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Next Step In Syria: Peaceful Or Armed Intervention?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The year-long struggle inside Syria appears to be at a Crossroads. There's a diplomatic track with a proposal sponsored by the United Nations and fronted by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a path that could lead to open warfare with unpredictable consequences.

Kofi Annan told the Security Council today that Syria needs more time to implement a ceasefire and withdraw military units besieging Syrian cities. The United States and other diplomats were skeptical. And yesterday in Turkey, Arab states pledged $100 million that could be used to buy weapons or pay opposition troops. The United States agreed to provide non-lethal equipment, including communications equipment and night-vision goggles.

Is there still time for diplomacy? Is there still time to talk? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Donna Britt joins us on The Opinion Page this week on the parallels between her brother's death and Trayvon Martin's.

But first the way ahead in Syria. Aaron David Miller we begin with and here at Studio 3A. He's a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His op-ed "Will Annan Save Assad?" ran in the New York Times March 29. Nice to have you back on the program.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And that closed meeting with the Security Council, and it looks like Kofi Annan said the Syrians, who agreed to this six-point plan last week, now need until April 10 to implement the first two parts of it, which were supposed to be immediate.

MILLER: I understand what the former secretary-general is trying to do, but the framework he's created is one for delay, evasion and obfuscation, and I think you see that played out here. All of the elements of this plan, if implemented according to the way the Assads would like to do it, will strengthen the regime, weaken the opposition and fundamentally take the international community, which does not want to intercede and has not found an effective way to do so, off of the collective hook.

So the reality is - and I have no great solutions. I spent a quarter of a century in government coming up with solutions, some of which were bad. I'm all for thinking things through before throwing American diplomacy, let alone military power, into the face of a situation which as of right now is - the cost for intervention would be prohibitive.

CONAN: If the Annan plan favors the Assad regime, why are they dragging their heels to implement it?

MILLER: I think there are legitimate issues with respect to the Syrians. I mean, let's take them at their word. Let's assume that they are prepared to withdraw heavy equipment and military forces from some of the cities. Let's assume they are prepared to release prisoners. The real problem with the Annan plan is not that. The real problem is that it's posited on the assumption that Assad will be part of the solution.

And it seem to me, having gone down the road that he has chosen, at the cost of so much pain and so much blood, sanctioning that sort of approach in an open-ended process that somehow leaves Assad in control of the transition I think is a wrong-headed move.

CONAN: Coming up on 10,000 dead, according to the United Nations count. Isn't it time to find a way to stop the killing somehow?

MILLER: I think there is. I mean, yes, it is time to find a way. The problem is short of a collective military intervention, which has international sanction, a military strategy and an international community that's prepared to see this through, it took eight months to get rid of Gadhafi. And the Syrians are far more formidable, sophisticated air defenses, weapons of mass destruction, an opposition which is badly fragmented, cannot be supplied from discrete areas.

Yeah, you want to get rid of Assad, fine. Get the Russians and the Chinese and the other permanent members of the Security Council to endorse military action, to stick with it, and we can do it.

CONAN: Then you can do it, but the Russians and the Chinese thus far say no.

MILLER: Right, and that's why I am protective right now, and I understand the tragedy and in some respects the moral depravity in some people's minds of having the United States stand by. But if anybody is suggesting a unilateral American response, where we in fact do it, I'm fundamentally opposed to that.

CONAN: Yet you have a situation where the United States, in conjunction with its Arab allies, is saying OK, we're going to provide non-lethal aid, communications equipment, night-vision goggles. The Arab allies, we know, are edging to or over the line of providing weapons and paying for opposition troops. At what point do you increment your way into a...?

MILLER: Well, the Arabs are always prepared to pay. The question is are they really prepared to play. I mean, we sell these Arab states sophisticated fighter aircraft. Let them do it. Let them take out the Fourth Division with the aircraft that we provide. Let them get involved. It's an Arab responsibility, too.

Arab are dying. Their fellow Syrian brothers and sisters and their children are dying. Let the Arabs assume some measure of responsibility.

CONAN: Joining us now is Steve Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace, where he specializes in Syrian politics. He joins us by phone from the Hague, and good of you to be with us today.

