, the al-Qaida leadership had been killed by other members of the opposition, who said you do not represent our movement and had taken them out.

So I found that somewhat encouraging, in the sense, that this is a rural opposition, increasingly - I'm curious if Ed hears this, too - from what I hear it's, in part, tribally based. The tribal sheiks are saying to their followers, join, take revenge against this regime that has killed members of our tribe.

So the tribal sheiks are strong, as they were in Iraq, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to be swept away by al-Qaida fighters.

CONAN: Ed Djerejian?

DJEREJIAN: No, I agree. I think David's narrating a - probably the reality on the ground, albeit we all have very imperfect information. But the impression I get from my contacts is that the al-ihwan al-muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the jihadists, they are not a dominant force in the Syrian opposition movement.

The problem, of course, that we all realize, is that if the bloodshed continues, and it veers toward all-out sectarian warfare and Sunnis and Alawites start going after another, that the situation can be exploited by Islamic radical extremists. That's always the problem.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Darrel's(ph) on the line with us from Denver.

DARREL: Good afternoon, gentlemen. As a veteran myself in several different tours - Gulf War, Somalia, deploying into Bosnia-Herzegovina peacekeeping, Somalia peacekeeping and as well as three other tours, most recently - I would like to inject a comment very sternly that if America would take the role of leadership, that would be the galvanizing force, the helm of leadership to bring these various groups together and give them the leadership that they need to - as a cohesive force - to push out the Assad regime.

And my second comment being Russia is in a very paranoid state of being in that they lost their sphere of influence over the last 20 years, ever since Yeltsin came into power. And this is nothing more than them making a very staunch and strong stand to thwart the freedoms of people that they desire. And they watch this deterioration, and they fear for themselves, as well as China. I'll take my comment off the air, gentlemen.

CONAN: All right. Two good points, Darrel. And I will put the first one to you, David Ignatius. What kind of leverage does the United States have with the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army other than should it suddenly open the floodgates and provide all sorts of weapons and aid?

IGNATIUS: Well, the - I think the U.S. is moving now to take a stronger role in support of the opposition, following the failure of the U.N. mediation effort led by Kofi Annan. So I think that this paramilitary support effort is going forward, and I think that's the path the U.S. has decided primarily to follow. I don't think it's likely that the U.S. will change its current policy of restricting that support to nonlethal assistance. Basically, that means command and control, radios, other communications devices.

There are lots of people who are prepared to finance the provision of weapons for the opposition, and I think the U.S. is going to be happy enough to facilitate that. But I don't think will be providing the lethal aid. I do think a period of greater U.S. involvement - and if you want to think what this would be like, I hate to say it, but think of supporting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to push the Soviets out. I think it's going to begin to resemble that - done from the borders, done from Jordan and Turkey, but done increasingly aggressively.

CONAN: And those arms coming - or money for those arms from Saudi Arabia and (unintelligible).

IGNATIUS: Saudi Arabia - exactly. The money's there in plentiful supply. What's not there is the organization, the command and control, the structure to give this some muscle tone.

CONAN: And another update from the United Nations, Ed Djerejian, United Nations says proposal for a civilian buffer zone in Syria raises serious questions, requires careful consideration. We don't expect bold action, and that is, as the caller suggested, because of Russia, and along with China.

DJEREJIAN: Right. And I certainly want to thank our caller for his service to our nation in all those extremely difficult hot spots. The - if we step back and analyze the Russian and the Chinese position, Russia obviously has some material interests historically and currently in Syria: the naval facility access in the Syrian port of Tartus, the very significant arms sales relationship between Russia and Syria.

And also, Putin certainly wants, whenever he gets the opportunity, to make the mark that Russia is still a major player in international affairs, especially in the Middle East. There's another consideration of the Russians. They are virtually petrified of the Islamist threat from the soft underbelly of the vast Russian Federation, really causing disruption and creeping into the Russian Federation itself. So they're - those, I think, are the major considerations of the Russians.

The Chinese, akin to the Russians, in a way, but the Chinese simply do not like to vote in the United Nations Security Council for authorizations and resolutions that set a precedent for the United Nations intervention in the internal affairs of third countries for the obvious reasons. They have a lot of problems within China, and they don't want external intervention in that. But I think those are the broader considerations of Russia and China.

CONAN: Ed Djerejian of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Mike's on the line, another caller from Denver.

MIKE: Yes, Neal. I just wanted to say that I think it's really tragic that we went from the Bush administration, who seemingly didn't care at all about the repercussions of invading countries, to now what I consider a hypersensitive, cautious approach by the Obama administration, to where we're so worried about what could happen if we do go in that we don't actually know and consider what happens if we don't.

And if we don't go in, what's happening is we're seeing thousands and thousands of people slaughtered. We're seeing now the destabilization of Lebanon, and we're seeing the wholesale destruction of the Syrian society. I think if we had gone in early and shown that we were not going to allow Assad to slaughter these people, I think you'd have had mass defections. We could have kept the Syrian state intact, and you could have avoided the sectarian bloodshed that's starting to happen now.

CONAN: Well, hindsight 20/20, what do we do now?

MIKE: Well, it's a much messier situation now, because in the beginning, it was confined to Hama and a certain couple small areas. Now it's across the country. But I think a no-fly zone would end this, I think, in two weeks. I think with a no-fly zone, then - because, you know, most people in most societies are on the sidelines, waiting to see who's going to win.

And right now it's very much up in the air. So they're afraid. If they see the West going in and bombing the Syrian - especially if we go after their security infrastructure, the top people that are enforcing all of these, you know, murders, if we go after them, bomb their headquarters...

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, but we're running out of time, and I wanted to...

MIKE: Sure.

CONAN: ...give Ed Djerejian a chance. This is not a simple process.

DJEREJIAN: No, it's not a simple process. And I think we are going - the U.S. government is going in the direction of seriously considering no-fly zones, buffer zones, perhaps humanitarian corridors and close coordination with our allies and with Turkey, and obviously coordinating with the Saudis and the Qataris and others.

And - but the point of the matter is that what the caller is rightfully putting his finger on is that the experiences that we have had in Iraq and in Afghanistan - I'll call it Afghanistan II, not our original invasion of Afghanistan to topple Taliban - is really weighing very heavily on American foreign policy decisions towards Syria. There is the great concern and fear of intended consequences as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan II.

CONAN: Ed Djerejian, thank you very much for your time. And our thanks as well to David Ignatius. Welcome home from France.

IGNATIUS: Thank you.

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