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To Arm, Or Not To Arm The Syrian Rebels?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We begin in Syria. The international community is stepping up its involvement there. Leaders of the G8 countries just wrapped up a meeting in Northern Ireland and they called for political talks to end the violence in Syria. Meanwhile, the White House has announced it will provide arms to rebel forces there. But a new poll from the Pew Research Center says most Americans don't agree with the president's decision to increase American involvement in the Syrian conflict. For more on the situation there and America's involvement, we turn to Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a former State Department program specialist. He joins us via Skype from Doha in Qatar. Welcome back to the program.

SHADI HAMID: Hi, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you the most basic question first, which is, who is winning the war there?

HAMID: Well, right now the Assad regime has the real advantage on the ground. They've gained a lot of momentum in recent months. They retook the strategically important town of Qusair and they also have more and more support from Hezbollah and Iran. So it's very clear here that the regime is not backing down. They're as confident as ever and they're hoping to push their advantage. And that puts the rebels, obviously, in a very precarious situation. And the rebels are probably at their weakest today compared to, really, any other time in the past year, I would say.

HEADLEE: Why is that?

HAMID: Well, I mean, if you talk to those in the Syrian opposition, you'll hear one thing over and over, that they've been waiting for more advanced weapons. They've been waiting, even, for ammunition. You actually have a situation where rebel commanders on the ground are complaining that they don't have enough bullets and that the international community has essentially ignored them or betrayed them altogether by not stepping up, by not providing more support. And the Syrian opposition, as well as the rebel forces, have been calling for the last year and a half for direct military intervention, whether in the form of a no-fly zone, surgical airstrikes against the Assad regime and its military assets. They've been asking for a lot of things and none of it has really come. And they're facing an army which has much more people and has much more advanced weapons, artillery aircraft, you name it. It's a very big gap in equipment.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about how America may or may not get involved. You wrote a piece for the Atlantic earlier this week that said President Obama's Syrian policy doesn't make sense because arming the rebels will probably not make a difference in the conflict. Why do you say that?

HAMID: Well, so the U.S. is only committed to giving small arms to the Syrian rebels. The Syrian rebels have been demanding not just small arms, but also the kind of advanced weaponry that will help them, you know, face the Syrian Army, whether it's antiaircraft weapons, whether it's MANPADS, but none of those advanced weapons are forthcoming. And in any case, the regime is in a better position now, so to actually regain the advantage, equipment is a start, but it's not enough. There has to be an answer to the question of, where do we go from here? So how do we get the rebels in a much stronger position to the point where they can gain more territory and where the Assad regime has actually a risk of losing or being pushed back, even in Damascus.

So for those things to happen, I'm just, you know, there's no sense that small arms are going to do it. The reason that the Obama Administration did this is because they need to be seen as doing something. But there was a real sense that the U.S. was not leading, that the U.S. wasn't providing any solutions, there was no progress on the ground. So the easiest thing that you can propose is providing arms, some arms to the rebels.

HEADLEE: What is the argument for the United States to become more involved? Shadi, if we look back through history, the periods of time in which the United States has trained rebels in civil conflicts, it hasn't generally gone well for us. That's true in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda may have risen from the ranks of the Mujahideen that the United States armed and trained. And look in Mexico. The very military personnel that we trained there, many of them became part of the Zetas Cartel, and is probably causing a problem for both us and the Mexican government. So why would we want to take the same risk again?

HAMID: Well, I mean, you can also look at other examples, such as Libya in 2011, which I consider to be a success for the simple reason that the rebels did defeat the Gaddafi regime. And we can also look at, you know, Bosnia and Kosovo, where no-fly zones and airstrikes actually defeated the regimes in question, and again, averted genocide and mass slaughter. So yes, there are risks in arming rebels and we don't know who, in the end, these arms will end up with.

These are all valid concerns and no one's arguing that intervention is perfect or easy, but we have to look at the available options and those against intervention have not proposed a viable course of action. And we've tried their way for the last two years, but we can see how disastrous the results have been over two years. We're talking about 93,000 Syrians killed. We're talking about millions of internally displaced and refugees. We're talking about the rise of radicals. So it's common sense, in my view, that if a certain policy has been failing for two years, we have to consider an alternative, even though it's not an ideal option. So we have to ask ourselves, when is enough enough?

