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Taking Stock Of The U.S. Role In Syria


The U.S. military will scale down its program to arm and train moderate anti-regime rebels in Syria after reports that the $500 million program produced only four or five rebel soldiers. The vast suffering in Syria continues. So does debate over if the U.S. should have acted earlier with the no-fly zone, air power or more arms earlier to help topple Bashar al-Assad. But one foreign policy expert says he's searched his conscience and concluded any U.S. intervention would not have helped either Syrians or the U.S. Stephen Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard and joins us from WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN WALT: Nice to talk with you.

SIMON: What makes you skeptical that more effective U.S. intervention earlier, when Assad seemed on the ropes a few years ago, might not have spared Syrians the barrel bombs and chemical weapons and now this mass migration?

WALT: Well, it's certainly possible that a prompter intervention might have yielded a better outcome and probably American action could have prevented at least some of the humanitarian problems but, of course, might have produced others in various ways. But the more I have thought about this, the more I've realized that the United States did not, in fact, have tools available to it that would have reliably yielded a better outcome and, in fact, could easily have led to outcomes that were even worse than the admitted humanitarian tragedy we have all been witnessing for the last four years or so.

SIMON: And those tools would have been...

WALT: Well, first of all, this idea of using air power, that, you know, we could create no-fly zones or perhaps use our own Air Force to strike at Assad's forces here. And I think this just fails to understand that air power is quite a crude instrument, even in a day of precision munitions. It doesn't allow you to control events on the ground. Ultimately, you have to have forces that can occupy areas and control the politics, control the people there. You can't just do that by flying over and dropping things. But that wouldn't necessarily have toppled Assad. And, of course, it would also open the door to some groups that might be even nastier than he is, if that's possible to imagine.

SIMON: Well, that brings up the possibility of ISIS. Doesn't the U.S. have a strategic interest in preventing ISIS from holding its way in that region?

WALT: Obviously, there's a humanitarian interest to see that a regime like ISIS doesn't expand, doesn't create clones in other places. But, in fact, ISIS does not pose a mortal threat to the United States. And it is the local actors - the Kurds, the Turks and others - who have a much greater interest in containing ISIS. Our policy should be to encourage them to begin to take action there because the United States is not going to be able eliminate the Islamic State on its own. And, in fact, our efforts to do so could easily play into precisely the sort of recruitment efforts that have made ISIS somewhat popular along the fringes of the Islamic world and could eventually also trigger attacks elsewhere, including possibly the United States.

SIMON: The Pentagon has said that it's still committed to training rebels. It just wants to shift to working directly with leaders of rebel groups. Does that strike you as a real change or money down a rain barrel?

WALT: I think the problem here is we've been told now for three or four years that there was a moderate Syrian opposition. The difficulty is that the most potent opponents of the Assad regime are all people that are also pretty anti-American. And therefore, we have been unable to find a set of Syrians to back that are both competent, likely to succeed and, again, politically acceptable. We also seem to be having a tough trouble training any of the ones we do find, and that's a larger problem here. But I think this is one of the reasons why Syria becomes one of those issues that however much we dislike or are upset by the humanitarian tragedy happening, it may be a problem for which the United States is not the solution.

SIMON: Stephen Walt is professor of international relations at Harvard. Thanks very much for being with us.

WALT: Pleasure talking with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.