Limited Options to De-Escalate Violence In Syria

Dec 5, 2011
Originally published on December 5, 2011 3:28 pm
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, as the number killed rose over 4,000, one U.N. official took the considered step of describing the situation in Syria as a civil war. While much of the opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad remains peaceful, defectors from the military have taken up arms, neighborhoods have formed ad-hoc militias, political and military opposition groups have established a presence across the border in Turkey.

Today, Syria responded positively to an Arab League peace plan, but whether it will actually implement that plan remains to be seen. France has raised the idea of humanitarian corridors to bring aid to embattled cities. Former ally Turkey suggested safety zones along the border. Opposition groups call for a no-fly zone, which as a practical matter would have to be led by the United States.

What are the options for U.S. policy in Syria? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Herman Cain bows out and plans an endorsement, and we'll talk with educator Freeman Hrabowski. But first U.S. options in Syria, and we begin with NPR foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks very much for joining us.

And Peter, we begin as news comes in that at least 60 bodies have been taken to hospitals in the central Syrian city of Homs. If people kept hoping that somehow this would go away, it's not going away.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Not at all, Neal. It's been a very bad month from what we can garner...

CONAN: And we're having a little difficulty hearing Peter Kenyon on the line from Istanbul. Peter, yeah, we're just having a little difficulty getting through some of the noise factor. Why don't we see if we can clear that up and get Peter back with us.

As he says, it's been a very bad month. You couldn't hear him say that; with headphones, I could. It's been a very bad month, as particularly in cities like Homs, there have been entire neighborhoods battled over, tanks in the cities. The Arab League peace plan that the Syrian government has reacted positively to today calls for the withdrawal of armed troops, armored troops from Syrian cities. It also calls for outside observers to come in and for free access for journalists like Peter Kenyon. Peter, are you back with us?

KENYON: Yeah, sorry about that technical problem.

CONAN: We apologize.

KENYON: It was a tough month, November, one of the worse months since this began in March, and what we've been hearing from activists who have been diligently providing videos and reports, which of course we cannot independently confirm, it's a matter of trying to get a hold of reports from these activist groups that have been consistently been reporting in the same way, and eventually you can cross-reference some of these things.

A few journalists are getting in. Our own Kelly McEvers got in with the Syrian Free Army just recently from the Lebanon border. Some of those trips are also taking place from the Turkey border and also from the Jordanian border.

But the idea of this agreement with the Arab League proposal, that has already now been rebuffed by Nabil el-Araby, the head of the Arab League. He has said they're just wasting time, these conditions are not acceptable. Although then, of course, in true Arab League fashion, he said, well, we're now considering what the conditions are.

The indications are, though, that these will be difficult conditions for the Arab League to accept, and what happens next in terms of lifting the sanctions, that seems rather unlikely.

CONAN: Well, what happens next will seem to have Turkey as a focal point, as we mentioned a former ally of the Bashar al-Assad government and now seemingly among the most determined opponents.

KENYON: No question about it. I mean, you were absolutely right. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister here, made a concerted and prolonged effort to rebuild relations with Syria that had grown very bad back in the '90s - this was over the Kurdish rebellion issue - but in any event, once the new AKP government here came in in 2002, there were years and years of rebuilding going on.

The prime minister and the president of Syria would take vacations together. They would visit each other. A personal relationship began to develop. The free trade agreement between the two countries signed in 2007 showed a booming growth, in relative terms compared to what it had been, between southeastern Turkey, the Gaziantep area and Aleppo in the north of Syria. And now all of that is just reversed immediately, at least for now.

The - I was just in Gaziantep, and the Syrian consulate there is closed. There's a sign on the door, closed for further notice. The taxis that you used to take into Aleppo, crossing this border without any paperwork to speak of, those are all gone. The businessmen say yes, it's all dried up, and they're really hoping that it can come back because it has been very beneficial for these Turkish businessmen.

But to keep it clearly in perspective, these trade ties are much more important to Syria than they are to Turkey, and combined with all of the other sanctions, Arab League, European, Canadian, American, this could really start to hurt them.

CONAN: And last week we saw the Syrian - excuse me, the Turkish foreign minister talking about the establishment of areas of protection for Syrians across the Syrian border in Syria, protected by Turkish armed force.

KENYON: Well, yeah, and we have to take that with a bit of caution. If you read very carefully what he said there, it was this may become necessary if we see hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, a huge flight of civilians. And the need to protect civilian life is the tag that this would be hung on if it were to happen.

