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Op-Ed: U.S. Should Use 'Tough Love' In Syria


And now, The Opinion Page. While Syrians appeal to the outside world to do something to end the growing violence there, options appear limited. Russian and Chinese vetoes leave the U.N. Security Council on the sideline. Economic sanctions are already in place. The Arab League called on its members to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus, and some seemed ready to send arms to the opposition.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Daniel Byman argued to remember that well-intentioned steps can actually make things worse. So what are the consequences we ought to consider as a bloody crackdown devolves into a bloody and possibly volatile civil war? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Daniel Byman joins us by phone from his office at Georgetown University where he teaches in their school of foreign service. And nice to have you with us today.

DR. DANIEL BYMAN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And in your op-ed, you said, quote, "The United States should present a cohesive front, use tough love to cajole and reward the opposition for unity and cooperation, while recognizing that some fissures will be inevitable." In order - in other words, to work with the opposition?

BYMAN: That's correct. For the United States - right now, at least - direct intervention is not in the cards. You mentioned Russia blocking various international efforts at the Security Council. I think there's no appetite in the United States for a sustained U.S. military intervention. So if we want to get Assad out, we have to work with the Syrians for them to do it, and the opposition is the key to that.

CONAN: And work with them how? Provide them with money, with weapons, what?

BYMAN: Yes. The opposition has many problems. They are divided. They are untrained. They are not ready to go directly up against Assad. And we see this on a daily basis, where they're being shot down in the streets. And the first thing to do is to get them unified. And while that's going on, the United States can also train them. And for all of this, it's very important to work with and at times through regional allies.

CONAN: Well, you'd have to because unlike Libya where there was roughly half the country that had been liberated by the Libyan people themselves, the eastern half near Benghazi, there is no such place in Syria.

BYMAN: That's absolutely right. And even more than that, if we don't do it with the allies, we would be doing it against the allies. They have their own interests, and we should respect these interests. And if we're going to make progress, it's going to have to be in harmony with what they want.

CONAN: Yet, those allies are hardly united, either. You have Iraq - so far, our ally - still supporting Bashar al-Assad; Turkey, his former ally, very much opposed; Jordan sort of on the fence; Lebanon - well, Lebanon is not sure what to do. Of course, Hezbollah, the biggest force there, is a powerful Syrian ally.

BYMAN: That's correct. Some allies, I would say, Jordan and particularly Turkey, are the most important for this. With Turkey, it has not only tremendous military power of its own but tremendous influence in Syria and a lot of respect in the broader Middle East. So while allies don't always agree, and some are, I would say, skeptical, to put it mildly. There are some that matter more than others. And the United States should focus first on those.

CONAN: And even so, if we're working with the opposition, we've seen just in the past few days, al-Qaida coming out and saying support the Syrian opposition. What do we do with allies like that?

BYMAN: That's absolutely right. And this is the danger. If the Syrian people believe they're abandoned, if they believe that no one is standing by them, then they're going to turn, out of desperation, to groups like al-Qaida, where al-Qaida could say we are here to defend you. And more moderate opposition thinkers may not want this, but if the choice is between being shot by Assad or working with al-Qaida, some may choose radicalism over a more moderate approach.

CONAN: And we are seeing increasingly a sectarian divide. That this is becoming the Sunnis, the biggest single group in Syria, against the Alawites, the minority group, an offshoot of Shia Islam, that's in power.

BYMAN: That's one of the biggest dangers that Syria's conflict may go from anti-regime violence to a war of community against community. And this sort of war could have ramifications well beyond Syria, which is part of why the international community needs to become involved. This conflict will not be limited to Syria. If it's allowed to go - to run amok and where it's moving in the wrong direction.

CONAN: Yet moving in the wrong direction, it's moving towards a much more armed resistance model that is becoming, rapidly, civil war.

BYMAN: And that's something that's been happening fairly steadily where at first the opposition was almost entirely peaceful, and then we saw sporadic opposition, and now it's much more sustained. But the bigger problem is that we're seeing this not an opposition against a narrow, despotic regime, but a regime trying to play a sectarian card, trying to make this war of communities that it believes will win. And if that happened, then the hope for a future Syria, Syria that's united, a Syria that is not repressive, is diminished.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. We have to be careful to do things that don't actually make the situation in Syria worse. And, Daniel Byman, just by way of illustration, what might some of those be?

