Middle East
3:02 am
Mon February 27, 2012

Clinton: How Do We Help Syrians Defend Themselves?

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 6:17 pm

Just a few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Tunis, Tunisia, meeting her counterparts from dozens of countries and issuing an ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar Assad to silence his guns and allow in humanitarian aid.

While in Morocco, before flying home to Washington, D.C., Clinton talked to NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Syrian tanks continue to batter homes, and no aid is getting in. So what are allies of the Syrian people to do?

"We have to continue to consult with those who truly are friends of the Syrian people," Clinton said, "which of course includes the United States and the many governments and organizations that gathered in Tunis on Friday. We are doing everything we can to facilitate humanitarian aid."

She added that the United States and others must continue to "ratchet up the pressure" because Syria "is an increasingly isolated regime."

And, she said, nations must "push for a democratic transition by working with and trying to build up the opposition so they can be an alternative."

Syria is "one of the most highly militarized, best defended countries on Earth," Clinton said, "because of course they spent an enormous amount of money with their Iranian and Russian friends so equipping themselves.

"Even if you were to somehow smuggle in automatic weapons of some kind, you're not going to be very successful against tanks. So the dilemma is how do we try to help people defend themselves ... ?"

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A powerful film swept across the Internet in recent days. A filmmaker captured images of the city of Homs in Syria. The video shows wounded civilians, demonstrators, room-to-room combat and blood on the streets.

GREENE: That film was broadcast in Britain. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched it online. And it's just one of many videos and news reports adding to the global pressure to do something about Syria.

INSKEEP: Syrian opposition activists say dozens were killed in fighting there over the past two days alone. The fighting continued even as the country held a referendum on Sunday on changing the constitution.

Now, these proposed changes would introduce presidential term limits, but the new rules would still let President Bashar Assad rule for another 28 years.

GREENE: Western diplomats want him gone much sooner than that. But it's still not clear how.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been traveling in North Africa, and before heading home, she sat down in Morocco with NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Syrian tanks have been battering homes. There's no sign of aid getting in. What do you and the friends of Syria do now?

HILLARY CLINTON: We have to continue to consult with those who truly are friends of the Syrian people, which, of course, includes the United States and, you know, the many governments and organizations that gathered in Tunis on Friday. We are doing everything we can to facilitate humanitarian aid.

Secondly, we continue to ratchet up the pressure. It is an increasingly isolated regime. And third, we push for a democratic transition - by working with and trying to build up the opposition so they can be an alternative.

KELEMEN: But activists say you need really humanitarian corridors. You need to get aid in, people out. How do you do that without some sort of outside intervention?

CLINTON: Many of the people in the Syrian opposition have been quite vocal in their objection to any outside interference. And many of the countries that gathered on Friday are also quite vocal. What we tried to do in the Security Council was to get international support and legitimacy for the Arab League peace plan in order to have some leverage with the Assad regime, and unfortunately Russia and China vetoed it. So it's a distressing and difficult situation. It's not the first that the world has seen, unfortunately. But we remain engaged at every possible opening to accomplish our three objectives.

KELEMEN: But there's - there was a lot of talk about, controversy about whether you arm the opposition, help them get arms. Is there anything the U.S. can do short of that? I mean logistical support for the Free Syrian Army, satellite images to help them set up these humanitarian corridors?

CLINTON: Well, they don't have tanks and they don't have artillery. So I know there's a lot of frustration and I share it. This is a deeply, deeply distressing set of events. But you have one of the most highly militarized, best-defended countries on Earth, because, of course, they spent an enormous amount of money with their Iranian and Russian friends so equipping themselves. And even if you were to somehow smuggle in automatic weapons of some kind, you're not going to be very successful against tanks. And so the dilemma is, how do we try to help people defend themselves? How do we push the Russians, Chinese and others, who are in effect defending and deflecting for the Assad regime, to realize that, you know, this is undermining not only Assad's legitimacy, but theirs as well.

KELEMEN: You, in fact, called the Russians despicable on this trip.

CLINTON: Well, not personally, but in terms of actions I think, you know, continuing to arm a government that is turning its heavy weapons against their own citizens, I mean, you know, there are a lot of words to describe that.

GREENE: That's the voice of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She spoke to NPR's Michele Kelemen at a hotel in Rabat, Morocco as the secretary was wrapping up a swing through North Africa.

And to hear more of the interview, you can go to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.