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With Death Toll Soaring, What's Next In Aid To Syria?

Feb 10, 2012
Originally published on February 10, 2012 9:53 pm

As the death toll mounts in Syria, the U.S. and its partners have been scrambling to come up with new diplomatic initiatives to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to silence his army's guns and give up power.

Last week, Russia and China blocked a U.N. resolution that would have supported the Arab League peace proposals. Since then, the violence has only intensified.

Like other international diplomats, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is still reeling from Russia and China's refusal to back the Arab League proposal's to solve the crisis in Syria.

"It was a typical Cold War picture, which we do not like to see. And we will pay the price. Today we have 12,000 refugees in Turkey," he says. "Tomorrow, I don't know how many."

Davutoglu says Turkey's borders will remain open to anyone escaping Assad's regime. He says he wants to do more to help people inside Syria.

"If this humanitarian tragedy continues, of course there should be some ways for the accessibility of food and medicine for these people," Davutoglu says. "And here the international community has the responsibility to protect innocent people."

Though he won't say how, he insists this is not another Libya and that there is no talk of military intervention. Davutoglu says he still holds out hope that Russia will make a new assessment now that Assad seems to have broken his promises and intensified the shelling of Syrian cities.

Davutoglu says Turkey, too, had held out hopes that Assad would be a reformer, but gave up on that idea last year.

He says Turkey hoped that Assad would be a Gorbachev, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Russian leader. "But he preferred to be Milosevic of Syria," Davutoglu says, referring to Slobodan Milosevic, the ousted Serbian leader who was facing charges of war crimes when he died in prison at The Hague in 2006.

And Homs today, Davutoglu says, looks a lot like Sarajevo under siege.

The Turkish foreign minister is to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the U.S. and its partners are trying to put together a "friends of Syria" group. Though they haven't settled on a name or a venue for their first meeting, they know what they want.

"The goal of all of the countries and partners that we expect will participate in this is to support the kind of plan that the Arab League put forward, which spoke very clearly about a democratic transition in Syria," Nuland said.

But just how to get there will be a challenge, says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The question is what can this group really do to stop the killing in Syria and what can it do to get humanitarian relief to those who are dying. And that's where they are coming up with far, far fewer answers than people would expect, given the degree of carnage in Syria," Tabler says.

The armed opposition might be able to play a role in setting up humanitarian corridors or buffer zones, Tabler says. But so far the U.S. has kept the Free Syrian Army, the anti-government forces, at arms length. He says there is much debate in Washington about that position now.

"If the U.S. is assisting the Syrian opposition, what do they do concerning its armed element? Do you provide nonlethal assistance, lethal assistance?" Tabler says. "Whatever it is, it is a fact on the ground that the U.S. is struggling to deal with. And they are going to need to do that, if they are going to hope to drive the death tolls down and hopefully improve the situation in the short term."

Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, estimates that 40,000 soldiers have defected from the Syrian army. And though some have gone to Turkey, Davutoglu says his country is not arming or training them. He did not want to talk about tactics under discussion now, saying only his overall goal is to promote a new Syria, where people can chose their leader.

"The Syrian people should decide for the regime, not Bashar Assad himself alone. Syria is not the personal property or family property of Bashar Assad," Davutoglu says.

And the Turkish official says it's vital now for the world to send a signal to Syrians that they are not alone.

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As the death toll mounts in Syria, diplomats around the world are scrambling. They're seeking new initiatives to persuade Syria's president to silence the guns and give up power. But the violence has only intensified since last week when Russia and China blocked a U.N. resolution supporting peace proposals from the Arab League. We begin this hour with a report on what the U.S. and its partners are trying to do. It comes from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Like other international diplomats, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is still reeling from Russia and China's refusal to back the Arab League's proposals to solve the crisis in Syria.

PRIME MINISTER AHMET DAVUTOGLU: It was a typical Cold War picture, which we do not like to see, and we will pay the price. Today, we have 12,000 refugees in Turkey. Tomorrow, I don't know how many.

KELEMEN: Davutoglu says Turkey's borders will remain open to anyone escaping Bashar al-Assad's regime. And he says he wants to do more to help people inside the country.

DAVUTOGLU: If this humanitarian tragedy continues, of course, there should be some base for the accessibility of food and medicine to these people. And here, the international community has a responsibility to protect innocent people.

KELEMEN: He won't say how, but insists this is not another Libya and that there's no talk of military intervention. Davutoglu says he still holds out hope that Russia will make a new assessment now that Assad seems to have broken his promises and intensified the shelling of Syrian cities. Davutoglu says Turkey, too, had held out hopes that Assad would be a reformer but gave up on that idea last year.

DAVUTOGLU: We wanted Bashar al-Assad to be Gorbachev, but he preferred to be Milosevic of Syria, not Gorbachev.

KELEMEN: And Homs today, he says, looks a lot like Sarajevo under siege. Davutoglu was to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. and its partners are trying to put together a friends of Syria group. Though they haven't quite settled on a name or a venue for their first meeting, they know what they want.

VICTORIA NULAND: The goal of all of the countries and partners that we expect will participate in this is to support the kind of plan that the Arab League put forward, which spoke very clearly about a democratic transition in Syria.

KELEMEN: But just how to get there will be a challenge, says Andrew Tabler of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

ANDREW TABLER THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: The question is what can this group really do to stop the killing in Syria? And what can it do to get humanitarian relief to those that are dying? And that's where they're coming up with far, far few answers than people would expect given the degree of carnage in Syria.

KELEMEN: The armed opposition might be able to play a role in setting up humanitarian corridors or buffer zones Tabler says, but so far the U.S. has kept the Free Syrian Army at arm's length. He says there's a lot of debate in Washington about that now.

POLICY: I think it comes down to, well, if the U.S. is assisting the Syrian opposition, what do they do concerning its armed element? And that's where, you know, do you provide nonlethal assistance, lethal assistance? Whatever it is, it's a fact on the ground that the U.S. struggling to deal with. And they're going to need to do that if they're going to hope to drive the death tolls down and, hopefully, improve the situation in the short term.

KELEMEN: The foreign minister of Turkey estimates that 40,000 soldiers have defected from the Syrian army, and though some have gone to Turkey, Davutoglu says his country is not arming or training them. He didn't want to talk about tactics under discussion now, saying only his overall goal is to promote a new Syria, where people can choose their leader.

DAVUTOGLU: Syrian people should decide for the regime, not Bashar al-Assad himself alone. It is not property. Syria is not the personal property or family property of Bashar al-Assad.

KELEMEN: And the Turkish official says its vital now for the world to send a signal to Syrians that they are not alone. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.