Obama Administration Sharpens Its Language Toward Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Bashar Assad's regime of using starvation as a weapon of war. Critics say the U.S. has not done enough to stop the violence, but Washington doesn't have many options.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Renewed fighting in Homs has disrupted efforts to evacuate civilians from the center of that besieged city in Syria. The fighting broke a cease-fire that was supposed to allow humanitarian aid into rebel-held parts of the city that have been cut off for more than a year. The U.N. attempted to deliver food and medicine today and bring people out but their cars came under fire twice, forcing them to retreat.

The U.S. believes hundreds of thousands of Syrians are trapped in other cities around the country. Peace talks which resume this coming week in Geneva have gone nowhere so far and U.S. officials say that Syrian's dragging its feet on a chemical weapons disarmament plan. So where does that leave U.S. policy? In a bit of a mess, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: While the policy looks muddled, the rhetoric from the administration has been focused and sharp. Secretary of State John Kerry says the Assad regime is showing the world its true colors by barrel-bombing Aleppo, starving whole communities and using torture. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Powers, effectively painting Bashar al-Assad as a war criminal.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWERS: President Assad's utter disregard, almost contempt, for the welfare of his country's people is glaringly obvious and the need for a political solution for the crisis could not be more urgent.

KELEMEN: There's a reason for this tough rhetoric, says Steven Heydemann, who runs the Syria program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: The administration came away from the first round of Geneva talks with a very keen awareness that if they expect the negotiations to move forward, they are going to have to have substantial leverage that they can use to draw the regime into negotiations in a more productive way.

KELEMEN: But Heydemann doesn't think this tough talk will really give the U.S. the leverage it needs with the Assad government. He says the U.S. isn't following up on its tough rhetoric.

HEYDEMANN: Because of the real intense reluctance to even open the door to any significant use of any kind of military means in Syria, including indirect support to the armed opposition, whatever form it might take, I think that ultimately that search for leverage is going to be futile. It's not working.

KELEMEN: Administration officials often point out that it was the threat of a military strike last year that forced Syria to agree on a plan to give up its chemical weapons. But Ken Anderson, who teachers law at American University, says the U.S. took the military option off the table to get that deal and that has implications now.

KEN ANDERSON: The U.S. tacitly accepted, I believe, as a political matter, that it was not going to back military intervention on any broader basis of violations of international humanitarian law or laws of war.

KELEMEN: So how can the U.S. and others enforce humanitarian law now? Former British Diplomat, Carne Ross, has some ideas. He runs a group called Independent Diplomat, which is advising the Syrian opposition.

CARNE ROSS: We should be looking at options short of war, short of bombing, like possibly blockading Syria's oil, the use of aggressive electronic warfare to disrupt the regime's military operations, giving more aid to the rebels, and at the same time, you know, not neglecting the appalling humanitarian situation and the situation of the refugees.

KELEMEN: Ross says there also has to be much more pressure on countries supporting Bashar al-Assad, including Iran and Russia, which has so far managed to block any meaningful action at the U.N.

ROSS: And what I don't see is an aggressive effort across the board to isolate Russia in its outrageous and egregious position of supporting a deeply repressive regime that is using horrific violence against its own people.

KELEMEN: Ross says the U.S. and Russia do have a common interest in ending the war. The longer it goes on, the more it fuels extremism in the region. But without Russia pressing the Assad regime to negotiate a transitional government, Ross doesn't expect the peace process to get anywhere. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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