ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Earlier this week, Kelly McEvers described a conversation with rebel fighters who wanted to know why the United States doesn't give them better weapons, why isn't the U.S. as involved in their fight as it was in that of the Libyan rebels who overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.
Well, joining us now to talk about what the U.S. is and is not doing in Syria and why, is Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Good to see you again.
DAVID IGNATIUS: Good to be here.
SIEGEL: First, let me put the question that they asked Kelly, to you. Why isn't the U.S. more actively involved in the Syrian uprising?
IGNATIUS: There are several reasons. The first is that the U.S. until recently hasn't really known who the rebels were, how many of them have links with jihadist groups and, indeed, with al-Qaida. And the reason that's important is the U.S. doesn't want to be in a position of supplying weapons or other assistance to them, if these groups are going to end up turning those dangerous arms against the U.S. and its friends. So, first of all, there's been an effort to find out more about them.
Second, for months, the position of the Obama administration was we don't think it's wise to militarize this conflict. This is a great big army. This isn't the Libyan army of Moammar Gadhafi. This is one of the strongest air defense systems in the world, probably. This is an army with chemical weapons. So there was a reluctance to pump weapons into the other side, thinking that was a loser's game. I think people are realizing it's too late for that. This is a militarized conflict, so maybe that's going to be changing.
SIEGEL: At this point, there are reports that the Syrian regime is using warplanes against rebel-held positions in or near Aleppo and Damascus. That comes after the bombing last week by rebels that killed several high-ranking members of the regime. As you say, it seems increasingly likely that this is now a fully-militarized conflict and it will end with a military result.
IGNATIUS: This week's news that the Syrians were using tanks and helicopter gunships over Damascus, and then subsequently were actually bombing Aleppo - the second city of Syria in the north - from the air was incredible. It was taken by the White House as a sign that the Syrian regime is panicking, that using weapons like this mean that it will be impossible for Bashar al-Assad to govern in anything other than the role of military dictator in the future.
So I think the administration analysis is these are desperate last steps for a regime that knows its days are numbered.
SIEGEL: But there seems to be these two conflicting judgments by the administration about what's happening. On the one hand, there are claims that obviously the result is now clear. The regime is going to lose. It's panicking. It's taking these last gasp of measures. On the other hand, it's a very, very well armed regime. Implicit in that is that they can continue taking last-ditch measures for many more months.
What do they think? I mean, do they think we're weeks away from a change in Damascus or years away?
IGNATIUS: They talk about being on the cusp of a changed military situation, being near a tipping point. I have to say they've been using language like that for some weeks now. The defections that have come from the regime in the last couple of weeks have been significant ones. People who follow the reports carefully from the battlefield say that the Syrian army is really stretched now. It can no longer cover the whole country anymore.
SIEGEL: Do U.S. policy makers, do they hold out hope for some kind of coup within the regime; people in the military, say, who would throw out Bashar al-Assad and perhaps become some potential transitional authority?
IGNATIUS: The polite phrase that administration officials used for this is a managed political transition. By that they mean that elements of that opposition will meet with acceptable elements of the regime and plan some sort of new government. Now, you can call that a coup and that may be well what it looks like in practice. I would note one additional factor that the administration is thinking a lot about. It is entirely possible here that violence will increase after the fall of Assad, rather than ending.
This is a conflict in which there so many scores to settle. So, there's a lot of thought being given to the day after, not just in terms of rebuilding institutions but keeping that violence from spreading.
SIEGEL: David Ignatius of The Washington Post, thank you very much.
IGNATIUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.