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U.S. policy in Syria focuses on humanitarian crisis

June 7, 2014 at 4:42 PM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Presidential elections were held in Syria on Tuesday. Turnout in state-controlled areas of the country was high, and as expected President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected with nearly 90 percent of the vote. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the elections ‘non elections,’ ‘a great big zero’, noting that opposition contenders were not able to participate. And many people in many areas of the country held by rebels did not vote.

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford criticized the United States this week in an interview with the NewsHour’s Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent Margaret Warner:

MARGARET WARNER: What was the biggest mistake you think the Obama administration, this government, made?

ROBERT FORD: We’ve consistently been behind the curve, that events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting. And at the same time, Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing and steadily increasing, and increasing massively, especially the Iranians, their support to the Syrian regime.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on all this, we are joined via Skype by Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief for the Washington Post who covered the Syrian elections from there. So ‘behind the curve,’ the former ambassador made this charge, a fair criticism?

LIZ SLY: Yes, I think that’s a very fair criticism, I think we’ve seen since the beginning of this crisis in Syria, we’ve seen the Americans way behind the curve at every step of the proceedings. We saw them wait a very long time to pull for Assad to step down. Then they said they would help the rebels, but really very little help arrived. And meanwhile the extremists were getting a lot of arms, a lot of weapons, a lot of money, they got stronger than the moderate rebels at a time when the Americans were still really holding back on helping them. And now we see a situation with these elections where Assad really has asserted his control over the country and is really looking quite unassailable at the moment and still no real help has arrived for the rebels.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there are other countries with stakes in this. Iran considered this election a victory, a defeat over Western influence.

LIZ SLY: It’s really hard not to interpret it that way. Iran has certainly been trumpeting this election as a victory and one of their top military officials called it a strategic defeat for America. And it’s all very well for the Americans to call the elections meaningless as John Kerry has done. But really when you see how Assad has capitalized on the pictures that you’ve seen on the television of all the adoring crowds turning out to vote for him and celebrating his victory, the mere fact that he could hold an election across the breadth of the country in almost every town, did tell you that three years later he’s still there, he’s the power to be reckoned with, he’s the one who’s got the most control over the ground.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, let’s talk a little bit about the aid situation. In your reporting you said the U.S. total now could be up to $2 billion in humanitarian and other aid to Syria. What’s the US hoping to accomplish with this?

LIZ SLY: Well it’s been part of the US policy all along, they’ve been so reluctant to get in and help the rebels, but at the same time they know this is a huge and horrible humanitarian crisis. So they’ve been very careful to get out in front of that crisis on the humanitarian level. The Obama administration would really prefer to see this as a humanitarian and not a political issue. We’ve heard Obama talk about how this is a sectarian conflict that America shouldn’t take sides in, that really it’s a humanitarian issue. So yes they’ve been very much involved in pushing more money than any other single country into the humanitarian effort. Now most of that is channeled through the UN and we know that 90 percent of what the UN provides to Syria in aid does go to regime held areas. So basically they’re just propping up the UN effort, which is a good effort, but it’s not actually making a difference with anything. It is helping on the ground, but it’s not helping all that much and it’s not helping people that don’t live in regime held areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the ripple effect of the refugee crisis in the entire region. There are probably a million people in Lebanon no where you are.

LIZ SLY: Well yes, this is an enduring and intractable part of what’s going on in Syria right now. You can sort of see how Assad believes he’s going to settle this problem in Damascus by crushing the rebels wherever he can and asserting his political power in the center with Iranian help, with Russian help. But you’ve got these 2 million refugees, growing every day, a million of them in Lebanon and it’s very destabilizing and that problem has to be solved before you can say that the Syrian crisis has been solved.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright Liz Sly of the Washington Post joining us via Skype from Beirut. Thanks so much.

LIZ SLY: Thank you.