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Should The West Intervene In Syria?


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Barring a successful appeal, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will likely spend the rest of his life in jail. In a few moments, our correspondent in Cairo will update us on the latest. But first, to our cover story, and we'll stay in the region and the question over what to do about Syria.

In the wake of last week's massacre in the city of Houla, where at least 100 people, including dozens of children, were killed, a small but growing contingent of lawmakers and regional analysts are calling for Western military intervention, things like enforcing a no-fly zone or shipping arms to groups opposed to the Assad regime and, in some cases, even air strikes.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has tried diplomacy, but a deal he brokered to end the violence has fallen apart. Coming up, we'll hear opposing views from two influential voices in the debate Shadi Hamid and Marwa Daoudy. But first, to BBC reporter Paul Wood.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: This is tape of Paul and his cameraman, Fred Scott, running from a building in the Syrian village of Rastan just a few days ago.


PAUL WOOD: (Unintelligible) So you may just have heard some of the mortar fire which is falling on Rastan pretty regularly and may have been targeting the (unintelligible) and that's where we just came from.

RAZ: Paul Wood is back from a three-week reporting trip to Syria. He snuck in illegally. It's become all but impossible for outside journalists to get visas to travel to Syria. Wood spent nearly all of his time with anti-regime rebel groups.


WOOD: So we're in the middle of what's supposed to be a ceasefire, but these men here have been skirmishing with a tank all morning. They had a big battle lasting two or three days this week. They believe they have pushed back the government forces about 100 meters.

RAZ: Well, this past Wednesday, Paul Wood was hiding inside an orchard along the Syria-Lebanon border, an area used by smugglers and gunrunners. He was trying to sneak back into Lebanon. He eventually did make it, and that's where we reached him.

WOOD: It was the most difficult crossing of the four I've done. There are supposedly more than 1,000 troops on the little bit of border that we tried to cross, including nine tanks. We sort of hid out in a part of the orchard looking at an army patrol and a checkpoint, which was only about 100 meters away, waiting for them to direct their attention elsewhere and then sort of making a run for it.

We were really quite close to them, so that's an indication of the kind of pressure the Free Army is under. Other crossings we made haven't been so problematic. But I think the army is trying to get a grip on the border, trying to get a grip on the Free Army's supply lines and having some success at doing that.

RAZ: Paul, you've been covering this now for more than a year, and you've been going in and out. Do you think the Assad regime will be in power a year from now?

WOOD: In January, I got suddenly swept up in the opposition's very optimistic estimates of President Assad only having weeks to go in power, possibly, you know, a few months. The crushing of the Free Army in Baba Amr, where they made a stand in Homs, I think that really reversed the situation. This regime does look rather strong there, and it would be foolish to think that President Assad has no support.

He is there still because he does have support. My own suspicion is that the window for solving this peacefully and through reform closed a long, long time ago, and this is - we're now on kind of a one-way street, at the end of which is a very vicious sectarian war, the first hints of which we are seeing in Homs Province and places like Houla.

RAZ: You are confident that it's becoming clearer that this is a civil war.

WOOD: There are various kinds of civil war. My first trip in November, I was always asking people, is this going to be a sectarian civil war, same question I asked when we went back in February and March. And people always said: No, that's Iraq. That's not the kind of place that Syria is. That's not on our history. And there's just a real change in atmosphere this time.

And one activist in particular who always would say to me civil war will not happen here was actually saying, this time, not only will it happen, but I think we're going to look back at May and say, this is when it began. This is when it started. The civil war has begun.

RAZ: That's Paul Wood, world affairs correspondent for the BBC. Paul, thank you so much.

WOOD: Thank you.

RAZ: For more now on whether or not to intervene in Syria, I'm joined by Marwa Daoudy. She's a visiting professor at Princeton, and she normally teaches at Oxford University in the UK. Marwa Daoudy, welcome to the program.

MARWA DAOUDY: Thank you.

RAZ: And from Doha, we're joined now by Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Shadi Hamid, welcome to you.

SHADI HAMID: Thank you.

RAZ: Marwa Daoudy, let me start with you. About six months ago, you were on this program. We had a similar conversation about whether it was time for Western action in Syria. Over that period of time, those few months, the violence, of course, has increased. And last week's massacre in Houla was among the worst of it. A lot more talk now that Western powers need to intervene somehow. What are your thoughts on that?

DAOUDY: Well, in fact, the Western power is already intervening through a political solution, through the Annan mission, and also through the military option by the rumors that we have about weapons being sent to the Syrian opposition movements, the militia groups in Syria. There have been discussions, since the last time we spoke, on military intervention, full-fledged military intervention.

