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World

Russian Escalation In Syria Narrows Options To Help Civilians

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

As the fighting continues in Aleppo and as diplomats work to stop that fighting, we wanted to know, what else could the U.S. do about Syria? Brian Katulis is a senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Center for American Progress. He's visited Southern Turkey near the Syrian border and he's spent time with Syrian opposition leaders. He's also one of the foreign policy experts who's advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and he says the options for the U.S. depend on what comes from the deal in Munich.

BRIAN KATULIS: If it does not succeed, if Russia and the Assad regime move forward in its offensive in Aleppo, I think the United States should look to what it can do with its partners in the region. Something more needs to be done by some actors on the ground, and it's better if the U.S. is leading that. When the U.S. was not seen to be leading that after the September 2013 non-strike event after the chemical weapons, a lot of countries in the region actually flooded the zone with weapons in ways that actually contributed to the fragmentation of the opposition.

MCEVERS: President Obama came into office with a mandate from voters to get the U.S. out of foreign wars, and yet, you know, we see op-eds that say Aleppo, Syria and what's happening there will be a stain on our conscience forever. I mean, do you think there is a moral argument for getting involved in Syria that the U.S. electorate could buy into?

KATULIS: Absolutely, and I think when you look at the basic facts of 10 percent of the population of Syria has been killed in this conflict, more than half of the people have been displaced either as refugees or inside the country, and I think when we had the gut-wrenching images of young children actually washing up on the shores in Greece and other places, there is a moral argument that could be made, and despite the shift in politics here back at home. And I think it's the one piece that actually has been missing in our national deliberations about what to do. And for whatever reason, I think at this point, many Americans have just tried to avoid it, and I think this is where leadership comes in in terms of talking about not only what we can do to keep us safe, which is essential and is the basic thing that our leadership needs to do, but then also what we stand for in the world.

MCEVERS: As we mentioned, you're one of the many analysts who have advised the Clinton campaign. We know you're speaking here for - as an analyst, not for the campaign. But how do you imagine U.S. policy on Syria being different under a new president?

KATULIS: Yeah, and again I want to stress that my views here are solely based on my analysis and I'm not a spokesman, I'm just one of many who try to offer their views. But the answer to your question I think depends not only on what our next president will do but also what our leaders in Congress and then how the American public reacts. It's striking to me that more than a year after President Obama started the campaign against ISIS and reinitiated our military engagement, we still have not come to consensus about an authorization for the use of military force. And I think it's a hard thing to call for in an election year because you'll hear many different views. Broad brush, I think if the previous administration - George W. Bush - took a lot of action in the Middle East and created a lot of waves but then contributed to a lot of instability and then if President Obama took the opposite approach of leaning back and trying to pivot to other regions, I think the task for the next president is to try to strike the right balance. Syria, to date, the Obama administration really I think hasn't been able to organize all of the initiatives of our partners in the Arab world, of the European partners and then the people on the ground in Syria who oppose the Assad regime. And I think we could've done a much better job, and I think the next administration will still be facing this challenge.

MCEVERS: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Thank you.

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