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Should The U.S. Arm Rebels In Syria?


President Obama's administration plans extra aid to Syrian rebels. As we heard yesterday, some analysts see hints in the statements of Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. could take even stronger steps.

James Dobbins hopes the U.S. does. The former envoy to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo argues U.S. policy is finally moving in the right direction.

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it is. I think they've been moving too slowly. I think all of the regional experts agree that the longer the civil war goes on, the worse its aftermath is going to be; the more likely it is that the country splits asunder and that the conflict is transferred to neighboring states.

INSKEEP: You know, that's interesting because President Obama, some weeks ago in an interview with the New Republic, said one of the questions on my mind is why the conflict in Syria would be worthy of intervention, as opposed to something in the Congo.

DOBBINS: Well, I think there's two answers. One is that the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world is in the Congo, and the U.S. is paying for 25 percent of it. I don't think there's a realistic prospect for a U.N. force in Syria, and so that option isn't available. I think Russia and China would both stand in the way and frankly, there wouldn't be a lot of volunteers for a peacekeeping force. Something more robust is going to be needed, either a more active support, including equipment for the opposition, or alternatively or additionally, some addition of air power.

INSKEEP: OK. You just hit one of the real challenges. You start sending arms, how much is enough? Because maybe artillery is not going to be sufficient here. Maybe that's not enough and you end up needing to help coordinate the opposition forces in some way. Maybe that's not enough and you end up having to send U.S. troops.

DOBBINS: Well, I'm not sure incrementalism makes the most sense. The consensus among all experts is that the longer this takes place, the worse the aftermath is going to be.

INSKEEP: But how much is going to be enough?

DOBBINS: Well, I think there are two options - they're not mutually exclusive. One is to provide equipment - arms - to the opposition. And the question there is what kind of arms are they actually capable of fielding and using? The second would be some kind of air intervention. People talk about a no-fly zone, but maybe a simpler task is to simply essentially, overnight, take out the Syrian Air Force on the ground using drones and stealth aircraft. At which point you don't have to have - enforce a no-fly zone because he doesn't have any more airplanes.

INSKEEP: So even though people will talk about the limitations of air power, you're arguing that this is a situation where it can actually make a significant difference.

DOBBINS: I think it would do more than any other single thing to change the balance. It is after all, only in the air that Assad is still sovereign over Syria, which is not to say that it's an alternative to providing arms. I think providing arms to the right people is important, not just with respect to how quickly it leads to Assad's downfall, but whom it empowers within the opposition.

INSKEEP: You just touched on another tough one there, providing arms to the right people. That's a hard one to figure out, isn't it?

DOBBINS: It shouldn't be at this stage. The civil war has been going on two years. We've been watching it carefully. If the CIA, the State Department don't know who the right people are now, we've got a pretty hopeless intelligence network.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should explain for people, there are groups fighting the Syrian government that appear to be extremist groups, as well as groups that are more sympathetic to what we might describe as universal human rights or Western values, or however you want to describe it.

DOBBINS: That's right. Which has been the case in virtually all of the insurgencies that we've supported. There were certainly extremist elements in Afghanistan back in the 1980s.

INSKEEP: Although, somebody might say there's an example of why not to do that again. There was all that blowback. There was the creation of al-Qaida itself.

DOBBINS: It's certainly an excellent reason not to support an insurgency and then wash your hands of the subsequent situation. The decisive factor in terms of the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida was the fact that the United States and most of the international community simply walked away and left it to Pakistan and to other more extremist elements to determine Afghanistan's future in the '90s.

INSKEEP: What are the downsides to greater intervention in Syria, for the United States?

DOBBINS: Well, I think there are, you know, political risks that I think weigh on the administration, as well as the geopolitical risks, which have to do with the deterioration in the relations with the Russians, the possibility that this will lead to a waning of pressure on Iran, as the focus shifted to Syria.

INSKEEP: Distraction, sure.

DOBBINS: And, of course, the possibility that the intervention wouldn't work and that it would look like a failure. I mean those are all the kinds of risks that any policymaker has to face in considering an engagement of this dimension.

INSKEEP: You would face them, though?

DOBBINS: I think the consequences of not acting and the risks of not acting are even greater.


INSKEEP: James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.