What Could Have Been Done Differently In Syria?

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks to Middle East analyst Marc Lynch about the continuing crisis in Syria, and whether the international community could have done anything to reduce the bloodshed.

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[SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It has been another bloody week in Syria, despite continuing efforts to try to find a political solution. Vice President Biden meets with the Syrian opposition leader in Munich today. This is the highest level meeting the U.S. has had with the opposition since the conflict began almost two years ago.

Many nations have struggled with the question of how to respond; whether to arm the rebels, shoot down government planes who are about to bomb civilians, send troops or try to cobble together some kind of political power sharing. Many ideas have been floated, none embraced. As the crisis deepens, some analysts have wondered, in hindsight, would intervention have worked? Marc Lynch is among them. He teaches political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. He's an editor of Foreign Policies Middle East channel and joins us in our studio. Thanks for being with us.

MARC LYNCH: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There's a real sense among people who follow this situation that innocent people have been massacred by the Syrian government in full sight of the world and the world has done nothing. Is that true?

LYNCH: Well, yes and no. If you go back a year and a half ago when things were beginning to get ugly, we had a pretty lengthy debate about what could be done, and the reality is that none of the limited options that were being discussed, such as a no-fly zone or a safe areas, could plausibly have led to an end of the violence. All they would have done was got the United States more and more deeply involved.

SIMON: Why are you convinced that intervention wouldn't have, if not worked, at least save lives?

LYNCH: I think that, again, you have to go back to the way things were at that time when there was actually the possibility of a political solution. People forget that the Syrian uprising began as a peaceful uprising, which was then immediately met with violent force.

And in Washington and in the United Nations and elsewhere, there was a very strong desire to avoid the militarization of the conflict, to find a negotiated solution, precisely because the fear that once you move towards a full-scale civil war and the kind of insurgency and repression that you now have, it becomes impossible to put Syria back together again.

SIMON: You've described Syria as the most vexing issue you've ever grappled with intellectually, and I sense from reading what you've written, even emotionally.

LYNCH: Well, yes, because wanting to help isn't enough. You have to actually be able to help. The moral imperative to act is clear, but it looking in rigorous, real, hard terms at what we could realistically do, the pragmatic argument is very much against action. And so I think that's been the tension all along for many people.

SIMON: Your column on Syria has stirred up a lot of response and you've been in the foreign policy debate back and forth, and you say a couple of arguments have reached you.

LYNCH: The two major areas where I've reconsidered are, number one, on this question of supporting the opposition on the inside even perhaps with arms, and that's simply because the arguments against arming the insurgency no longer apply the way they did before. There's no political tract to salvage, there's no possibility of avoiding a civil war at this point.

The second is the arguments about a no-fly zone. Back when the debate began a year ago, it just made very little sense because the Syrians weren't, for the most part, using air power. But again, that's shifted. There's much more rebel territorial control now, especially in the north of Syria, and the Syrians are using their air power in extraordinarily brutal and barbaric ways.

But I think we're much more willing to consider now the idea that doing something, some kind of action to ground the Syrian air force and stop them from using it against civilians. This is a much stronger argument for that now and I suspect that ideas are being discussed along those lines.

SIMON: In another direction, or perhaps not, you wrote a book on the Arab Spring called "The Arab Uprising," and just as we pass the second anniversary of the revolution in Egypt, there seems to be obviously another political crisis there, as the bloodshed in Syria continues. Where are we at this process two years in?

LYNCH: Well, Egypt has been one of the most poorly managed and turbulent transitions from authoritarian rule that we've ever seen and I think that what you're seeing right now is the unfolding of many poor decisions that were made over the course of that transition. And you could point the finger in all kinds of directions. The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the presidency and parliament until it was dissolved, has been extremely poor in reaching out to other political forces. It has alienated virtually everybody and it's been very poor at governance.

So you look at it and you say this is a failure. Fareed Zakaria, the other day, said Egypt is now an example of what not to do. But one thing is really interesting about Egypt, which is that despite the fact that everything has been a fiasco from day one, it's still held together. There's still some sense of possibility there and that they keep going to the brink, but then pulling back. And that does give me hope.

SIMON: Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and you can find his columns at foreignpolicy.com. Thanks very much for being with us.

LYNCH: Thanks, Scott.

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