BYMAN: So the things that can be - make the situation worse - one of them is focusing on Assad himself rather than on focusing on his regime. If we put our emphasis on getting Assad out of power but don't try to remove the broader power structure, we're simply replacing one dictator for another. It won't satisfy the opposition, and at the same time, all the risk of fracturing the country remains. So that would be one thing, I think, that can make it worse. Another would be to focus only on narrow humanitarian issues without the broader political and strategic picture in mind. So caring for refugees, protecting Syrians, these sorts of things are tremendously important, but they're going to be a Band-aid on a gaping wound if they're part of a broader strategy. Yet there's a natural respond from the international community to focus only on the immediate rather than on the longer-term issues.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us: We'll start with Arthur, and he's on the line with us from San Francisco.

ARTHUR: Yes. Hi. Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I'd like to just make a comment. It seems that we've completely forgotten about history. Every time we involve ourselves in these conflicts, be it in - you know, look at our history – Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, that whole Middle Eastern region - we seemed to make the matters worse. You know, our enemies' enemy is not necessarily our friend. What is the - you know, what are we - what is America's real – the United States' real objective in this part of the world? And, you know, why do we think that buying our friends will somehow yield the results we want? Leave the place alone. The more we interfere, the more people don't like our country's interference. You know, we got very offended when foreign powers are telling us about budget situation. You know, we say, don't dare tell us what to do. Well, who are we to do the same in that part of the world? It's a terrible humanitarian situation, I agree, but why involve ourselves again like we've forgotten what we've done in the past and failed. And I'll take my comments on the air - off the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Well, Arthur - OK, Arthur I guess is leaving, but the quick response is, someone would say Libya seemed to work out OK.

BYMAN: That's correct, and I would add to that. The United States is often blamed, either for acting or for not acting. So on Israeli-Palestinian issues, there is tremendous criticism in the region that the United States is not doing enough. The United States should be more involved, that it has allowed the peace process to die. And regardless of how you feel about that particular issue, this is one of the problems of being a superpower. Where if you act, you will, of course, incur criticism. But if you don't act, you also will.

CONAN: And if you act in concert - wait to act in concert with the United Nations Security Council, with their blessing, as was done in Libya, then, well, sometimes you're waiting too long. In other times, if you act without their blessing, as in Kosovo or as in Iraq, well, then you're defying world opinion.

BYMAN: That's absolutely right. And world opinion is desirable politically in the United States as it sends a message that this mission is shared by the civilized world. And it's in particular important for a number of U.S. allies, that really want that international stamp of approval as part of motivating their own people to make sacrifices.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paula, Paula with us from Lansing.

PAULA: Hi. One thing that I would like to point out is for us to look at our own revolution. If France hadn't provided us with money and military guidance and military leaders, we never would have achieved our freedom. We would still be a colony of England.

CONAN: And the...

PAULA: And we have an obligation to help other countries that are trying to achieve their independence because we would - we were in their position 200 years ago.

CONAN: And their contemporary equivalent of a no-fly zone, the French fleet that kept the British from relieving their forces at York town. She's got a point, Daniel Byman.

BYMAN: That's right. What we're seeing in Syria is that other countries are intervening one way or another. So Iran is very involved in helping the Syrian government, especially financially. The Russians have been helping them diplomatically, as well as with armed supplies. So intervention is a occurring. So the question is simply is there going to be intervention only on the side of the regime – a despotic regime, one hostile to the United States, or will there be intervention to counter-balance that and ideally overcome that?

CONAN: Well - and Paula, thanks very much for the phone call. We had Saudi Arabia, over the weekend, thinly-veiled suggestion that it's time to provide arms to the opposition. And if you're suggesting that you have Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other, is this not just an extension of their proxy fight in the Persian Gulf?

BYMAN: Certainly, the Saudis see Iran as trying to extend their influence all over the region, whether it'd be Iraq or Lebanon and now Syria - or I should say, now Syria – Iran's had a long relationship with Syria, and the Saudis are trying to combat that. But the United States should be trying to make it more than that. I certainly believe that trying to end or at least reduce Iranian influence in Syria is an important U.S. goal, but there's more to it than that. Syria is a very important Arab country, well beyond the question of Iran. And trying to get a more - a government that is friendlier towards the West, that is less hostile, less repressive in general, is desirable for a host of reasons.

CONAN: You wrote: To be of any value, an intervention must end the bloodshed or at least diminish it dramatically. Syria must also remain an intact state capable of policing its borders, stopping terrorism and providing services to its people. Well, by that last sentence's definition, you'd have to say Libya's - the intervention of Libya, well, that sort of up in the air on all of those points.