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about America's new involvement in Syria with Shadi Hamid. He's the director at the Brookings Doha Center. It sounds, Shadi, like you're making the humanitarian argument solely. Is there a strategic reason why the United States would want to get involved in Syria?

HAMID: Well, that's a distinctive thing about the Syrian crisis, is that there's a very strong humanitarian rationale. There's also a strong strategic case to be made, that Iran is obviously an adversary of the U.S., and they have long used Syria as an entry point. And that's a key focal point of their influence in the region. The same goes with Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. terrorist list. So if we're talking about shifting the balance of power and weakening Iran and Hezbollah, these are things that will be accomplished by military intervention, as well.

I don't think that should be the emphasis. I see this primarily as a humanitarian issue. But if people want to talk about the strategic implications, that's important to keep in mind. There's also the issue that this is destabilizing the whole region, whether it's Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan. And so it's not as if this is self - it's contained within Syria's borders. It's spreading and it's having very serious effects. And then we can also talk about the rise of Al Qaeda, and the rise of radical groups among the rebels.

If we had intervened a year and a half ago, things would have been different, because the radicals weren't as strong then as they are today. But by not intervening and not trying to shorten the conflict, over time, those radicals have gained a lot of strength and that could really - that could result in a very dangerous situation for the U.S. Ten, 20 years from now when you have veterans from this Syrian jihad, who are now pointing their guns at the U.S. or U.S. allies in the region.

HEADLEE: We spoke with the lead spokesman for the rebels recently on this program, Khalid Saleh, and I want you to take a listen to something that he said.


KHALID SALEH: Think about the ordinary Syrian who's living in the liberated areas. He could not care less about Syrian opposition and what they think and the disagreements amongst them. What he wants is he wants water. He wants food. He wants services. And that's what we've been telling the world, help us provide services to the people.

HEADLEE: So that sounds like asking for humanitarian aid. I mean, obviously, he's also, in another part of the interview, he asked for arms and military aid, as well. But are the Syrian rebels and the people that they are trying to help, are they getting the humanitarian need that they need?

HAMID: There is humanitarian assistance, but when we're talking about, I mean, humanitarian disaster on this scale, when we're talking about millions of internally displaced, we're talking about nearly 100,000 killed, all the humanitarian assistance the Syrians can get will not be enough. And you have to address the root of the problem, that the rebels can't hold on to enough territory because the regime is always pushing back. And they can kind of stay on the outskirts of the city and bomb it into oblivion through artillery and aircraft.

So no one is going to be truly safe in Syria until this regime is pushed back or defeated. As long as the Syrian regime is alive, and as long as Assad is the president of Syria, there is going to be more and more killing. There is no way to get around that. So we can address the humanitarian side as much as we want and that's important, but if there isn't a real process through which the rebels are able to gain the military advantage against the Syrian regime, then, you know, the root of the problem isn't being addressed. And I should also note that I think one of the unfortunate aspects of this whole debate we've been having in the U.S. is that we talk about military intervention and diplomacy as two exclusive things.

But actually, the only way Assad is going to make concessions or negotiate in even somewhat good faith is if there's a credible threat of military force. So I would actually argue that the threat of military intervention could actually help diplomacy succeed and not the other way around. If Assad doesn't feel he can lose, he's not going to give ground to the opposition.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take that one step further, Shadi. Do we know for sure that the international community and the Obama administration want Assad gone?

HAMID: Well, the U.S., France, Britain, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia have all been very clear. They want Assad to go. Now we can have a debate about whether that's what the U.S. really wants. I don't want to, kind of, there are some conspiracy theories going around. It is true that the Obama administration has been worried about an outright rebel victory because they're very worried about the rise of extremists and the power vacuum that might result. So I think the U.S. position is hedging in some respect, that, yes, they don't want Assad, but they're not sure they want the alternative either.

But the real block in the international community is not the U.S. or France, it's the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese. So again, my question to those who oppose intervention is, your preferred policies have been tried. All of those efforts at a so-called political negotiation have failed miserably. So the question is, are we going to just keep on trying something that we all know, deep down, isn't going to work?

HEADLEE: Shadi Hamid is the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. He joined us via Skype from Doha. As always, thank you so much, Shadi.

HAMID: Thanks so much for having me.

HEADLEE: Just ahead, three black models shocked and outraged some New Yorkers by telling strangers they could touch their hair. And on the flip side, a teenager turned her Haitian great-grandmother's special hair pomade into big business when she was nine. Conversations about hairdos, coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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