STEVE HEYDEMANN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And is there time to talk still?

HEYDEMANN: Well, I think we have to weigh whether we feel there's time to talk against some of the possible alternatives. And I think Aaron Miller's been quite astute in pointing out that what we seem to have on the table right now are two equally unappealing alternatives. One is the plan put forward by Kofi Annan, and I very much share Aaron's concerns that the core problems with the plan are not the implementation details but the underlying principles that imagine that this regime can participate in negotiating a way out of this crisis. I don't think it can.

The alternative, it seems, is aggressive intervention, military intervention. If we walk through that door, we could be setting in train a cascade of consequences that are very difficult to imagine at this moment in time, and that pose enormous risks - everything from the increased violence within Syria, increasing levels of conflict inside of Syria, to regional spillover to even the potential fragmentation of the country if divisions among some of its communities become consolidated as a result of conflict.

I'm not sure we want to walk through that door. We have a policy in place of incrementally increasing pressure on the regime, pushing it to the point where some of those who are now allied with the regime are going to decide that enough is enough and will enter a process of negotiation in which the Assads themselves are seen as a problem to be solved and not a part of the solution.

I think it is enormously painful to watch what Syria is going through, but I don't think we should underestimate the impact of the measures that have been put in place already and the likelihood that their impact will increase as they continue to ratchet up pressure on the regime.

So yes, I think there is time for this policy to create the conditions in which negotiations can emerge around a transition to a post-Assad political order in Syria. I think it would be way premature to turn now to military intervention.

CONAN: Negotiations with who?

HEYDEMANN: We have identified a large number of potential counterparts in those negotiations. For one thing, we know that the business community in Syria, which has long been a pillar of support for the regime, is reconsidering its relationship to the Assads and is beginning to show signs of support for the opposition in much more significant ways than it has in the past.

We also have to imagine that, even though the military and some of the key security agencies within the regime have shown coherence up 'til now, as weapons begin to flow into Syria as a result of decisions taken in Istanbul recently, as the opposition continues to demonstrate its resilience and as the regime shows that it has failed to put down this uprising, the political dynamics within that ruling coalition are going to shift.

We can't say when; it could take some time. But that I think continues to be a formula that it's worth pursuing when we look at the consequences of the alternatives - one of which is to leave the Assad regime in place; the other of which is to open the door to an armed intervention, the consequences of which are just very, very dangerous - potentially very dangerous.

CONAN: Let me just clarify: Are you saying a negotiated agreement, which leaves the Assad government in power is preferable to...?

HEYDEMANN: No, no, no, I identified that as one of the two unattractive, unacceptable strategies that we seem to be toying with at the moment, rather than focusing our efforts on the middle ground, which has tended to define American policy up to this point and the policy of the international community, as well as the friends of Syria.

And I continue to believe that as that policy makes its impact felt on Syria, and we can see it every day in the decline, the deterioration of the Syrian economy, it will begin to have the kind of effects that we're anticipating for it.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guests: Aaron David Mille and Steve Heydemann. Is there still time to talk regarding Syria? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Tom(ph), and Tom's on the line with us from Des Moines.

TOM: Yes, I think in response to your direct question, there is no time to talk because Assad has shown that he can't be talked with. He's been thumbing his nose at the rest of the world any time that we negotiate anything, and his course is set. I think it's time for the rest of the world to set their course.

And the only thing that I can see that we need to do, and this is as someone who opposed Iraq from the very beginning, now is the time for any coalition of the willing to come forward and dedicate themselves to removing this man from power because the primary goal here, and it should be the sole focus, is to stop the killing.

The only way to do that is to stop the killer. Now, if we, you know, listen to the let-others-do-it argument, if we listen to the well-there-might-be-some-tragic-consequences-to-our-getting-involved, then nothing will ever get done. But I think Assad is not as strong as the rest of the world.

