U.S. Stands Firm On Decision Not To Arm Syrian Rebels

A decade ago, as the U.S. led an intervention to Iraq, France stood on the sidelines and members of Congress were so furious that they renamed French fries in the cafeteria as freedom fries. Ten years later, some lawmakers are urging the U.S. to follow the French lead in Syria. France, along with Britain, says it's time to arm the Syrian rebels and tip the military balance to force President Bashar al-Assad out of power. France has also taken a leading role in recent years in Libya, Mali and even on Iran.

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France and Britain want the European Union to lift an arms embargo on Syria. The reason? They want to help Syria's rebels topple Bashar al-Assad's regime. The U.S. says it won't stand in the way. But so far, the Obama administration has decided not to arm Syrian rebels and focus instead on diplomacy. Many analysts see this as a role reversal, as NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It was only a decade ago when France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq that angry members of Congress started calling French fries, freedom fries in protest. This week, though, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, California Republican Edward Royce, seemed to be encouraging the U.S. to take the French lead in Syria, arguing U.S. policy has been adrift.

REPRESENTATIVE EDWARD ROYCE: The British and French have come to realize the biggest winner in the arms embargo has been Assad. Everything should be considered, but the U.S. could have the greatest impact through training, intelligence and logistics.

KELEMEN: The French do want American support, and Secretary of State John Kerry has offered an endorsement, of sorts.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it's France or Britain or others. He believes that we need to change President Assad's calculation.

KELEMEN: Sending weapons is one way to do that, but U.S. officials worry that guns can fall into the hands of extremists in Syria. European diplomats argue that it will be easier to monitor this if the West sends in heavier weapons that can be tracked and train the rebels to better understand their agenda. When top U.S. and French officials spoke at a recent conference in Brussels, Jan Techau, who runs Carnegie Europe, came away thinking that on Syria, the Americans sound French and the French sound like Americans.

JAN TECHAU: What was so surprising about it was the complete role reversal that was so visible there on stage, you know, and they were sitting right next to each other, and it was so direct. You know, it was a very, very strong reminder that times have indeed changed.

KELEMEN: Techau points out that the French played a leading role in the push to topple Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and reacted quickly in Mali, sending thousands of troops this year to stop Islamist forces from moving toward the capital, Bamako.

TECHAU: Now, of course, it's not entirely surprising because the French, contrary to the image they have in the United States, have always been a much more interventionist and a much more kind of robust military power in the European context, but to see them develop this kind of pattern is a pretty interesting phenomenon to observe.

KELEMEN: He says he's not sure this signals a new era of Europeans taking care of their own security needs or whether this French assertiveness will last. There have been changes on this side of the Atlantic too, says former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, who now runs Arizona State University's McCain Institute for International Leadership.

KURT VOLKER: President Obama has said that, you know, we're ending a decade of war. We're going to do nation building at home, and he seems to be very, very reluctant about getting sucked into anything else even if the human cost is as high as it is in Syria.

KELEMEN: Volker says for France, these things are happening closer to home.

VOLKER: France has become to be seen now as, you know, one of the two capable militaries in Europe that is from time to time willing to use that military to advance global security objectives that the U.S. shares. Would anyone have said anything like that 10 years ago? No way.

KELEMEN: Even in negotiations over Iran's suspect nuclear program, France is now said to be pushing a tougher line on sanctions to make no concessions until Tehran negotiates seriously. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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