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How Diplomacy Time And Again Failed To Stop The Carnage In Syria


We're going to begin today with news in Syria. After months of war, Aleppo is back under the control of President Bashar al-Assad. The bombing has left the city in ruins and thousands dead. Evacuations of the remaining civilians there have been stop and go. It's a situation that weighs heavily on President Obama judging from his lengthy remarks at his press conference on Friday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For years, we've worked to stop the civil war in Syria and alleviate human suffering. It has been one of the hardest issues that I've faced as president.

MARTIN: President Obama also defended his decision not to use force to protect Syrians in the complicated civil war there. Instead, his secretary of state has tried and failed to find a diplomatic way out. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There are many losers in the war in Syria and that includes U.S. credibility, says Fred Hof, a former adviser on Syria at the State Department.

FRED HOF: The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran have always believed from the beginning there is a military solution to the problem of Syria. The United States, its western European allies and others have always taken the opposite position, and you can still hear this being recited mantra-like.

KELEMEN: Even this week as Aleppo was falling, the administration was still saying there's no military solution to this war.

HOF: This mantra has been basically an excuse to do nothing to protect civilians inside Syria, absolutely nothing.

KELEMEN: The U.S. tried on many occasions to work with Russia to find a diplomatic solution to the war. There was Geneva I and Geneva II, both attempts to get the warring sides to agree on a transitional government. And this past September after countless rounds of meetings with his Russian counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry thought he had a deal for a cease-fire and humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.


JOHN KERRY: Regrettably, for a number of different reasons, Syrian troops that were accidentally bombed at a humanitarian convoy that was not accidentally but purposefully destroyed by Assad's regime to start with and then by others who joined in - it fell apart. And everybody feels the pain of the lost moment of a lost opportunity.

KELEMEN: Critics say there have been many lost moments in this war. They look back at President Obama's tough words when he declared in 2011 that President Bashar al-Assad lost legitimacy to rule Syria and again in 2012 when he drew a line in the sand.


OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.

KELEMEN: Instead of punishing the Syrian government for the 2013 sarin gas attack, Obama sent Kerry to Switzerland to negotiate an agreement to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. It was a rare diplomatic success, though Syria has since used chlorine as a weapon. And by September 2015, Russian warplanes were raining bombs on rebel-held territory. Secretary Kerry has little leverage in his talks with Russia now, but he's still trying.


KERRY: The process has not succeeded mostly, in my judgment, because of the continued constant unwillingness of the Assad regime to live by those agreements to always press it, to always breakout, to always try to gain more territory.

KELEMEN: The outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also blames the diplomatic failure on those who, quote, "stuck by narrow personal or national interests." Ban has had three special envoys who he describes as the world's best diplomats try to resolve this war.


BAN KI-MOON: It's not an issue of negotiators and facilitators. It's an issue of a lack of solidarity, lack of compassion.

KELEMEN: He was reflective in his final news conference on Friday saying the world failed the people of Syria, and the carnage there remains a, quote, "gaping hole in the global conscience." This clearly weighs on President Obama who says he spent many hours going over options with his military and diplomatic advisers.


OBAMA: I understand the impulse to want to do something, but ultimately what I've had to do is to think about what can we sustain? What is realistic?

KELEMEN: And he concluded that an intervention in Syria could not be done as he put it on the cheap. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.