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World

Mideast Region Reacts To Obama's Speech With Skepticism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama's plan for striking ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, relies on help from friends, also from some allies of convenience and even from people the United States doesn't like at all. The president said there will be continued U.S. airstrikes on this group inside Iraq and he added the option of ordering airstrikes in Syria. The president spoke of aiding moderate Syrian rebels as well as applying other forms of pressure, but the president also needs the help of influential neighboring nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia and also Turkey - which is where we find NPR's Deborah Amos. She has covered this conflict for years, and she's near the border with Syria. Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So how's the president's speech being received where you are?

AMOS: Well, he is going to have to overcome a lot of skepticism from his Arab allies and even here in Turkey. There is mistrust for Obama's inaction in Syria that they say helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State and allow them to thrive. And so the allies are going to be looking at how far is Obama willing to go. Now, it is striking that a headline in a Saudi paper this morning said President Obama calls the Saudi king before his speech. You know, in the past the White House didn't keep the Saudi's in the loop, in particular on negotiations with Iran and that has fed Saudi paranoia over Washington policy. Also ahead of the speech White House officials leaked the news that Saudi Arabia agreed to host training camps for Syrian rebels. Arab allies are looking for serious intent from Washington; they have their own security threats. They do have an interest in curbing ISIS but because it's a threat to them.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned Saudi Arabia helping with moderate rebels. Let me try to figure this out Deborah Amos, because Saudi's have been accused of supporting the Islamic State, but of course Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States and you're saying they're actually going to help with rebels who would fight against the Islamic State. Is that right?

AMOS: There have been reports that there is private Gulf money going to ISIS. No connection to the Saudi government and the Saudi's have been funding arms for moderate to Islamist - not ISIS parts of the Syrian revolt and they have been doing that in cooperation with the United States and they've been doing that for more than two years. But it is the Saudi's who are going to be a partner and remarkably they are going to allow, they say, training in Saudi Arabia. There's been a small program, covert, run by the CIA - it is not in Saudi Arabia. That program is being expanded somewhat.

INSKEEP: But here's the other remarkable thing though, the president spoke of expanding that very small training program more aid to the Syrian rebels but hasn't he been dismissive of these moderate Syrian rebels and their capabilities in the past. Just dismissed them as farmers and shopkeepers and so forth?

AMOS: Oh yeah. It's a remarkable turnaround for a president who told the New York Times just in August that it was a fantasy to think that arming the rebels in Syria could have changed the stakes. But it seems - what he's appearing to be doing is crafting a policy that confronts ISIS without allying the United States to the Syrian regime - that's President Bashar al-Assad and the answer is arming the so-called moderate rebels. But the question is, does it come fast enough to make a difference on the battlefield?

INSKEEP: Is there some way no matter what they say that the Obama administration becomes allied with the Syrian government - the government of President Assad here because they're also fighting ISIS and I note that the president said Assad has lost his legitimacy but he didn't say last night that Assad should go?

AMOS: You know, there was talk in Washington of an alliance with the Bashar al-Assad as the lesser of two evils. But Assad himself has not really fought ISIS and so there is suspicion that he needs ISIS. It's a way to show his own people and continue his argument that it is either the regime or ISIS. It is much more likely that if the moderate rebels survive they will be in those areas where ISIS controls territory.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos speaking with us from Turkey from the Syrian border. Deborah, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.