The non-interventionists will say that he is. I think if a true coalition of the willing were to come forward, they could immediately neutralize his air force. They could neutralize his ability to strike against his people. We always said, over and over again, never again. We said this about the Holocaust. We said this about Rwanda and Bosnia, and now it's happening again. It has to be stopped. This has to be the primary goal involved, is to stop the killing now.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the phone call, and we'll get some responses to your question when we come back from a short break. Aaron David Miller and Steve Heydemann are with us. We're talking about the international standoff with Syria. When we return, Anne-Marie Slaughter will also join us with a call for intervention, much echoing, I think, what Tom has to say. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Earlier today, international envoy Kofi Annan informed the U.N. Security Council that, according to a letter from its foreign minister, Syria has committed to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas of the country with a deadline of April 10.

The Associated Press reported skepticism from U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who asked to see deeds, not words. Tell us what you think: Is there still time for diplomacy with Syria, or has the time come for military intervention? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Steve Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace; and joining us now, Anne-Marie Slaughter at a studio at Princeton University, where she's professor of politics and international affairs, and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.


CONAN: I don't know if you had a chance to hear Tom's phone call at the end of the last segment but pleading we keep talking about never again, yet we sit and watch it happen again.

SLAUGHTER: I did, and he is right that our overall focus for both moral and strategic reasons has to be to stop the killing. I think we are gradually moving in the direction of intervention for a number of reasons. First, I agree with Aaron and Steve that the current Annan plan favors the regime. I would love to see the outcome that Steve sketches, where in fact the supporters of Assad would decide he's a problem and negotiate his departure with us.

I don't think that's going to happen unless there's a credible threat of force, and right now, in fact, Assad is announcing he's won, that he's cleaned up the rebels from top towns, and he's won.

Second thing is Aaron and actually agree the United States should not use force unless those countries in the region, particularly Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, are willing to authorize and take the lead in offering some kind of stronger defense against Assad.

And the final point is what's going on here with the Annan initiative is as much aimed at Russia and China as it is at Damascus. This is about trying every last diplomatic track so that when it doesn't work, and I don't think it will, Russia and China will not be able to defend the regime and will have to abstain with a Security Council resolution, and the Security Council resolution is at that point likely to support the creation of some kinds of safe zones and to actually protect the people who are being slaughtered.

CONAN: You talked about asking the Arab states, Jordan and Turkey, to take the lead in intervention with Libya, a much less tough customer. The United States, in working with the Brits and the French, much more effective and sophisticated military forces, the United States had to lead the way and clear out the anti-aircraft defense systems. Certainly it would have to do the same with Syria.

SLAUGHTER: I think you're right that initial moves might well have to involve NATO air power, including U.S. air power, but it really would depend on what the strategy was. The strategy in Libya quickly became essentially stopping Gadhafi's army and then essentially that required getting him out of office.

I think as the Turks have said repeatedly, there is a possibility of establishing a buffer zone on the Turkish border that would be much easier to defend than what we had to do in Libya. Similarly, you could do that in the south, on the Iraqi border, near the Jordanian border, where there are a number of tribes who are in fact very friendly to the opposition.

So I don't think we're looking at the same kind of intervention that we saw in Libya, and the countries in the region have continually talked about doing this, but they don't want to move without the Security Council. The Security Council can't move without China and Russia, and we won't move without the people in the region. So somewhere this logjam has to break.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Rita(ph), Rita with us from Newbury in Ohio.

RITA: Hi, I want to play devil's advocate. We always have to look at both sides of an issue, I think, and I'm old.


RITA: I really believe that Assad, initially, when this revolution started, made offers of negotiating, and they were refused because I believe the people in rebellion are not organized. They had no one to talk - to speak for them. And, you know, it gets to a point where I think if we had the best interest of Syria at heart, we would try to organize the opposition, not the people who are outside now, who have lived away from the country for so many years, taking over and being spokesmen.

I think the spokesmen should come from within the country, and I think if we had our heart in the right place, we'd try to get somebody to sit down at the table.

CONAN: Steve Heydemann, how do we do that?

HEYDEMANN: Well, I'd like to comment, if I may, on the earlier part of the caller's comment, in which she indicated that the opposition didn't accept the regime's offers to negotiate because it was disorganized. I think the opposition rightfully viewed those initial offers of reform as lacking credibility.