BYMAN: That's absolutely correct, and I think Iraq showed that it's not good enough to replace a dictator with a state that fails. You need more than that, and so this, again, is why the Syrian opposition is so important. If we talk about removing Assad, the obvious next question is, what's going to take his place? And too often, there's been a focus, simply on the first step, remove the dictator. I think we need to focus on the long term, which is what's going to take his place. And here, developing the opposition into a coherent, democratic, effective opposition is very important.

CONAN: Daniel Byman is with us on the Opinion Page this week, a professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. There's a link to his op-ed published in The Washington Post on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, with you from NPR News.

Let's get Minette(ph) on the line. Minette with us from Zanesville in Ohio.

MINETTE: Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MINETTE: I love your program, and this is a very sensitive subject for me. I think that, yes, in a lot of cases, America should sit back and mind their own business. But in this particular case, this people are being brutalized by a regime that has been - Assad, the father, and now Assad, the son, is doing the same thing. They're murdering children and women, and people can't get outside to get food. They can't get shelter, electricity, anything, because this man is just instructing the government to go ahead and just blast everybody. They have lived under dictatorship by this - and terrorism by this man for years. And I think that by sitting back and doing nothing, it makes us just as guilty. We have to stick up for the people who can't take care of themselves.

CONAN: Do something, but what?

MINETTE: I don't know, but there has to be intervention. We have to go in there and let Assad know that he cannot brutally terrorize people. My husband's family is over there. My neighbors' family, my best friend, they're all from Syria. They're terrorized every single day. They can't even talk on the phone because they're afraid that they're going to get murdered for the things that they say, if they say anything against the government. I mean, this is an oppressive, brutal government that has done nothing but terrorize its people for years, and they're slaughtering them, they're dismembering children. It's beyond what you can even imagine in your worse nightmares. We need to do something. We need to go in, and we need to stop the violence.

CONAN: Well, Minette, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

MINETTE: Glad to do it. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Daniel Byman, it is an awful situation. It is not unprecedented. The father of this Assad killed 10,000 people at Homs, some years ago, to sustain his regime then. And so as we sit and watch this get worse and worse and worse, the call to do something gets louder and louder and louder.

BYMAN: That's right. And the danger is that with the father, the balance ended very decisively. The danger here is not only that we'll have these horrors go unpunished, but that they will grow, and we'll see the violence spread. There was a painful piece at New York Times this morning that talked about the - some of the ideas, some of the violence spreading to Iraq, where fighters there were mobilizing on behalf of the Syrians. So this has a potential, not only to engulf Syria, but also to spread in a very negative way to several already fragile states.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller on the line. This is Erwin(ph), Erwin with us from Tyler in Minnesota.

ERWIN: Yeah. I sort of think that the American people are in agreement that we should do something. We should at least furnish them with weapons, whether it'd be covertly, whatever. Assad is just a dictator and a butcher, just like his father. It's time for him to go. Regardless of the results, if we let al-Qaida get in there and claim the victory when they finally do overthrow him - bad for us. Get in there, support the people. I mean, he is butchering people and killing them indiscriminately. Give them something that they can fight them tanks for - with and get rid of him, assassinate him. Just get rid of him.

CONAN: Erwin, thanks very much for the call. In fact, I think the polls show that the majority of the American people are widely unconcern with the situation in Syria, Daniel Byman.

BYMAN: I think that's correct. Understandably, the economy, while, perhaps improving, is still in very bad shape, and there are hosts of problems at home. And Americans can go about their daily lives without the situation in Syria affecting them. But again, if we think about this in the broader picture, what the United States wants to accomplish in the Arab world, we want the Arab Spring to succeed. We want Iran's influence to be diminished. We want supporters of terrorism like Syria to - like Assad's regime to be punished and to go in decline. The strategic consequences are real, and I recognize that, for many Americans, this seems rather remote, but it's very important even beyond these humanitarian aspects.

CONAN: And something quickly, an assassination?

BYMAN: The question whether the United States should kill foreign leaders, to me, is a very troubled one. I'm supportive of going after terrorist leaders as we see in the Obama, and before that, the Bush administrations, do. But opening the door to assassinating foreign leaders is a very troubling precedent for the United States.

CONAN: Daniel Byman, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

BYMAN: I appreciate your having me.

CONAN: Daniel Byman, professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, also a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His op-ed, again, there's a link to it on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION. It appeared in The Washington Post. Tomorrow, the ongoing debate among Catholics over health coverage and birth control. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.