Cameron: We Have To 'Step Up Our Help' To Syrian Opposition

British Prime Minister David Cameron meets at the White House with President Obama on Monday. Steve Inskeep talks to Cameron about the options for dealing with the Syrian conflict.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is meeting with President Obama at this hour here in Washington. They're at the White House. A big topic on their agenda is what to do about the civil war in Syria. We spoke with Prime Minister Cameron earlier this morning.

Prime minister, welcome to the program.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Good morning. Great to be on. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you are. I'm glad you are. Now, you've just come from Russia, a big ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But you've said in public that your talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin were extremely positive. What makes you think that?

CAMERON: Well, two things, really. First of all, I think John Kerry made a real breakthrough in his talks with Vladimir Putin when they agreed to an American-Russian peace conference on Syria, recognizing that while we've had big differences about how to handle this issue, we all have an interest in a stable, peaceful Syria that looks after minority rights and brings stability to the neighborhood. And I think that was a breakthrough.

And I found in my talks with President Putin that he's keen now to move from the generalities of having a peace conference to talking through the specifics of how we can make this work. Now, there's still big hurdles to overcome, big differences between us, but I sense there is an understanding now that the current trajectory in Syria of 80,000 people dead, huge instability, growth of extremism, this is not in anybody's interests. And so we should do what we can to bring about a political transition by having these sorts of processes.

INSKEEP: Do you think, though, that Vladimir Putin is really going to be able to push the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, into peace talks, the purpose of which is, basically, to get him out of his job?

CAMERON: Well, that is the $60 million question. And the sense I have is that while we still have an open and public difference about Assad - I mean, I think he is completely illegitimate because of what he's done to his people. He has to go. President Putin takes a different view. While there is that difference, there is still this recognition that we need to have a talks process that could bring about a transitional government in Syria. And that is worth pursuing.

Now, look, at the same time - and I'll be discussing this with President Obama today - I believe that America, Britain, France, and other countries in the Gulf should continue with our support for the Syrian opposition. They are, you know, they are very important that we recognize their legitimacy and what they're doing to defend their people against a murderous onslaught from President Assad.

INSKEEP: OK.

CAMERON: So we need to step up our help for the opposition, at the same time.

INSKEEP: How have you figured out a way to deal with the central problem involving the opposition, though, that so many parts of it are linked with Islamist groups, and maybe the strongest Syrian group, Jabhat al-Nusra, has actually publicly linked itself with al-Qaida? Have you found a way to support the opposition without supporting that group?

CAMERON: Yes, we have. But I would, you know, if you stand back from this issue and ask yourself the question, you know, could we do more to support the legitimate opposition, and would that help to shape the opposition in a non-extremist way, I think the answer to that is yes. We could do more.

INSKEEP: Send weapons?

CAMERON: Well, we haven't reached that stage. We are giving technical assistance. We've amended the European arms embargo to enable us to do that. We're giving support and help and advice and technical assistance. I think all of that is helpful.

To those who think this is the wrong approach, I would argue that it's - you know, not engaging with the opposition will actually strengthen the extremists. We need to persuade allies in the Gulf not to support extremist organizations, or those with extremist views. And then we ourselves, with them - and this is increasingly happening - need to support the, as it were, official Syrian opposition who have made very clear statements that they want a democratic Syria. They want a Syria that respects minority rights. They want peace and stability in the region. Those are the proper voices of the Syrian opposition, and they're the ones we should back.

INSKEEP: Are Western agents on the ground - as some reports have suggested - actually trying to get members of the Syrian opposition to attack their fellow opposition members in Jabhat al-Nusra before they attack Bashar al-Assad?

CAMERON: We never comment on intelligence issues, but what we are doing, as I said, is working with the legitimate and official Syrian opposition, those that are part of the national coalition, and helping them in the best ways that we can.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you, also, Prime Minister Cameron, the Washington Post has reported in the last day or so on the state of the war in Syria, pointed out that Bashar al-Assad, his side has set militias. They're drawn from his religious sect, the Alawites. They're seen as more loyal than the army. And the Post concludes that right now, Assad is actually winning, is gaining ground, which would be a vital factor if it's true. You have your own analysts. Do you believe Assad is winning?

CAMERON: I think it's something of a stalemate at the moment. But actually, if you just think of the report you were quoting, if Assad is increasingly relying on Alawites, that shows how little he's able to rely on majority Sunni members of the population, many of whom are in the Syrian army.

Look, I think at the moment, what we see on the ground is appalling levels of bloodshed, something of a stalemate, and that it is not looking promising, the idea of ending this by the, as it were, revolt from below. I think we've got a better prospect, now it looks like a stalemate, of trying to accelerate the moves of political transition from above. Now, what that needs to - what that means is that you've got to have the Americans, the Russians, British, French, Gulf allies, others coming together and recognizing that we need a transitional government in Syria to give that country a fresh start.

INSKEEP: And regarding chemical weapons, prime minister, has the moment passed here in which the international community might have acted on the evidence that you and other governments have said that chemical weapons were used?

CAMERON: Well, we've been very careful in choosing our words to back up the intelligence assessments that we have. And I spoke last week about the growing level of information about chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, that the evidence is growing. The lack of room for doubt is shrinking. And I think this is extremely serious. And I'll be discussing this with President Obama today. But certainly, we haven't ruled out stepping up action in response to what seems to be happening on the ground. But learning the lessons from Iraq and previous conflicts, we must make sure that what we say and what we do is consistent with the intelligence that we receive.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, prime minister, the UK is also host to the G8 summit, the industrialized nations summit next month, mostly European nations, here, at the tail end, you hope, of the financial crisis. But I'm wondering if you sense, at this moment, that economic power is shifting away from Europe. And is there much you can do about it if it is?

CAMERON: Well, I think we're in a very intense global race, and the shape of the world economy is changing with the growth of great powers to the south and east of the world, the Indonesias, Malaysias, the Indias and Chinas. And, really, for America and for Europe and for countries like Britain, the challenge is: How do we respond? And I think one of the best ways to respond is not to turn in on ourselves, but actually to take down the remaining trade barriers we have between us, and an E.U.-U.S. trade deal could add tens of billions to our economies. And we'll be discussing that today with President Obama, and I hope launching a process at the G8 to get that moving.

We should see the growth of the world economy in the south and east of the world as an opportunity, not a threat.

INSKEEP: Prime Minister David Cameron, thank you very much.

CAMERON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: You hear him right on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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