And we have seen, as the uprising has unfolded and as the Syrian government has gone ahead and implemented some of what it calls reforms, that indeed the skepticism of the opposition was warranted. I think the question of how we move this regime toward negotiation comes back quite squarely to something that Anne-Marie said earlier, which is increasing the cost of loyalty to the regime on one hand among its core supporters and creating a level of threat and the possibility of defeat such that the Assad insiders themselves would begin to feel it necessary to begin to make an exit plan, to begin thinking about their own exit from a situation that they had accepted was no longer tenable.

We're nowhere close to that. I tend to agree that force is one of the elements that will move us in that direction. But I tend to think that the kind of force that's likely to be more effective in doing that is internationally-backed support for those inside of Syria who are on the front lines of this struggle against the Assad regime.

And I think that aspect, which is now gaining much more momentum through the Friends of Syria process in Istanbul over the last few days, together with the other elements of diplomacy, sanctions, international pressure, isolation against Syria, can combine to produce that - those conditions, those circumstances.

I do worry a little bit about the scenario that Anne-Marie mentioned, in which the failure of the Annan plan will persuade the Russians and the Chinese to get onboard with this kind of a trend, with this kind of diplomatic effort. My own sense is that we have to anticipate that they will not change their position and that we'll have to find ways to act without them, which tends to leave the U.N. something of a bystander as this continues to unfold.

CONAN: Rita, thanks very much for the call. Aaron David Miller, let me put to you: You've got a situation where the Syrian National Council says well, a ceasefire might not be such a bad thing. We need to rest. We need to recuperate. We need to rearm. You argue that the Syrian government thinks a ceasefire wouldn't be a bad thing because their troops need to rest and rearm.

In the meantime, you have some opposition leaders inside Syria saying those outside Syria, the Syrian - they're sellouts. We need weapons now.

MILLER: This is precisely why what we're watching is a variation of the coyote-road runner cartoon. It's - I don't mean to trivialize, but you have, in the Assad regime, a group of people who are prepared to do just about anything to stay in power. They borrowed a line from Sam Adams, our Sam Adams in the 18th century: We have to hang together, or otherwise we're going to hang separately.

I'm not sure that - the scenario Steve lays out I think will require a lot of time. And frankly, since diplomacy in my judgment will not work, unilateral American military intervention in my judgment would be a disaster, and there is no coalition of the willing capable of creating the kind of international coalition with political guarantees and an effective military response, we are left in - by default, in my view, and I think the Obama administration is quite prepared to accept this - with Steve's approach, which is incremental, long-term because otherwise, it seems to me, we're going to watch this movie play out for quite a long time to come.

CONAN: Long-term, Anne-Marie Slaughter?

SLAUGHTER: Well, I think that's what I said: We are incrementally moving toward actually intervening with some kind of force. And you can watch it. I agree completely with Aaron that I do not think these guys are going to get out. I think as long as there's any chance that they might, we have to keep pushing. But I agree with him that they have decided that they're going to do whatever it takes. They think they're winning. They're going to keep thinking they're winning unless they actually think there's a danger that they might be forcibly toppled, or at least some people do.

So I think what you're seeing is that at each stage we move a little closer toward actually using force. This time, we said we would give them night-vision goggles and radio communications. And we're willing to let others arm them. When that doesn't work, it will take the next step, and people will start saying we have to create some safe zones. And beyond that, at some point people will say we have to stop Assad's tanks and mortars killing people within those zones. And that's where you're going to end up.

CONAN: Let's go next to Larry. Larry with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY: Yes. Mr. Heydemann alluded to - thanks for taking my call, by the way, Neal. Mr. Heydemann alluded to earlier this - the notion of incremental sanctions. Why don't we just put all sanctions in place right from the get-go? We did this with North Korea, Iran, in the past Iraq. Why do we incrementally do it? Why don't we just pull out all the stops?