However, I don't believe in military intervention and foreign military intervention in the region and in Syria particularly. The Syrian revolution has started as extremely legitimate powerful movement. It has gained momentum within Syria. If you have boots on the ground or even no-fly zones, which will have to be military enforced with their own devastating human cost in terms of Syrian casualties, I don't think the long-term results would be beneficial for the country.

I think there should be international intervention, international pressure on the regime and pushing towards a political solution, hopefully peaceful transition to democracy.

RAZ: Let me turn now to you, Shadi Hamid. As you know, there are some members of the U.S. Senate calling for military intervention, like no-fly zones, for example, to end the bloodshed in Syria. Do you think it's time for Western powers to get involved militarily either directly or by arming rebel groups?

I think it was time months ago. There is no political solution. The Assad regime is not going to implode. It's not going to give up. So I think we have to, you know, be very clear about this and kind of move away from this wishful thinking that the Annan mission has been engaging in, this sense that you can talk to Assad, that you can reason with him, that you can sit down with him.

HAMID: This is a regime that is not willing to compromise. Now, the Syrian opposition has called very explicitly time and time again for foreign military intervention. And France, Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia have all called for various forms of military intervention, whether it's safe zones or humanitarian corridors. And the longer we wait, the more it's going to become just like Bosnia was with large-scale massacres.

It's remarkable to me that we're still having a debate about whether or not to arm the opposition. Every Syrian should have the right to defend his or her family from slaughter.

RAZ: Shadi, let me just follow up on the potential consequences of that kind of intervention, though. I mean, it potentially could inflame tensions between the United States and Russia and China, countries that oppose military intervention. It could potentially create a bloodbath in Syria between opposing militia groups, pro-regime groups, anti-regime groups if the country is flooded with weapons. Aren't the risks great enough, at this point, where military intervention could be too dangerous?

HAMID: But those things are already happening. There is already a mass exodus of refugees. The instability along the borders - Iran and Russia are actively intervening on the side of the Syrian regime, more so - much more so, actually, than the U.S. or Europe. So I think we're already in a situation that's extremely unstable. We're seeing reprisals along sectarian lines, and it will only get worse.

So I think when people say, well, military intervention is going to lead to X, Y and Z, well, X, Y and Z have already happened without intervention.

RAZ: Marwa Daoudy?

DAOUDY: First, I think clearly, the opportunity to have military intervention in Syria is also a strategic decision, which is taken in light of the strategic game, which is playing in the region, between the U.S. and Iran, Israel, et cetera. My worry is that Syria lies in the middle, and Syria will also have the potential to be the platform for proxy wars.

Now, if the concern is about the Syrian population, of course, the Syrians have the right to defend themselves. The question here is that we're planning to move from a defensive strategy towards an offensive strategy, which is to launch sort of like guerrilla attacks and have military confrontation with the regime forces. And this is where a full-fledged civil war might erupt.

But there will be other international sanctions which could be taken on regime officials in terms of freezing their assets, issuing travel bans, increasing the pressure, and I would say maybe working on Russia. And in that sense, if there's an international effort, which is happening now, that would bring, somehow, a political solution. The military solution, for me, is a short term, easier fix, but with much more detrimental long-term costs.

RAZ: Shadi Hamid, last word to you.

HAMID: Yeah, sure. Well, Russia has made it very clear that it is not going to undermine its own ally. This is precisely why provision of arms wouldn't be enough. And that's why I and others have called for the establishment of safe zones with close air support to give the opposition a beachhead to build their strength and to be able to counter the regime.

Yes, this would mean an offensive strategy. I do believe, though, that with proper provision of arms, close air support lead by Turkey, Arab countries but with the U.S. leading, quote, unquote, "from behind" along with European nations, there would be a chance to have an effort that would have consensus, would have legitimacy among Arabs and would help bring down the Assad regime.

Would it be easy? Of course not. Bosnia wasn't easy. Kosovo wasn't easy. But it was the right thing to do. And in the end, it worked and saved tens of thousands of lives. So I think now is the time to look at those past examples of humanitarian intervention and try to think about how we can do it effectively in Syria.

RAZ: We're out of time, unfortunately. Fascinating conversation. Shadi Hamid is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Shadi, thanks so much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: And also to Marwa Daoudy. She's a visiting scholar at Princeton University. She normally teaches at Oxford in the UK. Marwa Daoudy, thank you so much to you as well.

DAOUDY: Thank you.

RAZ: The Bosnia comparison, by the way, is being made more and more frequently by supporters of intervention. But 17 years after the end of the Bosnian War, that country still remains an international protectorate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.