Turkey has also made it very clear that they have no desire to be out front on this effort. They are on the border. They do have the Hatay Province, very mountainous border area, and a much longer border than that even, with Syria. And as a practical matter, that would be a place where this safe zone or humanitarian corridor, whatever you want to call it, could be implemented.

But there is really very little, if any, desire in the foreign policy circles in Ankara to be out front on this. They would much rather see the Arab League and the U.N. and preferably other folks as well involved before anything like that happens.

CONAN: And that may be problematic, although let's bring in Fred Wehrey. Fred Wehrey is a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation who specializes in Middle East policy and joins us from the Rand Corporation studios in Santa Monica, California. Nice to have you with us today.

FRED WEHREY: Good to be here, thanks.

CONAN: And it has to be remembered that unlike the situation involving Libya, there is no agreement at the Security Council to issue a Chapter Seven usage, use of force to protect civilian life. It's unlikely that there will be, but Russia and China oppose it.

WEHREY: That's right. I mean, for now, the main effort appears to be this Arab League proposal, and I think quite rightly the United States is putting its weight behind this effort, along with sanctions. I think it's important to remember that however flawed these options may be, they are the best ones given the potential consequences of further intervention.

CONAN: The potential consequences of further intervention, well, clearly many more people killed in Syria than had been killed in Libya when NATO forces intervened there.

WEHREY: Absolutely. The - you know, Syria is not Libya for a number of reasons. I mean, it's an ethnic and sectarian mosaic, and the consequences, I think, of increased militarization of the conflict, of greater civil war, would be disastrous for the surrounding region. Syria is connected to neighboring states. It's connected to Jordan and Lebanon. And I think a real risk is that even well-meaning humanitarian intervention could really compel the Assad regime to step up its efforts and make this even worse. It could potentially prompt intervention by its allies, Hezbollah or Iran.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. What are the U.S. options with Syria? 800-989-8255. Email Lou(ph) is on the line calling us from Orlando.

LOU: Hey, good afternoon. Great topic because I - Libya turned out to be a success in my book, with limited I guess U.S. action compared to, you know, Afghanistan and Iraq. But I just - I'm weary(ph) of another conflict, physical conflict. You know, economic aid and assistance to the Syrian people I'm not that upset about, but I just - I don't want to see U.S. drones flying overhead or Special Forces in the country.

I just - all that to me just is a major pucker factor. We're just winding down from two long, protracted wars. I just don't want to see another one.

CONAN: Fred Wehrey, I don't think anybody's talking at this point about U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Drones, aircraft? Maybe.

WEHREY: Well, even there, I mean, there's tremendous risks associated with that, and I think the caller rightly noted that from a domestic, you know, resource standpoint, we just don't have that capability. And, you know, the real issue is the effectiveness of those kinds of measures.

I mean, in many respects, safe zones are already being created by the Syrians themselves in a number of provinces, and I think it's important to remember the symbolic effects of any type of U.S. or multilateral intervention on the Assad regime, that it could really give him the ammunition he needs to increase his crackdown.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, let me turn to you. There have been some groups in Syria, opposition groups that say we need a no-fly zone as there was in Libya to protect us, a no-drive zone, too, to keep those Syrian armored groups from moving around and hitting us in our cities. Is there much appetite for that in Turkey?

KENYON: There is not; most especially there is not if a Turkish military involvement is going to be heavy or prominent. As Fred said, the risks and the perception that you are not just dealing with Syria, you're dealing with what is sometimes known as the resistance axis, which includes Iran, includes Hezbollah, just creates an entire new dynamic of risk that was not present in Libya.

In Libya, you had half the country essentially, in very rough calculations, suddenly breaking away, and you had safe areas almost immediately, within days. Here, these rebels in Syria, they don't have that. They do not have, at this point, an army that is willing to turn on its leader. It is still essentially loyal, especially at the higher officer corps level, and we are seeing anecdotal notes of defections.

We are seeing more violence, too, with some of these defecting soldiers start to turn against their colleagues, but that is a long, slow, incremental process, it seems at this point.

And I think the earlier point that Fred made is also very true, that with the U.S. now going into an election year, the kinds of comments we heard from the caller, which I believe are fairly widespread, are going to be getting a much greater megaphone to the extent that foreign policy comes up in the campaign, which I think in the general cycle it may well, once we get through the primaries.

So I don't think there will be a huge appetite in Washington for raising the profile of this issue if they don't have to.