CONAN: The sanctions against North Korea, Iraq and other places were incremental, too. But, Steve Heydemann:

HEYDEMANN: No. I think you're right, Neal. And every one of those cases, we applied sanctions incrementally. I think one of the reasons we do that is to try to calibrate a policy that will minimize the impact of sanctions on civilian populations and target the impact of sanctions on those actually responsible for violence. As we've come to appreciate more fully the resilience of the Assad regime and the determination that, I think, all of us on the line this afternoon recognize this regime has to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

There has actually been quiet an extraordinary level of consensus among leading European powers, the U.S., Turkey and the members of the Arab League about the need for increasing sanctions. And if you were to look today at the scope of the sanctions in effect against Syria, I think it's actually becoming increasingly difficult to find new ones to apply. We have targeted growing lists of individuals, firms, economic activities, the oil sector. There's a huge range of activities that now fall under sanction.

CONAN: Could there be a blockade, as Venezuela and Russia continue to send supplies to Syria?

HEYDEMANN: I think a blockade of shipping in the absence of U.N. Security Council action could be taken as a violation of international law. And it's one of those...

CONAN: It is by definition an act of war.


SLAUGHTER: To use that force.

HEYDEMANN: And it's one of those awful unfortunate consequences that Russia and China have produced as a result of their continuing support for Syria in the Security Council. There are some additional measures that could be taken. One that is under discussion is prevention of commercial air traffic from leaving Syria. That would impose particular pain on those who are able to move in and out of the country, which include people who can - who in many instances are still betting on the regime, but they're hedging their bets by taking their families out of the country.

I know that there are carriers that traveled into the Gulf, for instance, that are booked for three months in advanced because of the interest of Syrians in finding exit strategies for themselves. If we shut that door, perhaps it might make a difference. But I have to say that the scale of sanctions in effect right now is quite extraordinary, and it is having an effect. We should not look overlook that. The Syrian currency has plummeted against the dollar. There is an enormous impact on the Syrian economy from what we've done thus far.

And it raises real questions about the sustainability of the regime and of its ability to continue this military campaign, which costs somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion dollars a month.

CONAN: Larry, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about the way ahead in Syria. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard Steve Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace. Also with us, Aaron David Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who's a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. And let's see if we can go next to - this is Fred. Fred with us from San Francisco.

FRED: Thank you, Neal. I have a couple of suggestions. I wish we had used one drone strike on one or two tanks in Homs early on, the tanks surrounding the city before, you know, the military entered the city. I wish we done that to send a message to the Assad regime that this has got to stop. The second thing is, if the Russians are in love with the Assad family so much, offer to put them up in a nice dacha on the Black Sea and have them removed from the country that way.

CONAN: A drone strike, of course, same problem as a blockade, it is an act of war. And drones - unless you take down the air defense system, not necessarily effective. Aaron David Miller?

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think that's the problem with - and Anne-Marie is right. We are drifting ever closer to a set of incremental steps which will become a kind of combined military option. At someone point, however, there will - the proverbial tipping point will come. And someone is going to be asked to stand up, because these incremental steps, even if Steve is right, may not be enough. And in the end, it may well require a collective military response led by the United States or at least NATO to remove this regime.

The problem and it's - as emotionally satisfying as it is, to send a couple of cruise missiles into the 4th Division headquarters, the problem with the caller's suggestion is that it will not bring down the regime. And the defiance of standing up to the United States will itself be a...

CONAN: Rallying cry.

MILLER: Exactly. And that's why it's, to some degree, a slippery slope. We either map out a strategy to do this with the international community in tow and a mandate to do it, or we're very hesitant about proceeding incrementally.

CONAN: And we're out of time, and there's so much more to talk about. And I guess we're going to have time to talk about it because it doesn't look like anything is going to happen soon. Steve Heydemann, thank you very much for your time today.

HEYDEMANN: Thank you.

CONAN: Steve Heydemann of the Middle East - senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace with us by phone from The Hague, in the Netherlands. Anne-Marie Slaughter, thanks very much.

SLAUGHTER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. And Aaron David Miller joined us here in Studio 3A. He's a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Nice to see you again.

MILLER: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll go to the Opinion Page. Donna Britt says Trayvon Martin's death reminds her of her brother's decades ago, which colors her understanding of what happened in Florida. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.