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Is A Cautious Transition The Answer For Syria?


The U.N. says that more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since the government crackdown began, causing an outcry in much of the international community. But despite the deaths, many have argued that the quick removal of President Bashar Al-Assad will only spell more violence for the beleaguered country. David Ignatius recently added his voice to that argument. He's a columnist for The Washington Post, and in his piece last week, he urged a, quote, cautious, managed transition for Syria. He's here in our studio this morning. David, thanks so much for coming in.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Great to be here.

MARTIN: As we just heard, the Syrian government does not appear to have any intentions of implementing this ceasefire. So, what now? What are the options now?

IGNATIUS: Well, watching the comments this morning from the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul, you saw Secretary Clinton threatening in unspecified ways that if Syria doesn't get on board there will be serious consequences. I think more important the prime minister of Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan, said much the same thing. He said that if this U.N. Security Council effort to resolve the conflict fails, there will be no choice but to support the Syrian people's right to self-defense, which means supplying weapons. Because Turkey is on Syria's border, it could mean more aggressive Turkish moves toward creating a safe zone. The problem is that the underlying difficulties of military intervention remain, even as the logic of it, the drive toward it grows greater. The problem is that this is a country that has deep sectarian tensions, as do many in the Middle East, and an effort to back the opposition could shatter the state structure and army in Syria much as we saw the army and state structure shattered in Iraq. And we know the consequences, that people retreated to sect and tribe and you had, for several years in Iraq, a really brutal civil war that left so many dead. And I think U.S. policymakers want to avoid that outcome if they possibly can.

MARTIN: So, you say there must be - and these are your words - an inevitable compromise with unpleasant people. Why is this the only inevitability?

IGNATIUS: Well, it's find a way to compromise and patch together a diplomatic solution or fight out a war. And sometimes it comes to war, compromise proves impossible. In this case, the war would not be an easy one. The Syrian army is large - estimates of 300,000 or so - it has chemical and other very advanced weapons. The opposition is so weak that you'd have to think about a long period of training it. This Free Syrian Army, as it calls itself, really is a pretty motley group and the Syrian opposition has tended to be localized, city by city, not organized in a national fashion. So, if you were going to proceed with ideas for a military solution, the first thing you'd have to do is give these people some training. Where would you do that? Would you pull them out of the country, would you create a zone inside the country where they can be trained? If you did that, you'd have to take out the Syrian air defenses. And then you get into the whole series of complicated questions in the United States about whether we want to get into another war in this part of the world. Clearly, the answer today is no, but the U.S. is being pushed in that direction.

MARTIN: You mentioned the sectarian strains to this conflict, the underlying ethnic tensions. There are still bound to be reprisals for Alawite and Christian minorities in Syria even if a compromise is reached. What's the solution to that? Are there any protections that can be built in?

IGNATIUS: I think it's important to realize, Rachel, that there is no end to this that's non-violent. The minorities in Syria - not universally, but generally - have tended to support the government of Bashar al-Assad, himself a member of the minority Alawite sect. And that's led to deep anger among Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and already you're seeing some evidence of sectarian killings, according to on the ground reporters. And that's sure to continue.

So, I think the answer, if you could find a way to get a negotiated solution or path toward one, would be to have some international guarantees to the leaders of the minority communities, the Alawites and the Christians, that if you back away from President Assad, your community will not be slaughtered. Because I think that's, for the religious leaders, that's probably the primary concern now.

MARTIN: David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post. Thanks so much for coming in.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.