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What Can ‘Friends of Syria’ Do to Help Halt Killings?

February 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As officials from more than 60 nations on Friday called on Syria's government to stop killings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that if the regime refused the delivery of humanitarian supplies, "it will have even more blood on its hands." Jeffrey Brown and guests discuss what can be done to halt further bloodshed.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And in Washington this afternoon, President Obama said the U.S. and its allies would — quote — “look for every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents.”

So what should be done?

We ask Anne-Marie Slaughter. She served as director of policy planning in the Obama administration State Department until last year, and is now a professor at Princeton University. Richard Haass held the same position in the George W. Bush administration. He is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And Tom Malinowski is the Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, I will start with you.

You think much more needs to be done. Why, and what is the essence of your plan?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, Princeton University: I think much more needs to be done, actually, to protect the Syrian opposition, which started, of course, as peaceful protests for months and months.

I recommend letting Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar enable the Free Syrian Army within Syria to establish civilian protection zones as close to the borders as possible, so that there can be humanitarian corridors. That means supplying the Free Syrian Army with intelligence, communication systems and enough weapons at least to be able to clear the zones.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Haass, you have argued — you argued for more restraint. And, today, you heard the Saudis calling for more, even Hamas publicly turning against Assad. What do you think should be done?

RICHARD HAASS, Council on Foreign Relations: I would put the emphasis on the Syrian political opposition, on the so-called Syrian National Council.

They have got to get out there and they have got to make it clear that they represent an alternative to this government, one that gives Alawites, the minorities who are running the country, a real safe place in the future of Syria, essentially so that the people defending the regime do not think they have to fight to the finish, that they understand they have a place in the future of Syria, to put it bluntly, that there is not going to be ethnic cleansing, that they are not going it face the fate in Syria that the Sunnis who were around Saddam Hussein ultimately faced in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: But stop short of arming or giving more aid specifically to the opposition?

RICHARD HAASS: Look, as bad as this situation is, it could get a lot worse — 6,000 people have died over roughly the last 11 months. Things could escalate dramatically.

Syria is a country with a real air force, over 500 combat aircraft, with a real army, over 300,000 active-duty, another 100,000 paramilitary, 300,000 more reservists. This is a country that could really go to war.

And if we’re going to create zones — I understand the humanitarian thinking, but very quickly these zones could be challenged. And then I believe we’re going to be on the hook, we, the outside world, to do something to protect them. Arming the opposition is a slow process. And it’s also not a process that will give you a lot of control over what is done with those arms.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Malinowski, you told us earlier today your organization is still weighing pros and cons. No easy solutions here at all.

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: Incredibly painful, painful options.

First, let’s start with what is happening in Homs. This is — for those of your viewers who remember the carnage In Sarajevo in Bosnia in the 1990s this is worse. This is worse than Grozny, the city in Russia that was leveled by Russian forces in 1988 — 1998 and 2000.

This is going to continue regardless of whether a safe zone is created on the Turkish border. So I agree with Richard that half-hearted solutions are not going to provide any relief to the people in the cities who are trying to defend their homes and who are being slaughtered as we speak.

At the same time, the kind of military intervention that might provide short-term relief to them, a serious military intervention, would be fraught with uncertainties and with difficulty. One might, for example, be able to take out the artillery around Homs. But then one would be faced with a protracted conflict.

This would not go as easily as the Libyan war did. And I don’t think that any Western country is really prepared to do that, especially absent a mandate from the U.N. Security Council.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so Anne-Marie Slaughter, what kind of specific action do you think is possible?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: Well, let me just say a couple of things.

First, these are bad choices. It is a question between bad choices and worse choices. And we all agree that the worse choices are simply arming the opposition and providing the wherewithal for a long and bloody civil war.

So then the question is, given how hard this is, can you do anything to actually protect the Syrian people? And, remember, the Free Syrian Army started for the purposes not of overturning Assad’s government, but simply of protecting peaceful protesters.

Richard assumes that those 300 men — 300,000 men in Assad’s army want to fight for him. I think the evidence is quite different. Most of these are Sunni conscripts. Most of them — many of them are defecting already. I think if you can create zones close to borders that people can get to and get out of, you may well find that many soldiers are not actually willing to attack them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Haass, go ahead.

