Analysts Divided On U.S. Arming Syrian Rebels

This week President Obama said it was important to remain prudent in coming to conclusions about chemical weapon use within Syria, something he said could change the nature of U.S. involvement there. Melissa Block talks to analysts Andrew Tabler and Joshua Landis about U.S. involvement in arming rebels in Syria.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with the war in Syria and the possibility of U.S. involvement. Today, in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the opportunity of May Day to make a rare public appearance. He visited a power plant and said, we hope that by this time next year, we will have overcome the crisis in our country.

Meanwhile, President Obama says his administration is considering a spectrum of options if it can be verified that the Assad regime has, in fact, used chemical weapons. To talk about those options, I'm joined by two Syria analysts, Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Andrew, welcome back.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: And also Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Welcome back to you, Professor Landis.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Pleasure to be with you.

BLOCK: Well, one option on that spectrum that President Obama's talking about would be for the U.S. to go ahead and arm the Syrian rebels. Andrew Tabler, I know in the past you've been a strong advocate for arming the rebel forces. Are you still?

TABLER: It becomes harder to arm the rebels without mitigating in some of the downsides. If it had been - if it had occurred earlier, it would have been easier, but unfortunately, now we have more extremists who have moved into different areas that are controlled by the opposition. So you can't guarantee that every bullet would not make it into the hands of an extremist.

But overall, you could strengthen the mainline nationalist local and franchise battalions and it would help deal them back in. And the reason why I still think that's a good idea, you know, with groups that we vetted and we can work with is because I just don't think this conflict is going to end any time soon.

BLOCK: And Joshua Landis, Andrew Tabler there is advocating going ahead and arming with some hesitation or some reservations, it sounds like.

LANDIS: Well, I think the United States should stay out of this. This is a civil war, ethnic civil war, which America cannot adjudicate and we can't solve. The Syrians ultimately have to figure out who they are, if they can live together and what their national identity is going to be. And if America jumps into the middle of it, we're going to want to kill the extremists and we're going to want to destroy the Assad regime and we're going to be fighting a two-front war in Syria.

And we're not going to get the outcomes we want and we're going to spend a fortune doing it. And, you know, there's got to be one of these wars we just don't get involved in.

BLOCK: Do you see a better path, though, given the tens of thousands that have died in this war with no apparent end in sight?

LANDIS: I don't. I don't know whether America can stop the killing. And that's the real sad part of it. I mean, I don't know whether America can solve Syria's problems.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler?

TABLER: I think that we can help put a cap on Bashar al-Assad using the full lethality of his arsenal against the Syrian population. That's what's driven most of the death tolls here.

BLOCK: Joshua Landis, I'd be curious to hear your perspective, as somebody who married into what I gather is a prominent Syrian Alawite family. Alawites are the minority in Syria, party of President Assad and other elites. Help us understand the Alawite perspective on the rebel movement and the future of their country.

LANDIS: Well, as I said, this is a ethnic war and it's devolving increasingly towards minorities, who are 20 percent of Syria, led by the Alawites, 12 percent, who have monopolized the military and security forces. They have had their foot on the throats of the Sunni-Arab majority for the last 40 or 50 years. Sunni-Arab majority has finally had enough of this and they're trying to overthrow this regime.

If we get into Syria and get a Sunni win by arming up the rebels, then the question is, what happens to the defeated minority. Will they be ethnically cleansed? Will they - we don't know what could happen to them, but bad things will happen and that's the problem. I mean, you can just throw some arms at the opposition, which is what Obama is toying with now because I think the public pressure is getting great. But if you want a win and the kind of win that would set up a new Syrian state that would be secular, that would get rid of the extremists, that would guarantee rights for minorities, you're going to have to spend a lot of money. And you can't do it by just putting in, you know, an air no-fly zone or something like that.

You really have to get involved. There isn't a Syrian opposition army that we trust. We have one general, General Idris, who we've named the high command guy. And the question is, do we give him money. But he's a contractor. He doesn't have an army loyal to him. What he needs is American money and arms and he will offer those to various militias.

There are over a thousand militias in Syria, who then come, they get his arms and they go out and do most of the heavy fighting. But that's why we can't keep - it's very difficult to keep the arms from extremists because the extremists are, by far, the best organized, best fighters and they can deliver.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler, you've been shaking your head as you've listened to Professor Landis talk.

TABLER: Yeah, none of the options...

BLOCK: What part do you disagree with there?

TABLER: Well, I think comprehensively, I mean, none of the options, the things that Josh is spelling out, are on the president's desk right now. What's on the president's desk range from, you know, air strikes to deal with the chemical weapons, you know, the loaded bombs that we have thus far, you know, what would be the next steps after that. But, you know, anybody who's studied the Middle East will tell you that, you know, Iraq is not Syria and Syria isn't Egypt.

They're not all the same. And this situation is quite different. No one is - even the Syrian opposition does not want the United States to enter Iraq. Those who put those arguments forward are those who are, you know, very close to the minority-dominated regime in Syria and they would like to scare the American public into further, you know, delaying their response.

I don't think, at this point, given the fact that we've been so hesitant to get involved, it's very hard to make the case that this is working. If you look at the death tolls, it's not working. If you look at the number of displaced persons, it's not working. If you look at the amount of territory in Syria which is safe for civilians, it's not working.

I can't imagine advocating continuing the course is the solution for this. Something more assertive is in order and I think that's where we're going to be looking at, you know, chemical weapons and also backing the opposition. Now, can you get the perfect outcome? No, no. Here's a very big difference in terms of dollars and cents.

When we unilaterally essentially went into Iraq, that cost the American taxpayers a lot more, right, because we had to pay for all of that, both in blood and in treasure and so on. Now, we have many more allies with a lot more cash, actually, at their disposal than we do to help us carry this out. But what they're asking us to do, at the moment, is to help lead a coalition to help get rid of President Assad and to set up a post-Assad Syria that we can deal with.

It's going to take a long time and that process will help end this conflict eventually. So the American taxpayers are not going to have to foot the whole bill.

LANDIS: Could I have one rejoinder? Andrew just said that I'm a regime-supporter for making this argument and therefore trying to scare Americans away. I think that's an unfair accusation. I'm an American.

TABLER: You've got to be kidding, Josh. You have been one of the biggest supporters of Bashar al-Assad for a long time, and look, that's your position. And I think the argument you make...

LANDIS: That's completely untrue. And I'm an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.

TABLER: I think that you are...

LANDIS: What you are saying is that Syria's not like Iraq.

TABLER: I'm sorry I don't agree with you.

LANDIS: And Syria's exactly like Iraq. This is not about the regime. This is about America staying out of a quagmire, Andrew.

TABLER: Josh, I just think that your positions have come consistently on side of the regime.

LANDIS: Well, that's because I want Americans to stay out. I think the Syrians have to settle their own problems.

TABLER: I just don't think that policy's working.

BLOCK: And we're going to have to leave it there for now. Thanks to both of you. I look forward to continuing this conversation in the future. Andrew Tabler with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. He's author of the book "In The Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria." And Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks to you both.

TABLER: Thank you.

LANDIS: Thank you.

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