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Conflict In Syria Continues To Degrade


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, United Nations investigators released a bleak report on Syria's two-year conflict, including information on the use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing. It is just the latest international outcry as the situation in Syria and the region seems to worsen every day. Ambassador Frederic Hof spent months inside the administration's debate on Syria. He was the former U.S. Department of State special advisor for transition in Syria. He's now with the Atlantic Council and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

FREDERIC HOF: Scott, it's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Six months ago, you warned that time was the enemy. Has the passage of time narrowed options for action?

HOF: No, I don't think the passage of time has narrowed options for action but time is indeed the enemy. We've seen a persistence of this regime in Syria create a humanitarian crisis that is not only torturing the Syrian people but it's having massive effects on the neighborhood.

SIMON: The U.N. panel reported this week on evidence of chemicals weapons, which, of course, the Obama administration had once called a red line. What's your assessment of their reaction?

HOF: I think there's little doubt on the part of anybody that the regime has employed chemical weapons against the Syrian people. It's a remarkably small percentage of casualties are accounted for by this practice but it is a particularly bad practice. But the United States had a very traumatic experience with this business of weapons of mass destruction 10 years ago in Iraq. The administration wants to get it right this time. It wants to be able to present a case that is accurate and irrefutable.

SIMON: That being said, does it run the risk with a protracted delay seeming as if they're countenance in the use of chemical weapons?

HOF: There are all kinds of risks associated with a protracted delay. It's not clear yet when exactly the administration is going to get to the point where it thinks it has an air-tight case on chemical weapons. No doubt there is also a temptation to allow this potential Geneva peace conference process to drag things out. Already, the conference is pushed back to July. And as of right now, you know, there's really no prospect of substantive negotiations there.

SIMON: Let me ask about something I've read in a number of assessments this week, which suggests that the United States has to be concerned about if it looks like it's setting up a red line and then not doing anything about it in Syria, it sends a message to Iran along the same lines.

HOF: It sends a message to a lot of people and I'm sure that this weighs very, very heavily in the thinking of the administration. You don't even have to restrict this, Scott, to the Middle East, to the region at hand. One can imagine Japanese government officials studying very carefully the relationship between American rhetoric and American potential action in the Syrian context. Not because they're focused on Syria but they're focused on their own security considerations and their own alliance with the United States. One can imagine South Koreans taking a close look at this. One can imagine Israelis and others taking a close look at it. So, it's not just a matter of our adversaries. Perhaps even the more important factor here is how will our friends evaluate all of this.

SIMON: What options are open now for the United States to undertake this week, this month, if necessary?

HOF: Yeah. I think what the United States really has to concentrate on now is the root cause of the humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing all of Syria's neighbors, to say nothing of Syria itself. The real driver behind this is the practice of the Assad regime, which was described in a U.N. report released on the 4th of June as systematic crimes against humanity. And the main one is the shelling of populated areas not under regime control. The use of artillery, aircraft, even scud missiles to terrorize people in these urban areas and in these towns and villages - this is what's driving the humanitarian crisis. And this is what I think the United States really has to take a look at in terms of a response. The response may be timed to some ultimate finding about chemical weapons use but the danger is that the chemical weapons then can become a distractor here. What's really right in front of our face right now is a humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing not only Syria but its neighbors.

SIMON: Ambassador Frederic Hof, who's now with the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much, sir, for coming in.

HOF: Scott, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.