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Examining Complications To U.S. Goals In Syria


Let's try to understand what President Obama wants out of Syria. The president was asked about that last week, and he spoke of how limited U.S. goals really are in Syria.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's been complicated, and that's not going to be solved anytime soon. Our focus in Syria is not to solve the entire Syria situation, but rather to isolate the areas in which ISIL can operate.

INSKEEP: ISIL, that's the group also known as ISIS. So the question is, how does the United States go about not solving Syria but still achieving U.S. goals? NPR's Deborah Amos has covered the Syrian civil war since it began. She's in our studios. Hi, Deborah.


INSKEEP: So what does the president want?

AMOS: We have gone from, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, must go, to we will solve this in Geneva through negotiations, to we're only going to focus on ISIS in Syria.

INSKEEP: Meaning leave Bashar al-Assad alone, effectively speaking anyway.

AMOS: Indeed. Now on the ground, the way that the U.S. operates really has stayed pretty consistent, and let me explain to you how it works.

INSKEEP: All right.

AMOS: The idea is that we support the opposition, moderate Syrian rebels - enough not so that they win, but that they put enough pressure on Bashar al-Assad so he realizes he must negotiate - he must give some to the opposition so that we can have a negotiated settlement so the Syrian state doesn't collapse. The problem with that strategy is Syria is a balance of power gain. So every time the U.S. steps it up, so does the Assad regime. We support the rebels. He brings in Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiites who come to fight with his army. We open up a covert arming program for the Syrian rebels - ISIS rises. And now those rebels have to fight on two fronts. And in each of these steps, Bashar al-Assad ends up as the stronger player. He has no intention of negotiating because he doesn't have to.

INSKEEP: Has the U.S. effort on the ground been advancing any of these goals the president has laid out over the last couple of years?

AMOS: They have not. And in fact, instead, as the president focuses on ISIS as a bombing campaign is carried out mostly in Iraq and in Syria, certainly, the rebels that we do support see it as a help to Assad. He is strengthened by the focus on ISIS. He is free to bomb rebel positions which he has been doing at a pace that is higher than it was before the U.S. began to bomb ISIS. So if you're on the ground, if you're a rebel, what you see is the U.S. is focusing on ISIS but making Assad stronger.

INSKEEP: Was the president actually saying, I'm no longer trying to get rid of Assad at all, when he said, I'm not trying to solve the entire Syria situation?

AMOS: I hate to read into his mind, but I think that that message was, not in my administration. This is hard. This is messy. Recognizing that, it will take a long time. His military advisers are certainly telling him, you cannot solve the problem of ISIS and Iraq until you solve it in Syria and all of this gets settled.

INSKEEP: You know, you're saying the president used to be interested in getting rid of Assad - is now more interested in getting rid of ISIS. In each case, part of the strategy has been strengthening moderate rebels. I wonder if the problem is as the president, in fact, has said that he doesn't really have any moderate rebels he can confidently back.

AMOS: There are more than 2,000 rebel units that have been vetted by the CIA. They get U.S. weapons. They have been effective on the ground in southern Syria - not so much in northern Syria. As the rebels feel that the Obama administration appears to be supporting Assad, there's a lot of weapons hoarding - people who actually don't want to fight with the weapons that they've been given because they don't see the future. They don't understand U.S. policy as it is carried out on the ground. And so, yes, there are moderates. Yes, they have been recognized. The Pentagon is saying that they are going to build an even larger moderate force sometime in the spring, but we are in this odd moment in Syrian policy where no one can quite see what the future is, so everybody's hedging their bets.

INSKEEP: Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.