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Revisiting The Syrian Playbook After Obama


It's been little more than a week since the photo of a bloody and dazed little boy in Aleppo prompted the world to ask, what can we do in Syria? Thirteen more children died that week in Aleppo, too. There have been many talks among international groups to little result, while civilians in other besieged towns move closer and closer to starvation.

Thanassis Cambanis is a longtime Middle East journalist, and he's a fellow now at The Century Foundation. On the foreign policy website, he writes that he believes the United States could do a lot more, and he looks forward to a post-Obama administration strategy for Syria. Mr. Cambanis joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Good to talk to you.

SIMON: I want to understand exactly what you're proposing. You don't mean troops.

CAMBANIS: Right, more or less, I mean, you know, I don't take this stuff lightly, and I'm not one to suggest that a no-fly zone is some kind of minor act. These are serious military actions that are going to require a lot of commitment, even if it's something along the lines of what I'm talking about, which is selective no-fly zones basically. It's - the idea is the U.S. would start using its military might to make it more expensive for Assad and his allies to punish civilians as the central tactic of war.

So when hospitals are bombed or when civilians are bombed, planes and helicopters will be shot down. Now, this is a very incremental kind of intervention I'm describing. This is not a complete no-fly zone. This isn't U.S. airplanes patrolling and getting into dogfights with Russians. It is selective retaliation - limited retaliation - and it will not end atrocities. On the other hand, it will make Assad and his allies, I think, much more hesitant to engage in the kind of turkey shoot that they've done as a primary tactic of war.

SIMON: And what do you say to those Americans who worry that it would be a slippery slope?

CAMBANIS: Well, I mean, this is a - it's a frustrating argument because first of all, the U.S. is already a major party in this conflict. The U.S. has sponsored a wide array of armed proxies. It is one of the most important players in this ongoing civil war in Syria. The second really important point is that the consequences of this war have been just catastrophic, not only for Syrians and their neighbors but for the United States and its allies and its strategic interests.

And so we have to do something, and whether that something is to stand aside, whether that something is to try and manage it at arm's length with limited intervention, as Obama has tried to do, or whether it's to ratchet up that intervention in the hopes that it forces a punishing stalemate upon all sides and leads to the kind of unsatisfying but hopefully better political settlement that we could have as an alternative to 10 more years of this kind of war.

SIMON: You have a phrase in your posting where you refer to - and I'll quote you - that you would use American power to, quote, "shore up the motley crew of surviving rebels." Isn't that the concern a lot of people have, that the United States could wind up supporting a group of rebels that might wind up being practically and morally indistinguishable from the Assad regime given the chance?

CAMBANIS: That's a major problem. I mean, for starters, the U.S. already does support a spectrum of proxies that includes some very unappetizing characters. Now, that said, we have to be clear-eyed. There is not going to be some kind of secular, democracy-loving, pluralistic group in this conflict. There is no major armed party on any side, including the government, that is genuinely committed to pluralism and coexistence and rights and rule of law.

If any of those characteristics are going to be part of a post-war Syria, it's going to be because they are forced on all the parties by a political diplomatic process and by the outside backers, and that is not an ideal situation. That's not a great way to bring coexistence back to a country that enjoyed it for more than a century. But right now, in my view, it's the only chance we have.

SIMON: Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation and author of a book on the Egyptian revolution called "Once Upon A Revolution." Thanks so much for being with us.

CAMBANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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