RICHARD HAASS: Well, again, the best thing you can do is to convince those divisions which are controlled by the Alawite minority, both the leadership and the forces in them, you want to make them think twice about defending the regime and essentially fighting to the deaths of many Syrians.

The only way I can think of doing that is to have a political opposition that again makes clear that there is a place in Syria for the Alawites even once the Assad government goes. Putting up economic — turning up economic pressure will help. Some of the neighbors, including Jordan and others, are not doing all they can and should.

And I also don’t think one should give up on the Russians. Putin is playing a very dangerous game here. He is putting all of his eggs in Assad’s basket. If and when that basket goes — and I think it is a question of when — the Russians’ position in Syria will deteriorate dramatically.

So I think there is an argument to be made to the Russians that in the long run, what they are doing is actually hurting their interests in Syria. Maybe that would have some effect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom Malinowski, those were strong words from Hillary Clinton about Russia and China. Despicable was the word she used.

What do you see happening in the administration right now, the kind of argument or discussion we’re having here?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, I’m happy to see that kind of honest talk, because it’s absolutely true. This is not a time for diplomatic niceties.

I don’t think that the Russians are going to move in time to save the people of Homs. If anything, I think they are probably advising Assad to finish off his enemies, so that this isn’t a problem for them anymore. So I think sort of hoping that Russia is going to wisen up and recognize that it’s on the losing side, I think that time has passed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Anne-Marie Slaughter, to put it in terms of the U.S. specifically, in your scenario, what role does the U.S. play? Does it lead this effort or just — or gather other nations? What does it do?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: No, it doesn’t lead this effort.

This effort has to be led by the Arab League and by Turkey. And in that regard, it’s very important that Saudi Arabia made clear that it wants to go considerably further than the Friends of Syria went today. But they have to take the lead. The regional organization, the countries that are most affected by what is happening in Syria have to actually decide among themselves what they’re willing to do.

The United States, NATO, all those other countries can then support them in any way necessary. And for the U.S., that probably means providing particular communications equipment, intelligence. For other countries, that probably means special forces on the ground.

I just want to say that there is one place I very much agree with Richard, which is that the only way to get a political solution is to demonstrate that in a post-Assad Syria there is room for the minorities. And in the zones that I’m talking about, no one would be killed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there, Richard Haass — we have heard this analogy to Libya. Is there a lesson there, where countries did come in and use intervention and some force and get rid of the leader at that point?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, I think there are lessons, but they are probably not the lessons you are going to want to hear.

Syria, unlike Libya, has real national military strength. The population density is maybe 25 or 30 times greater than Libya. Plus, also in Libya, we are seeing some of the difficulties now in the aftermath of having ousted Gadhafi.

Again, it is why I keep coming back to — and I think there is agreement — that a long, protracted civil war is not the answer. And you really want to think of establishing something of a political dynamic inside the country, where the narrow band of the population that’s supporting the regime begins to move away from it. And I think you do that with political incentives and with economic pressure.

And don’t get me wrong. The humanitarian stakes are great here. And so are the strategic stakes. I would like to see nothing more than the Assad government disappear and its principal backer, Iran, suffer a serious strategic defeat. And so I think we’re all agreed on where we want to get to. It is really a question of the means.

And something that you heard before from Anne-Marie Slaughter is spot on. There are no good options here. We have got limited influence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

RICHARD HAASS: And the real question is what exactly is we do at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Tom, final last word here.

TOM MALINOWSKI: I think we can’t be half in. All this talk about safe zones and humanitarian corridors, you cannot establish something like that, in the face of this onslaught from the Syrian army, if you are not willing to put — somebody has to be willing to put troops on the ground.

And then are we really going to put troops on the ground to protect a safe area, to protect aid workers if, two miles across the hills, civilians are being slaughtered, and then you don’t protect them? That’s untenable.

So, the only two options here are either a long-term diplomatic strategy to squeeze this regime economically and diplomatically, which means sacrificing Homs, or go all in. And they’re both difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

All right, Tom Malinowski, Richard Haass, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, thank you, all three.