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View from the Hill

Q&A with Prof. Timothy McKeown: the latest on U.S. and Syria

As the tension mounts overseas, more questions arise concerning the implications of U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Sunni rebels.

Staff Writer Mary Tyler March talked with UNC Political Science Professor Timothy McKeown, who specializes in U.S. foreign policy, about the issue.

View From The Hill: What’s the latest on the ground in Syria now?

Timothy McKeown: The Obama administration announced that it would release chemical weapons-related assistance to the affected areas in Syria. This could include gas masks and protective equipment and training for people on how to deal with chemical attacks. There was an agreement reached between parties, in principle, about international relation of Syria’s weapons stock, but the war continues. Some of the rebel groups are dissatisfied with the agreement and believe that it gives the Assad regime more time — makes it easier for the regime to survive.

VFTH: Meanwhile, what’s happening in Washington?

TM: My sense is that members of Congress feel like they don’t have to vote on anything for a while with regard to on-the-ground action in Syria. There are restrictions on U.S. aid to Syria but most of those restrictions contain waiver clauses. If the president decides that a given form of aid is essential, then the U.S. can still give aid. We seem to be at a point where the administration is willing to move forward with providing aid under such a waiver. No Congressional voices have been raised against the policy.

VFTH: Is it looking likely that the U.S. will intervene in Syria?

TM: It’s hard to speak about probabilities, but I think that it’s extremely unlikely unless something extraordinary happens on the ground. I think the president will provide aid regardless of the outcome of negotiations, though some argue that when you provide aid to groups in Syria, you’re providing aid to a country that may have supported terrorism.

VFTH: What is Russia’s role in this, and how is diplomacy happening with them?

TM: The U.S. has been discussing Syria for at least a year now and discussions between Obama and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin have also been going on for about a year. It’s reasonable to conclude that, based on Russian response to Sec. of State (John) Kerry’s plan, they had thought this through and concluded what they would do well in advance of Kerry’s remarks. I suspect that the Russians had talked to Syrians for some time before Kerry’s public remarks — we can only guess at what was talked about beforehand.

VFTH: Should we expect more bombings and attacks in Syria this coming week?

TM: The rebels and the regime will continue to fight, chemical weapons agreements won’t alter that. Taking Syria’s weapons away doesn’t really have a decisive impact on fighting the insurgence—Assad losing his weapons will not have an impact on his military capability.

VFTH: What will stop it?

TM: I think the war could end if people negotiated a solution to it, but it’s an extremely difficult agreement to come to because the opposition is splintered. Lots of outside forces are involved in both sides of the conflict. This is much more than just a civil war; it has international and regional components. It doesn’t appear the rebels are likely to enter an agreement.

It’s a very different situation; I think even if there’s a resolution in the chemical weapons issue, there will still be possible war, which could go on for a very long time, and some very unpleasant things could be before us.

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