RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The fighting in Syria has been called a sort of mini world war. So many factions have a stake - the Syrian regime, assorted rebel groups, ISIS, Kurdish fighters, Turkey, Russia and the U.S. Some humanitarian aid has made it to starving civilians in besieged towns in recent days, but the carnage continues as diplomats wrangle over cease-fire terms to allow more supplies in. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that terms for a provisional cease-fire have been reached. But that's still no guarantee that the fighting is over. Our guest this morning is an informed observer who has argued for years that the U.S. and its allies should set up a no-fly zone in Syria. He is William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. And he calls Syria's humanitarian disaster shameful.
WILLIAM COHEN: It's a shocking lack of responsibility and sense of humanity on the part of the international community, including the United States, our European friends and others. So the proposal for a no-fly zone was to take a small section along the northern part of the Syrian border to say, here's an area that is safe for the fleeing refugees to take safe haven. I was in Munich a week ago, listening to Secretary Kerry at the security conference. And I must say, in talking to our military leaders, they were witnessing what they call the weaponization of refugees, namely that Russia was - and Assad - continuing to bomb civilian areas to drive them out of Syria and force them to head toward Europe, where they're Europe's problem. So it's difficult at this point. I think that Secretary Kerry is doing the best he can. It's probably the best option forward to say that we have to have a limited cease-fire to see if we can buy some space. But the truth is that President Putin has been bombing, and the United States has been dithering.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about Russia's involvement. When you talk about a no-fly zone - and just to clarify, you're talking about the northern border of Syria with Turkey?
MARTIN: Wouldn't we need Russian cooperation to make this happen?
COHEN: We do. We do. We would have to call upon the Russians to join us. And if they say no and reject it, then we have to see what kind of consequences we can hold for Russia. What is really complex about this and contradictory about this is that the European allies are hoping the United States will take a firmer role in dealing with Assad and Russia in Syria. At the same time, some of them are calling for weakening the sanctions against Russia because of what they've done in Ukraine by annexing Crimea. And this is one other thing I'd like to mention, Rachel, in terms of what the stakes are here. The EU has been the glue holding the Atlantic relationship together. And Russia...
MARTIN: When you say the Atlantic relationship, you mean NATO, the NATO alliance.
COHEN: Yes. And I think Russia has all the signs (ph) to weaken that or break it up if you can. This whole discussion of France leaving the EU, Britain leaving the EU and now you're seeing Russia at least playing countries off against one another. So I think the less we can really present a united front in dealing with Russia, I think we're going to continue to see the suffering take place in Syria and elsewhere.
MARTIN: When you think about the concurrent threats in Syria from a U.S. perspective, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, the U.S. has tended, in its policy, to prioritize the threat coming from ISIS.
MARTIN: Do you think one is more grave than the other?
COHEN: I do. I think ISIS and the capacity for ISIS to expand its membership and reach in such a short period of time through the use of technology and social media presents a greater challenge at this moment.
MARTIN: So when U.S. commanders say, we can't divert resources to fight Assad because that takes away from the ISIS threat, you understand that? You can see that that's a reality?
COHEN: I understand that, that dilemma that we face. My recommendation for a safe zone, it means we would ask Russia and others to join in that for humanitarian purposes. Right now, we've got to help millions of people who are in dire need.
MARTIN: You served in the Clinton administration during the NATO campaign to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. And you were on a panel during the first Obama administration that was set up to think about ways to prevent genocide and atrocities. So you come at this with a rather unique perspective. Do you think there were other steps besides a no-fly zone that could have prevented the kind of carnage we're seeing now in Syria? Should the U.S. have acted sooner? And what would that have looked like?
COHEN: Well, I think everyone understood at the time that President Obama and Secretary Clinton declared that Assad no longer should remain in office that the time had come for him to go. But then we sat on the sidelines and did very little. The second mistake was on the chemical weapons. Once the president declared the use of chemical weapons and then reversed himself within 24 hours, that sent a signal. Did we really mean what we said we were prepared to do or not? That has a consequence which is bigger than Syria because you can then point to, well, Russia in Ukraine. We're not going to get in a war in Ukraine, but we didn't provide any substance to speak of to the Ukrainians, who were fighting for their freedom. And then you look at the Asia-Pacific region. China is expanding its reach into the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands, upon which they're now putting missiles. We don't know exactly what our role should be in this new century. We haven't decided whether we're going to continue to play the role that we have in the past or we're going to either lead from behind or only act on our, quote, "narrow self-interests," it implies that we should. Those are legitimate debates to have. But as we are trying to sort our way through, other countries are looking at us and saying, what is the United States doing?
MARTIN: Secretary Cohen, thank you so much for your time.
COHEN: Pleasure to be with you.
MARTIN: Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
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