CONAN: Lou, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Peter Kenyon, foreign correspondent for us based in Ankara in Turkey - excuse me, joining us from Istanbul, which is his base. Also with us, Fred Wehrey of the Rand Corporation. We're talking about U.S. options in Syria, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about U.S. policy options in Syria. More than 4,000 people there are dead. The U.N. said last week Syrian forces have killed, even tortured, hundreds of children, including one girl who was two years old.

International pressure continues to grow on the Syrian regime to stop the crackdown; many countries have called on President Assad to step down. What are the options for U.S. policy in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our next caller is Justin, Justin with us from Philadelphia.

JUSTIN: Hi, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Thank you, go ahead.

JUSTIN: I think if we should have learned anything from Iraq, not just the recent conflict but our whole history, the whole history of the U.S. intervention there, it's that sanctions don't work. They really just punish - they end up punishing the people for the indiscretions of the leadership.

I really - I feel like if we are to do anything with respect to the affairs of another country or a leadership with which we disagree, it should be very much like what we did in Libya, providing the capabilities that the U.S. has uniquely. It's much more targeted. It sort of gets things done. It's not this broad-based sort of shotgun approach that ends up missing more than it hits, which is what I feel sanctions are.

CONAN: Well, Fred Wehrey, sanctions, can they get the job done in Syria if the job is to remove the current regime?

WEHREY: Well, this is a really valid point, I mean, that you could be inflicting enormous costs on ordinary Syrians and that you could only really harden the regime's resolve, and they could dig in and last for quite a long time.

I just think it's the best option in light of the other ones. I think the goal here is: A, to change the regime's calculus, to get them to change their policy, to reduce the crackdown but also to induce defections among Assad's supporters, some of the wealthy merchant families in Damascus and Aleppo, some of those who may be sitting on the fence. If they're feeling the economic pain, they may shift over to the opposition. So that's probably part of the calculus. But I think the caller was right in identifying the risks.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, is there any indication that the sanctions are causing pain to the people, pain to those business people in Aleppo, for example?

KENYON: Well, yes, the pain to the business people in Aleppo, that is very definite in terms of the flow of goods and the movement of people back and forth that has just dried up, and that cannot be happening. I haven't been to Aleppo myself. I've spoken to people who've been there, and they've said it's dramatically down at the moment.

People are still holding their breath and hoping that it will come back, but it's definitely in a serious lull. I will say on the question of hurting the people versus hurting the regime, Turkey did consider very briefly, I'm told, electricity and water cuts as part of their package. They did not do that, specifically trying not to damage the populous any more than was necessary.

They have done asset freezes, travel bans and a halt on transactions with the Syrian central bank, which is a fairly significant sanction.

CONAN: I just wanted to follow up, Peter. You said they're holding their breaths, hoping it'll come back. In other words, things will somehow go back to normal as they were 10 months ago?

KENYON: Oh, absolutely. You talk to business men on both sides of that border, and they - in fact, I would go so far as to say that many of them still expect that's what's going to happen. Aleppo was shielded for a very long time, and even today, life there is very normal.

You see some protests at the university, but the regime has deliberately tried to protect Aleppo, which is a bit of an economic engine for Syria, which it does not have very many of these days. And there was a heavy security presence there. Every Thursday, before the routine Friday, after-Friday prayer protest, that security presence would be beefed-up dramatically, and frankly a lot of people were making money and were not rising up.

And whether that happens now, that may be an indication of whether, as these people think things will come back or whether it's on a downhill slide that's irreversible.

CONAN: Justin, thanks very much.

JUSTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Susan(ph), and Susan's with us from San Francisco.

SUSAN: Thank you for taking my call. I've been to Syria, and it's such a gorgeous place, including the beautiful city of Aleppo. And I'm very concerned about the isolation of the people. And I think that the Arab League sanctions didn't go far enough, and they need to impose commercial air flights because I think that sanctions can be imposed in a way that to not hurt the people who are rebelling, the poorer people, the people Hama and Homs and the outskirts of Damascus.

And something really needs to be done to put pressure on the upper classes, the Damascus Souk and Aleppo and the university professors and the upper classes, the Assad regime supporters. And I think it's not going to hurt the poorer people because they are isolated anyway by economics, but it will put pressure on dual-nationals, expatriates.

If they can't fly out, if they know that they're isolated, that will keep them off the fence, and maybe they can really, you know, get off the sidelines because there really is a reality distortion zone between the elite classes, the business classes, and the rest of Syria. So thank you for taking my comment.

CONAN: Oh, thank you very much for the call, Susan. And Fred Wehrey, as she suggests, there are a few more turns to the sanctions ratchet, if you will.

