Turkey Wants Greater US Role in Backing Syrian Rebels

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. If you think the prospect of the conflict in Syria expanding beyond that nation's boarders is far fetched, listen to this. The head of NATO said today that they alliance has drawn up plans to defend Turkey if necessary and that was a warning to Syria after six consecutive days during which shells fired from inside Syria have landed in Turkey. Turkey is, of course, a NATO member as is the United States and so far the U.S. has refused to get drawn into the Syrian conflict even indirectly by, say, officially supporting the supply of weapons to the rebels. Shadi Hamid is with the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar, he says Turkey is looking for more support from Washington.

Shadi Hamid: What we're hearing from Turkish officials is growing frustration with the U.S. because the feel that they're out there on their own. There's even a sense of betrayal let's say because if they get involved in Syria on their own that's going to be a very difficult situation for the Erdogan government and especially considering that there's rising domestic opposition to military intervention within Turkey. So that puts Turkey in a very constrained difficult position right now.

Werman: Shadi Hamid, what sort of weaponry from outside Syria is actually getting to the rebel forces at this point? I mean BBC reporters have recently seen boxes of weapons intended for the Saudi military in rebel hands in Aleppo. So, put this in perspective for us.

Hamid: The Syrian rebels have been getting some light arms but that's only really happened recently. There was a long lag time. Now though the complaint is a little bit different. It's that they need heavy weaponry to be able to fight the Syrian regime and they're not getting those weapons. And there was actually a very interesting New York Times article the other day by Robert Worth where he reported that the U.S. is actively discouraging its gulf allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, from giving those heavy arms to the Syrian opposition. So, obviously that a major point of contention. The question is why is the U.S. dragging its feet here when its very clear that the rebels need these types of arms to be able to succeed.

Werman: Well, answer that question for us. I mean if that's true, if the White House is discouraging Saudi Arabia and Qatar from arming Syrian rebels, why would they do that?

Hamid: Well, I think they're particularly concerned about this more advanced weaponry getting into hands of the wrong people, namely terrorists, Salafi jihadists, and there are some elements of extreme foreign fighters in Syria now. So I think there's a general concern that this might go the way of Afghanistan during late '80s and early '90s for example. But there can be a more coordinated effort to work with certain groups on the ground and make sure that arms are getting to the right people. There's a lot more that can be done there because up until now each individual country, rather it's Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, has its own people on the ground and they're not really coordinating this effort. There's even some intermediaries. There's a certain Lebanese politician who has been playing a major role in getting some light arms to the Syrian opposition but is that really what we want. Do we want to have these unreliable intermediaries or should there be a more coordinated, unified effort with the U.S. in the lead working very closely with its Qatar and Saudi partners to make sure that they're all on the same page. That hasn't happened yet.

Werman: Are those concerns that the White House, if in fact the White House is discouraging Saudi Arabia and Qatar from arming the rebels, are those concerns that those heavy weapons ending up perhaps in the hands of terrorists? Is that legitimate in your view?

Hamid: It's certainly legitimate but I don't think it's the overarching concern. It remains the case that terrorists and extremist elements are still a very small minority of the Syrian rebel forces. Most of the rebel forces, while they may be Islamists in orientation are not necessarily jihadists. So, we shouldn't lump that all together and just assume Islamists equals jihadists. Here's the thing — there is no perfect way to intervene. There are always going to be risks involved and you have to make a kind of cause benefit analysis and say yes there is that risk but there is also a strong strategic interest to arming the rebels because if they don't get additional arms support, training, expertise, they may not be able to win and what we could have is a protracted stalemate for not just months but potentially years. And I think we all have to ask ourselves is that in the interests of Europe, of the U.S., of the U.N., of anyone involved and I would say the answer to that is no.

Werman: Shadi Hamid directs research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. He's in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Shadi, thank you very much.

Hamid: Thank you for having me.