WEHREY: That's certainly an option. I mean, it was actually applied in Libya after the Lockerbie incident. I mean, the objective there is, as you said, to really ratchet up the pain on the wealthy supporters of the regime. You know, but there again, just curtailing their travel, their connections to the world, their lifestyle, is that really enough to influence the men with guns? And that's what we just, you know, don't know.

I think another important point about the Arab League sanctions that needs to be made is the symbolic effect of ostracizing Syria as a country from the Arab community, from the Arab world and the signal that that sends to some of Assad's supporters who see Syria as the beating heart of the Arab world.

I mean, I think this is going to send them a powerful message about whether they should continue to support this president.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Rashid(ph), Rashid with us from Monte in Indiana.

RASHID: Yeah, hi, thanks for taking this call. As a Libyan, you know, I know how much the no-fly zone did, and what the thing is about Libya is that you could divide it in two. And the problem is with Syria, geographically, it's not helping the Free Syrian Army, the defectors. And there's, I don't know, reports there may be over 20,000 that have defected from the army, but they can't conglomerate in a place.

So a thing the U.S. could do is maybe encourage Turkey, maybe, to provide a buffer or a safe zone for those rebel soldiers to come and work together and find a way out of this because they're all over the place, and they can't really (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well, Peter Kenyon, let me ask you about that. The Free Syrian Army has been organized in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border. How big is it? How well-organized is it? Are they staging cross-border raids? What's going on?

KENYON: Well, it's a bit opaque. The Free Syrian Army is made up, we are told, of defecting soldiers and sometimes entire groups of soldiers. Within Syria, they are somewhat scattered. It's not easy for them to communicate. The commander, Colonel Riyad al-Asad, is, as you say, in a camp in Hatay Province in southeastern Turkey. He's closely guarded.

Occasionally you can get a phone call through to him. I spoke to him once. Other reporters have talked to him, and then there was a meeting of Syrian National Council representatives with him just recently, where they agreed that the free army would be doing defensive maneuvers.

But what the activists tell us is that in order to really do that and have the freedom to move and do that and communicate, some kind of safe zone is needed. But that brings us right back to the same political cold-feet phenomenon that we're seeing.

Turkey does not want to go into Syria and take territory. There was a moment back in the spring where the two armies were lined up side-by-side, and it was a bit tense. Neither side really wants to get into that kind of a confrontation, and if there's any way to avoid doing that, Turkey will avoid it.

CONAN: And Fred Wehrey, there's another point that has to be kept in the back of everyone's mind: If Syria and Turkey somehow get involved militarily, Turkey's a member of NATO.

WEHREY: That's right. It could, you know, entangle NATO in this conflict, and I think also the Iran factor needs to be weighed here, as well, and just the larger issue of regionalization, you know, of the conflict if Turkey intervenes and the signal that that will send to Iran.

CONAN: Rashid, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get one more caller in on this, and it's going to be Bob(ph), Bob with us from Columbus.

BOB: Hey, thank you very much for your show. You know, my thought is while it's tempting to get into Syria, with the chaos that's already in the region to just foment more, it's only going to bring trouble. Using Libya as a model for success is, I think, is flawed, and we don't know where all those surface-to-air missiles are. And to think that introducing more chaos into the region is going to enhance stability is just folly, and I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: All right, thanks, Bob. And Bob, I should have said Columbus, Georgia. I apologize for assuming it was Ohio. Peter Kenyon, though, chaos, chaos seems to exist. You've got children being tortured and murdered. Another 60 people reportedly killed in Homs today. Chaos is already there.

KENYON: Well, very much there inside Syria. Even some of the people who have escaped to Lebanon or Turkey are very worried about secret service people they say. There have been reports of kidnappings, people being turned back to the Syrian side of the border. But, of course, the worst is in Syria itself. And I think this problem of touching off more chaos is something that seems to be resonating in Washington, which perhaps in previous regimes we didn't see that.

There were people focused much more on the goal, results-oriented thinking, and in this case, that would mean, well, if we can change the regime in Syria, they may not be so close to Iran anymore, which would be a huge - practically a sea change in Middle East foreign policy affairs. But the risks in that would entail, I think, are very heavily - need to be heavily weighed at this point.

CONAN: Risks to doing nothing as well. But, Peter Kenyon, thank you very much for your time today, too.

KENYON: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, foreign correspondent for NPR, joined us from Istanbul, and our thanks as well to Fred Wehrey, senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, who joined us from their studio in Santa Monica. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.